INTRODUCTION TO MEDIA COMMUNICATIONS
Joyce A. Nettleton, D.Sc., R.D.
A. Understanding the News Media
1. Function and Operation
In the narrow sense, the news media's job is to report what has happened or is about to happen. Report aims to be "objective." Reporting usually goes beyond the facts of what has happened or might occur. Journalists often try to "balance" their reporting by including different points of view. Different views are often presented as being equivalent, with perspective or support given by quotes from spokespersons from all sides (e.g. industry, government, science, consumers).
Besides describing events, news reports also:
- bring attention and opinion (op-ed) to an issue
- frame the issue
- provide background information
- simplify findings, especially of science
- interpret findings
- cite supporting and opposing views
- select sources and authorities to quote
- may weigh costs and benefits; risks and benefits
- present significance or implications of event(s)
Indirectly, the news media may also:
- suggest or advocate a political position
- ridicule or flatter (photography)
- inflame or subdue concerns
- take sides, e.g., consumer, industry, first world/third world
- exaggerate, distort
- misrepresent or mislead
- Never assume that reporters or any news media are neutral, independent, objective, sympathetic to you or altruistic. Neither assume they are venal.
- Never assume that you are neutral, independent or objective.
- Never assume that other participants in a story/event have no axe to grind.
- Prepare: Recognize that interaction with reporters and the news media is not just about getting the facts straight: it's about accomplishing your communications objectives.
- Know the news media's perspective ahead of time and know your own.
2. Print Media
Includes newspapers, magazines, daily journals, news sections of scientific journals, newsletters, etc. Print media have the advantage of more time/space to cover a story/event, present complexities, offer supplementary information such as additional sources of information, upcoming related events. Reporters are nearly always working on deadline, sometimes a very short one. May include fact-checking and call-backs prior to publication. Print media seldom send article for you to proof or approve in advance of publication. May include illustration. Use of several expert authorities in an article gives you the opportunity to recommend others.
With all reporters, regardless of the news medium, calling back ASAP is essential if you want to be included in a story. Time matters, but theirs is more important if you want to be heard. Newspapers work on short deadlines; magazines may have weeks or months to prepare.
Contact is usually by phone but may be in person at press conferences, hearings, meetings, trade shows or other events.
Reporters' background knowledge ranges from nothing to extensive. You can detect this almost at once and choose how much time you want to spend educating the reporter. This may be your best opportunity to persuade them of the merit of your views and hence determine the slant of the article. Experienced reporters may be very good at concealing their own perspective. Reporters familiar with the issue are more likely to be specific about what they want to hear from you; those just beginning their research are likely to cast a wide net.
- Respect reporters' deadlines. Call back as soon as you can if you want to be cited. Ask what their deadline is.
- You can and should schedule an interview time of mutual convenience. Take time to prepare.
- Assess and enhance a reporter's knowledge rather than disparage his ignorance or views. You will be much more likely to win sympathetic coverage.
Guidelines for Working with Print Media Reporters
- Be prepared. Know the topic, the perspective the reporter brings, and above all, know your own key messages. Write them out. Repeat them. Know your mission.
- Adhere to the KISS rule: keep it simple (stupid). Articulate your main points as clearly and simply as possible. Minimize the use of jargon. Explain technical terms simply. If possible, phrase your points in one-liners or catchy phrases. They are easy to quote.
- Have concrete, easy-to-understand examples of your points ready to use. Examples of something familiar to everyone makes it more likely you will be quoted.
- Offer to provide written background materials, if appropriate. Make sure they are readable and sound. Send them immediately.
- Refer reporter to other sources of information, including different perspectives. For example, know where to refer a reporter for the government's views, consumer views, other stakeholder's views, other scientists' views. Being able to do so enhances your own credibility.
- It's OK to say "I don't know." Refer to another authority, or explain why you don't know or why no one may know the answer to a question. Segue to a better question.
- Master the art of segue. Lead from one topic to one you'd rather address or know more about. Have you thought about . . . ? Did you know that . . .? That reminds me of . . . Return to your own key messages.
- Stay on topic. Avoid being sidetracked to topics outside the main topic and outside your expertise. Avoid critical comments about other people; you can critique their work or the situation in which their work was presented (butterfly study) etc.
- Make yourself available for questions that arise in proofing or review. Offer to assist in that process. It may give you a second chance to include other information.
- Build good working relationships with reporters. Treat them courteously and help them out. They will remember your cooperation and assistance and call you first next time.
3. Broadcast Media
Broadcast media include radio and television. These media allow you to be heard and seen. They will greatly affect the tone of your message. Thus your voice, appearance, gestures and mannerisms can be used to your advantage to enhance your credibility and the importance of your messages. Overlooking the impact of your voice, appearance and manner could undermine your message.
Radio excels in providing time to deliver a complex message and discuss an issue. Although radio news programs may offer only a few seconds, many radio shows have a 15, 30 or 60 min. format during which you may be the only or one of several guests.
Radio programs may be taped or live. Taped shows allow for the correction of misstatements and awkward pauses. They may require you to answer the same question more than once. Often you can chat with the program host or interviewer ahead of time to establish rapport and assess the host's perspective and knowledge. Occasionally a program will be taped live for broadcast later. Such shows are edited before airing.
Radio programs are often taped at the studio. Sometimes a host will record a telephone interview for subsequent broadcast; sometimes spokespeople will appear live "on air" from a distant site.
The type of program affects the environment of your message. Is it a news program, agriculture report, consumer show, business report? Type of program largely determines the audience.
Many spokespeople find radio a comfortable medium because they have more time to make their points. They are also less worried about their appearance. Appearance can be a factor in communications, however, when you are one of several participants in the studio. Use it to your advantage whenever possible ("dress for success").
In contrast to radio, television offers minimal time. You are lucky if you have 10-20 seconds to state your point, once editing has been accomplished. Words are at a premium.
TV segments may be done live, taped or taped-live. In a live news interview you may have 1-2 min. and the viewer sees the interview exactly as conducted. In a taped interview many more minutes of footage will be taped and edited later. Editing influences whether the intent and context of your message is preserved. Usually less than 2 min. of a taped interview will be used and much of that may be presented in segments. In a taped-live interview, you are interviewed live and the tape edited for rebroadcast usually later that day. There is no opportunity for correction.
The type of program will affect how you prepare and how faithful your comments are to the original context. Juxtaposition of your comments, however, can distort the context of your remarks. Phrases can also be presented out of context.
Guidelines for Broadcast Interviews
Interviews are not necessarily about truth and facts; they are about getting your message across. Become skilled at thinking and preparing strategically.
- Prepare and polish your key messages in advance. Be succinct. Memorize and rehearse short phrases.
- Limit key points to three.
- Maintain focus; stay on topic, regardless of the question.
- Do your homework. Know the program's style and focus; know the interviewer's approach and perspective. Watch the show or listen to the program ahead of time.
- Know the audience. News broadcasts and specific programs may have different audiences. Key your examples to the audience, e.g., consumers, farmers, businesspeople.
- Anticipate likely questions and have responses ready. Be prepared to suggest questions to the interviewer who knows less about the subject than you do.
- Prepare for negative questions and comments. Turn them into positive responses.
- Prepare short examples; draw from history. Use drama.
- Be honest. If you don't know, say so; chances are no one else knows either.
- Expect the unexpected.
At the studio:
- Maintain your concentration and focus; review key points. Repeat them to yourself.
- Chat with the interviewer/producer ahead of time whenever possible; ask them about the show's format, why the topic is being discussed, what their own view/experience with the issue is, etc.
- Familiarize yourself with the seating arrangement, headphones, microphone activation devices, where adversaries are seated (for group interviews). Take enough time to be seated comfortably and have your clothes, microphone adjusted properly. Request a glass of water and keep it handy, if not offered one.
- During the interview, state your key points as soon as you can. Repeat them.
- For radio interviews, have cue cards, notes, data, handy. Avoid rattling papers.
- Provide the station with follow-up or caller/viewer contact information in advance. When giving phone numbers, state the numbers slowly and clearly. Enunciate your name and affiliation clearly if asked to do so.
- Be alert for other guests or the show host to set the agenda or recast the issue. Jump in with your views or state them when your turn comes in such a way as to refocus the discussion. "That is a point, but the real issue is . . ."
- Seize the initiative to recast the subject, perspective, or substance of an issue. "The real issue is . . ." "Although Greenpeace says this, scientists know that . . ., the truth is . . ."
- Overcome politeness bias. Media interviews call for assertiveness. It is OK to interrupt an aggressive opponent, but have your message ready. Avoid letting your adversary hog all the air-time. Show hosts vary in their skill and willingness to curtail unruly guests. Your adversary's views may be the reason for the show or your appearance in the first place. Use your adversary's views to launch your key points.
- Avoid personal attacks or comments. Let your reason and knowledge prevail. "So-and-so views this as a personal issue, whereas . . . "
- Distinguish your views, or those of your organization, from the caller's or opponent's position. Express empathy when appropriate. "Plant scientists, and members of the XYZ society believe that . . ."
- For TV, use props if they can be clearly read and understood; keep them simple
- Avoid caffeine-containing beverages well in advance of the interview
- If it makes you more comfortable, bring an assistant whose job is to remember the props, written key points, names of producer/interviewer, location of studio, app't time, etc.
- For TV, avoid solid black or white clothing and shiny materials; you are not part of a funeral or circus. Solid colors are preferable to prints, prints have a tendency to "move" on screen. Avoid flashy jewellery, it distracts from you and your message.
- Be impeccably groomed. Dull shiny skin with make-up; wear lipstick, it emphasizes what you are saying.
Call-in Programs - Radio
- Live radio shows may feature listener call-ins. The studio screens callers in advance, but hostile or wordy callers do get through.
- Keep answers succinct and segue to your messages.
- Avoid antagonizing hostile callers. Take the most important point of a rambling caller and address that. Treat callers politely; it enhances your credibility. "I share your concern for the environment. That's why I support . . ."
- Opponents' views can be corrected, rebutted or refuted, but not at the expense of getting your own message across. Rebutting an opponent gives more air-time to their position than yours. "The Natural Law party says that genetically modified foods are untested; in fact, they are extensively tested by crop scientists, product developers and food manufacturers long before they reach consumers."
- Combat emotionalism by remaining cool and having command of your facts. It is much more persuasive and believable. Sometimes tacit agreement to disagree is the best attainable outcome.
© 2000 J. A. Nettleton