Farhi: ‘No Comment’ Is Morphing Into No Response

Thom Weidlich 06.27.24


Former Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi has a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review this week highlighting the trend (he has numbers) of companies and others not even responding to reporters’ calls for comment. His examples concern crises.

Farhi did Nexis searches and found that mentions of the phrase “did not respond to a request for comment” rose from 728 stories in May 2014 to 1,590 in May 2019 to 3,616 in May 2024. That’s an eye-popping five-fold increase in a decade. (Several factors can be involved, such as an increase in online stories, but Farhi also says other journalists agree it’s happening.)

In his June 24 CJR story (“When They Won’t Even Say ‘No Comment’”), Farhi notes that the phrase shows up in stories on topics as varied as politics, business and sports and outlets as varied as newspapers, newscasts and blogs.

Examples he cites include the maker of Sriracha hot sauce not answering a request when it announced it would temporarily halt production last month due to its chiles being “too green,” the agency of a dancer accused of sexual misconduct not replying to The Hollywood Reporter and non-returned calls to two sources for a New York Timesstory about Republican threats of retribution after Donald Trump’s felony convictions.

‘Best Story’

Obviously, we think not responding is a mistake. Especially when in crisis, it’s important to tell your side of the story, or at least engage with the journalist. Farhi quotes CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy: “It’s the job of spokespeople to tell the best story about the companies they represent. And here they are actively laying down the sword and not engaging in the battle.”

The reasons for the trend, which Farhi speculates about in both the article and on a podcast, are telling. The two main ones are the waning power of traditional media and the rise of social media. Too often, companies and their spokespeople feel they can bypass reporters and put their messages out on social media or in paid advertising.

It’s the job of spokespeople to tell the best story about the companies they represent.

— CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy

“Any particular news organization is weaker than ever,” Farhi said on the CJR podcast The Kicker with host Josh Hersh. “Its clout is less than it used to be, and so the advantage — if that’s what you want to call it — goes to the source that figures, ‘I can get away with not commenting and/or not responding at all because I don’t care, and you’re not powerful enough to embarrass me or shame me.’”

Earned Media

Social media is obviously a mighty tool, but it’s often crucial to counter attacks where they occur. If that’s happening in a mainstream news outlet, then that’s the place to assert your position. Otherwise, what information do readers have to judge the accusations against you other than the accusations against you? And there’s a reason so-called earned media (i.e., not paid for) has more trust with the public: because it’s not paid for.

Farhi was at the WaPo for 35 years before accepting a buyout last year, and he now freelances for outlets including The Atlantic and CJR. On the podcast, he said he began to notice the trend in his own reporting about five years ago — where in the past “people would turn backflips to comment to you because they wanted a piece of your story, they wanted to explain, they wanted to justify.”

He also discussed with Hersh how this hurts journalism. “I want, and most responsible reporters want, the other side,” he said. “We’re not fully reporting the story mainly because we can’t. We can’t get the other side.”

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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