New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman is often a target for debates about ethical journalistic practices. Time and again, she's criticized as a classic example of the type of reporter who primarily gets scoops through privileged relationships and anonymous sources in high places.
In stark contrast to an investigative journalist, who spends months or years researching their subject to speak truth to power and hold those who operate in secrecy accountable, Haberman is often derided as an "access journalist"—one whose reporting is biased and influenced by quotes from biased sources who are connected to the very people she's profiling.
Such was the case last week, when the Times published Haberman's story about Trump's former White House communications director and current PR executive for Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch Hope Hicks, who Haberman wrote was facing an “existential question” on whether to comply with a Congressional investigation. On Sunday, after considerable backlash as to why Haberman framed a clearly legal question as an existential one, the Times changed the word “existential” online with the less incendiary “crucial.”
But the damage had already been done. Well before this piece published, in fact, journalists were calling out Haberman's dubious sourcing standards and journalistic boundaries. This detailed thread, from last summer, captures a chronology of her purportedly biased Trump coverage:
Where are people getting the impression she is an access journalist and Trump shill?
Let's take a closer look.
— Danny Boy (@Care2much18) July 22, 2018
A piece published today in New York Magazine by Haberman's NYT colleague Jonathan Chait didn't help much, either. Chait suggested that the left has no reason to resent Haberman, defending her as the best White House reporter in the game, who has shed the most light on the Trump administration, and, by extension, done the most to advance cause of the left. Twitter disagreed, criticizing Chait for his bias and again casting Haberman as more of a PR pro than a journalist.
Access journalist defends another access journalist who works for the same publication. Sounds legit.
— NYCTaper (@nyctaper) May 29, 2019
I'm not a @maggieNYT hater. But the wagon-circling around her today by her colleagues is a sad commentary on journalism. Defensive. Obtuse.
Y'all work at the @nytimes. You don't need to be each other's cheerleaders. Just hire an ombudsperson and show you learn from mistakes.
— Jed Shugerman (@jedshug) May 29, 2019
Some people have told me to lighten up. That sure Maggie kissed up to Donald with nice articles because she was relying on the inside access he gave to her.
That's not journalism though. If that's the job she wanted, she could have applied for Sarah Sanders job.
— Danny Boy (@Care2much18) July 22, 2018
PR pros should be conscious of how the access we provide can stain reporting
Putting aside whether or not it's fair to call Haberman an "access journalist," people understand the difference between reporters who do their own digging, independently and impartially, from those who get their information through privilege—be it nepotism, quid pro quo relationships or other conditional prerequisites to access.
This puts communicators in a bit of a bind. The word "relationships" is baked into the term "media relations," and we often nurture and grow those relationships around privileged dialogues and access. Taking a reporter out for a meal, listing them for entry to a client's event or providing them with swag are all tried and true practices that we assume are acceptable and above-the-board so long as the journalist doesn't object. We also assume the reporter's publication has editorial guidelines that allow for such exchanges, and that the reporter knows what those editorial guidelines are.
This is not necessarily the case. Depending on the nature of the publication—and the beat in question—editorial guidelines will vary. A food writer has strict rules about paying for meals on a corporate card, while a political reporter should, in theory, have similar standards in place. Those standards are not always written in stone, but are still understood as best practices. In Haberman's case, a photo of her smiling next to Trump in the Oval Office that's making the rounds certainly doesn't look professional or journalistic.
Learn the editorial guidelines of the publications you work with
One easy way to help remedy this is for PR pros to understand the editorial guidelines of the publications that they work with. Though they are seldom front-facing on an outlet's website, no reporter who takes their job seriously will resent you asking questions about what is permissible and what isn't with regard to gift-giving, access or other relationship-building incentives.
Just as we often speak about how the best way to get a pitch picked up is by actually reading and familiarizing yourself with a journalist and their publication, learning what those editorial guidelines are will demonstrate that you or your clients are on the level, respectful of the reporting process, and interested in telling an unbiased story.
Find a way to make yourself, or your client, a named source
Much of the criticism lobbed at Haberman's reporting is one of anonymous sources—an ironic criticism that is also the right's number one qualm with anti-Trump pieces. But vocal critics on the left understand how much this access-assisted practice of citing anonymous sources hurts the credibility of journalistic discourse—and, by extension, the fourth estate as a whole.
If a spokesperson or their client isn't comfortable putting their name on the record, cynical readers will assume they have something to hide. Implications include a hidden intention behind the source's participation or that the reporting isn't honest—neither of which helps reporters or PR. In some whistleblowing, investigative exposes where the source's safety is at risk, this makes sense—in other instances, anonymous sources may call the legitimacy of a piece into question.
If we understand that earned media remains crucial to a sound media relations strategy, finding a way to get your reporters on-the-record sources can repair some of the damage that's being done to journalism these days. Communicators talk about transparency all the time—building relationships with reporters seems the perfect place to put that practice to action.