News media in the U.S. serve several indispensable roles. They hold elected officials accountable, champion consumer rights, reporting on homeland security issues and provide local traffic and weather information, as well as emergency evacuation warnings.
Those are a few of the valuable public services that the media deliver to the public at large. Despite those good attributes, any direct engagement with the media should be pursued with caution. Specifically, if your organization or company is contacted by a reporter or media outlet regarding a story they're doing, here are 10 things to consider before speaking with them.
1. The media is not your friend.
The news media has one job to do and that job is to get a story that will be of interest to their various audiences. While reputable media outlets and their representatives won't lie or fabricate facts, they are more than willing to get a compelling story at your expense---if their interpretation of the facts allows it. If a negative story hurts you, your business or your family the media tends to be very unsympathetic once the story runs.
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2. It only seems like a conversation.
When you are talking to a reporter. it is not merely a conversation. No matter how casual, nice or disarming the reporter seems to be while speaking with you, make no mistake. They are interviewing you and, just like a court of law, anything you say can and will be used against you, if it fits their purpose or story.
3. There's always a bad guy.
Nearly every compelling news story has a “victim” and a “villain.” Odds are that most companies, government agencies and other established organizations, including not-for-profits, will be portrayed as the “villain” in media coverage. That's because reporters perceive such large organizations as having disproportionate power compared to the average Jane or Joe. As such, the average Joe or Jane will usually be the “victim.” If you don't know who the villain is during a news interview, it's probably you.
4. If it's not a controversy, it's not news.
The media has a distinct and clear bias toward controversy. It’s hard to say whether the media has a liberal or conservative bias, but the media most definitely has a bias, and hunger for, controversy. The more raging the rhetoric that both sides of a particular story throw at each other, the more controversy it breeds, resulting in a juicier story for the media to cover.
5. By deadline is more important than perfect.
Not every media outlet values accuracy over speed. Unless there is a gross factual inaccuracy, don't expect a story retraction or correction. For some media outlets, they'd rather be first than be accurate. Do your research on the reporter, producer and news outlet before you agree to an interview.
6. Stick to your message.
You may pride yourself on “shooting from the hip” or “telling it like it is” but such spontaneous remarks during a media interview usually come across in print and video as “putting your foot in your mouth” and subsequently “shooting yourself in the foot.” The take away here is don’t ad lib. Try to anticipate the questions the media might ask in advance and develop thoughtful answers that you can recite from memory.
7. Don't underestimate how much they know.
The media knows more than you think. Don’t be surprised if the reporter starts out asking inane questions, then blasts hard-hitting, jargon-laden, industry-specific inquiries. Bottom line, it’s dangerous to underestimate a reporter’s depth of knowledge. Remember, news organizations monitor social media and other media outlets. Know in advance what your exposure or vulnerabilities might be. If you've never done it before, Google yourself and your organization. The media certainly will.
8. When the talking is done, you control nothing.
What's left out of a story is usually as important as what's included. When you agree to speak with a reporter, editor or field producer, you may spend hours prepping and answering their questions but they may use only one or two sentences from the entire interview. They may not use any of the information you provided. Sometimes, reporters have no intention of using your comments and are only looking for a quick "education" on the topic they're covering. You simply don't know until the story runs. Such is the prerogative of the news media.
9. Interview the interviewer.
Ask the reporter questions before you answer their questions. Find out what prompted the reporter to call you, how they got your number and from whom. What is the nature of the story they’re writing? What do they expect you will say? Ask the reporter to give you questions in writing so that you can provide thoughtful and accurate answers. You will get meaningful insight into the motive driving the story and ultimately provide the reporter with better insight.
10. No news is probably the best news for you.
Typically, when a reporter contacts a business owner for a story, the owner naively thinks they will be the focus of a positive feature article that will elevate their profile in the community or benefit their business. That’s simply not the case. Often times it’s better to thank the reporter and politely decline the interview, because you have very little control over how you might be portrayed in the story.
The vast majority of media workers and news management have high ethics, standards and integrity. But when you're dealing with the media, the only way to control your message 100 percent is by taking out an ad and that's not the business of the newsroom.
Related: 7 Ways to Milk Your Media Coverage