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‘___ could not be reached for comment’

I hate writing that phrase, “So & so could not be reached for comment,” in a story.

Usually I don’t. I find someone else qualified to talk about whatever it is. But sometimes, when I truly feel I have given a fair enough attempt and enough time a reasonable person should return a comment or there is no suitable alternative, I have to do it.

There are variations, “He did not return messages seeking comment,” or “She did not immediately return messages,” for example.

Any one of them carries with them the connotation that someone is deliberating avoiding the reporter. Sometimes that’s not the case, the person may have been genuinely busy, never have received the message, or may have just played phone or e-mail tag for days without ever connecting.

But sometimes it is.

Either way, it signals to the readers that I as a reporter have not failed to check that source or attempt to be fair and give him a chance to comment. It puts the burden for that angle or missing information on the source.

I explained this to a source today. Now, this source and I talk regularly, and he is in a key position on my beat. So, I don’t really want to make him look bad if he’s truly busy. I believe he’s busy and not avoiding me. But, as I explained to him when he asked me why I put he didn’t return my messages in my article last weekend, if I try to reach you for three days and you don’t return numerous calls or e-mails, I have to pull this card out. What else am I supposed to do?

Not only is my editor breathing down my back asking me where something is, I am frustrated (and your secretary is frustrated!) because I want to get the story out. When my editor says “now,” I have to go with it. If readers are going to wonder why you weren’t asked about it or there are holes in my reporting only you can answer, then I am going to call you out on it. I don’t want to, but I also don’t want to be criticized for not doing my job when I went above and beyond in my attempts.

Though he still pointed out when he reads that in a story he thinks the person is a jerk avoiding phone calls, after I explained my position to him, he understood.

And you know what, it only took one phone call to connect today.

One Response to “‘___ could not be reached for comment’”

  1. Dave O'Brien Says:

    I sometimes prefer the kindler, gentler “A message seeking comment was left for …”

    I definitely feel your pain, though. We’ve all had receivers slammed down in our ears, been screamed at or otherwise denied comments on the first try … and then you get that one return call right before deadline that gives you everything you need.

    Still, any reporter with even a half-decent command of the English language who wanted to outright suggest that their source was avoiding them could easily do so. And that’s ethically dubious, at least in my opinion.