What do you think: Should journalists write about somebody who doesn’t want to be written about?

I’m writing a story for SB Nation about a guy who refused to let me interview him. Also, most of the people who know him refused to let me interview them, on the record, for the story.

Typically, I interview no fewer than a dozen people for a story. I commonly interview at least 20, and I’ve interviewed more than 100 for some stories.

I’ve been working on this story for months. I’ve got one of his friends on the record. One. That’s it.

This happens pretty regularly for journalists. It’s especially common in politics and business and the like, but you might be surprised to know that even when you’re writing a good story about somebody, they don’t want you to do that. In my case, as with most of my stories, I want to write about this guy because he has an incredible story that I know the world would want to read.

This isn’t the first time it’s happened to me, but it’s the first time it’s happened and I’ve gone forward with writing about the person, anyway. My deadline is Tuesday, and the story is scheduled to be published a week after that.

I’ve never written a story like this before. It’s been an interesting challenge, and it’s definitely forced me to grow as a journalist and as a writer.

So what do you think? Is it wrong to write about someone who doesn’t want to be interviewed and, it’s safe to assume, doesn’t want you to write about them?

I’m going to post some thoughts in the comments, and I’d like you to do the same. I think this could make for a fun and meaningful discussion. 

4 Responses
  1. Brandon Sneed

    I also know that he did give an interview, and those who know him also probably gave interviews, to another magazine writer. (Journalism duel!) I have a pretty good idea who that is, and I'm sure they'll do a fine job with the story.

    The reason this guy's PR manager told me that he didn't want to give me the interview is because he is a private person who only wished to do the one interview with the one magazine and be done with it. I certainly understand and respect that.

    I'm always very conflicted in situations like this. (I'm conflicted enough about journalism even when someone gives me full access, but that's a whole other discussion.) In this situation, the story seems to be working pretty well even with the almost complete lack of access. I've been able to write something that I and my editor believe is fair and honest. If I couldn't do that, however, I would've bailed on the story a long time ago.

    Anyway. Whether you're a journalist or a casual reader, I'd love to know what you think about this.

  2. Stan

    Well if you've only talked to one person who actually knows the person, it's going to be hard to get it right. But you best get it right.

  3. @Klinickal: I'm not sure what you mean. But control is really similar to privacy. They want to control the story because they want to keep certain things private. But really, my question was more about how we should feel about invading that privacy when clearly they don't want us to do that.

    @Stan: You are right about that, good sir. My editor and I have been going back and forth on the story for much of the past two days. I think what we're putting together is going to be pretty good, but I also think it's very much going to be a piece that readers either love or hate.