Dealing With the Press

Rob Weir offers some suggestions for professors on what to do when reporters call.

November 5, 2014
iStock / ginosphotos

If your school is anything like mine, there’s constant buzz (pressure?) about how to get out the word about all the wonderful things that happen on campus. Professors are increasingly asked make themselves “available” to the public, take part in “outreach” efforts, or become “public intellectuals.” What far too few administrations or news offices do is provide much training on how to engage media outlets effectively. I’ve heard many a colleague worry aloud about an impending interview. For many, the workings of the media are mysteries akin to Rosicrucianism.

As a person who has been both an academic and a freelance journalist, I have several suggestions. If these are things that offend your sensibilities, it’s best to steer clear of public statements.

1. There is seldom any such thing as “off the record.”

If you say it, it’s in the public domain and is fair game. Ethical journalists generally respect off-the-record requests, but with rare exceptions they are not legally bound to do so. A reporter isn’t bound to respect your “off the record” request.They are certainly not compelled to parse glib or ironic remarks. Unless you are 100 percent certain about the reporter with whom you speak, make certain you state things as you’d be comfortable seeing them in print.

2. Your job involves complexity and nuance; a reporter’s job is to simplify and distill.

Reporters have limited time and space to tell the story. They must produce where you might muse. They don’t have time for “discourses,” nor would their viewers, listeners, or readers recognize the term. Do your musing before media contact, not during, and think about how your message might condense into bullet points. Avoid specialist language — especially if the term has a broader public meaning.

3. Assume that reporters have an agenda and (probably) a preconceived point of view.

If a reporter contacts you to comment upon something, he or she likely has more in mind than enlightening the public. Academic discourse often seeks consensus; reportage thrives on controversy. Put another way, unless there is some essential tension, there is no “story.”  Academics often feel that a lot of what passes for media tension is actually a manufactured “straw man,” but they won’t get very far telling reporters there is no story. Steer the conversation toward something the reporter can use.

4. Reporters are not your friends; they are professionals seeking to do their jobs.

Attempts to charm can be viewed as being disingenuous, obsequious, or duplicitous in quashing information. Most of the people who contact you are on tight deadlines, so get back to reporters right away and cut to the chase when you speak with them. Avoid being long-winded — even if you feel the issue at hand is so complex that it’s worthy of a lecture. (See # 8 below.)

5. Be very clear when you are speaking as a private individual and when you are representing the profession or the institution.

If your college asks you to go on the record, ask to speak with those making the request so that you know what message they think you should deliver. (Decline if it’s not one you wish to give.) You might find it useful to consult with the college news office even if you intend to speak as a public intellectual or private individual,. Don’t make (unwanted) trouble for yourself.
6. Don’t think you can manipulate reporters. Assume they know the rules of media engagement better than you.

Trying to be “more clever” than a reporter is a mistake; engaging them in debate is a recipe for disaster. If you squabble with a reporter, you make the conflict the story and the reporter gets the last word! You must take extra care when dealing with ideologically driven reporters. The very best thing you can do is be calm, reasonable, and a bit boring. If you take ideological bait, it will end badly. Stay factual and respectful in tone, even if you have to bite your lip to be so. Watch or listen to footage of public intellectuals who get into on-air shouting matches; they too thought they were too clever to fall for goading. 

7. Be unfailingly polite.

Thank the reporter for allowing you to weigh in on the issue. It makes a big difference whether the reporter deems you a willing, reluctant, or hostile interviewee. Just before the interview ends, remind the reporter of what you think is your main point.

8. Be content with the fact that whatever you say will appear briefly, if at all and that it will be "hopelessly" simplified.

In journalism, 750 words mean 750 on the nose — not 750-ish! Radio spots seldom exceed five minutes and TV camera time is much shorter. (You might get as much time and space as you want on a blog, but few will read deep into it.) Don’t interpret cursory reporting (or not being quoted) as being disrespected. Good reporters always collect more than they can possibly use — just as you do when you conduct research. Don’t assume the reporter has total control over what gets used; very few do. Above all, don’t be surprised when the reporter uses something you feel is less relevant. Just as you seek a good “hook” in a lesson, so do reporters embed hooks in stories (especially the leads).

9. Don’t ask to see a “draft” or tape of a story before it appears.

The answer will be no in nearly all instances. This is another reason to be careful. There are no revisions!

10. Don’t moan or complain unless you’ve been seriously misrepresented.

Don’t say you were misquoted when what you mean is you wish you had said it better. Complaining about a reporter pretty much guarantees you’ll never be a source again. More importantly, it might cast your institution, department, or profession in a negative light. It is acceptable to contact the reporter regarding factual errors, but do so politely and, if it really matters, ask the reporter to note the change. (Newspapers have an errata section; online publications can make the changes directly, though mostly they print retractions at the bottom of the story.)  Don’t sweat it unless what was said is really, really wrong. Not all reporters are good. If you have truly been misrepresented, contact the editor or director instead of the reporter. Don’t rant, though, or you won’t be taken seriously.


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