When you read a story in a magazine or newspaper, how often do find yourself judging a person quoted in the article because of the angle that journalist took? Have you ever looked at portrait photographs alongside a headline or caption and then made some assumptions about the person you see solely because of that juxtaposition? It’s easy to think that, because someone agreed to be featured, that they realised what they were letting themselves in for, but this isn’t always the case.
Imagine you’re a sex blogger, writing under your real name, and you’re at a conference filled with other people who write about sex. A journalist approaches you for an interview and you decline, because you don’t trust the publication she has been hired by. However, she reassures you that the piece will be about the conference and how positive it is for women writers. Another blogger with far more press experience has already agreed to an interview and so, thinking you will be giving your opinions on the conference and what it means to the delegates, you finally agree.
All sounds promising, right? The prospect of doing a small thing to help remove the stigma around women writing about sex by discussing the subject in a national newspaper is quite tempting. Promoting a small conference in its first year would have been great too. Now imagine that the other blogger discovers that the real angle the journalist has been asked take is an altogether more personal one. Not the general “lots of women now write about sex”, but more like “look at this attractive middle-class woman who writes about her sex life!”
This happened to me on Saturday and I’m pretty sure that similar things have probably happened many times before. Thankfully, Zoe Margolis and I avoided being interviewed by this particular journalist and the conference organiser supported our decision. Our gut instincts told us to say no, but the paper genuinely seemed to be going with an angle that we liked the sound of. It’s so easy to forget that a journalist can frame what someone has told them however they want, without actually misquoting. If you saw Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe piece on editing – a demonstration of how reality television can use footage to tell whatever story it likes – you’ll probably know what I mean. I guess the key is to avoid speaking to the press or, at the very least, stick with publications that you like and trust.
As Tobias said when discussing the perils of media engagement in a guest post on Rarely Wears Lipstick last year, “when one engages with the media one takes the rough with the smooth. There is always the chance of factual inaccuracies, omissions or slants that may differ from those one might prefer.” In this particular case though, I decided that it wasn’t worth it. Thankfully, not all freelancers are tasked with providing a story so trashy that they will have to mislead the contributors they are after in order to get some quotes. Helen Croydon’s piece for The Guardian on women writing about sex without shame proves that sometimes journalists are rather honest indeed.