Monday, August 8, 2016

We want you to listen to us...and shut up

There was an interesting little episode buried in a Courthouse News Service article.

As part of the article, Courthouse News Service paid a visit to the Los Angeles County Superior Court, and listened to a presentation by a court employee. Note that the court provided this employee for the presentation.

During a visit to the Stanley Mosk court last week, Courthouse News saw how the service works in a civil filings office lit by honeycomb fluorescents and lined with warm, brown sugar-colored panels.

The room reverberated with the electronic garble of receipt machines, the disembodied voices of clerks, and the bureaucratic click-clack of staplers fastening court papers.

A court employee at a filing window explained that when visitors who don't speak English arrive, he shows them an "I speak" card that allows them to identify their first language.

From his counter, the employee can dial through to a professional interpreting service. He said that he stays on the line with one handset and passes another handset beneath his window so that visitors can explain the nature of their inquiry through an interpreter.

Nice presentation, right?

But then the Courthouse News Service reporter did something that the L.A. County Superior Court apparently didn't expect.

The reporter asked a question.

When the reporter asked the employee his name and how many visitors on average use the service each day, an accompanying public information officer interrupted the interview and told the reporter he could not ask such questions.

"We generally do not allow staff to be interviewed directly," court spokeswoman Mary Hearn clarified in an email. "It is the role of the public information office to provide information to the media."

As you can see, Hearn's response was quoted in Matt Reynolds' resulting Courthouse News Service article. It's unclear whether Reynolds was the reporter who dared to ask a question, but obviously Reynolds believes that the question was not out of line.

So how could a public information officer conceive of a situation in which a court employee would give a presentation, but would not have to ask any questions?

Simple. Too many reporters don't bother to ask questions. Many publications are content to merely parrot whatever the news sources tells them, which is why Narrative Science is so successful.

Lesson learned: if you are going to stick someone in front of a bunch of reporters, be prepared for the possibility that the reporters may ask questions.

And if that person isn't prepared to answer questions, then perhaps Mary Hearn should have held up the "I speak" card and the handset.
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