While journalists may be educated in their field, they cannot be experts in every issue and they may be called upon to report on very different issues in a matter of days. They may ask questions that a victim service provider, who is an expert in their field, may find obvious or trivial. The odds are if the reporter does not know the answer, their readers or viewers do not know the answer either.
There are generally two kinds of media: paid media and earned media. Paid media is exactly as it seems. Purchasing a full page advertisement in a newspaper is an example of paid media. Earned media is news coverage. When the media goes to an agency for a comment or opinion or to cover a new program, it is earned media. Earned media is generally taken more seriously because an individual or agency did not have to pay for it, which anyone who has money could do, but instead they worked for the attention or they were recognized as an expert by the journalist.
Understand how journalists work and their needs
Professional journalists strive to get the details of their stories accurate, but the speed at which the news has to be reported nowadays increases the chances of mistakes and limits the time the reporter has to fact check a story and get context. At the same time, while more and more people get the news from the internet, traditional media organizations are facing serious staffing problems so fewer reporters are being asked to do more and more. This impacts the number of stories that are covered, how far a reporter can travel to cover a story and how in depth the coverage of each story can be.
It can be frustrating for service providers when a reporter calls and they want a quote immediately. Sometimes it is not always possible to drop everything and get back to them in time, or you really cannot comment unless you know more about the particular story. When possible, service providers should try to be available to the media (within reason) because if a chance is missed, they might find another expert or source the next time they need help. Reporters tend to call back the organization that was helpful.
This does not mean you have to give a comment immediately. Ask the reporter to give you the background of the story and as much information as he/she can and then arrange to call him/her back. This gives you a chance to collect your thoughts, consult with your colleagues, do any quick research you may need to do and think about what it is you want to say; what message you want to give. If you simply cannot get back to the reporter in time, it is always a good idea to follow up and explain why you did not call back. They will understand and will appreciate the call back. This will increase the chance they will call the next time and helps to maintain the positive relationship you have.
If the issue is not something you are qualified to speak about or you are not able to comment on, you should try to recommend someone else that the reporter can speak to. If, for example, you work in a sexual assault centre and a reporter calls and asks about child abuse, you can recommend the reporter call one of your community partners that works with abused children or an academic you know who has done research in the field.
Last minute calls from reporters wanting to speak to any victim in the next thirty minutes can be even more frustrating. Hopefully, if you build a relationship with the journalist, he/she will know how difficult this is for you, both practically and ethically. If not, the journalist may not have any idea how difficult it is to find a victim to speak out or how you reluctant you may be to risk re-victimizing a victim.
The media often wants to avoid going to the same victims for comments and they want different perspectives, making the request even more challenging. As frustrating as this can be, where possible and appropriate (keeping in mind the need to protect victims, be ethical, etc.), try to help out when you can. When it is not possible or simply not appropriate, you should follow-up with the journalist and explain why.
Be careful not to judge the media’s preference for speaking to victims directly or their insistence to have different victims. Reporters want the human touch, the context, the experience and the credibility that only the victim of that crime can provide and this is why they often do not want to speak to a representative or service provider. The victim/survivor makes stories more compelling and it affects their readers, listeners and viewers more. Keep in mind that the media also need victims who fit the story – for example, a man speaking about the impact of sexual assault of a female or a woman speaking about the abuse of boys may not be effective.
While the media can be demanding at times and their requests may seem unreasonable (for example, “I need a strong, articulate sexual assault victim who has never spoken publicly in 2 hours”), if you have a good, pre-existing relationship with the reporter, he/she will understand if you are unable to help this time. It might be wise to develop a contact list in advance, of clients who are willing to speak to the media on particular issues.
Tips for doing interviews
Your agency’s strategy will likely differ depending on the type of interview, for example, a live radio or TV interview is different than a phone interview with a print reporter. An hour-long call-in radio show is different than a 30-second clip for the evening news. Here are some general tips to consider:
- Anticipate questions you may receive and prepare possible answers;
- Pre-plan – know what your message xxx in and repeat it often;
- Keep your answers brief; do not ramble;
- Know your subject matter; know more about it than the person interviewing you;
- Keep answers simple – you will not be able to impart all of your expertise on the topic so keep your points simple so people can understand;
- Do not use acronyms or complex legal terms (without explaining them);
- Be honest. If you are not sure, do not guess;
- If the question is confusing, frame it before answering it (for example, “So if I understand you correctly, you want to know…”) or for clarification;
- Remain calm; relax; and
- Remember that time passes quickly…a 15-minute interview may sound like a long time to be on television, but the interviewer has to introduce you, thank you and will talk her/himself in addition to asking you questions…so your actual speaking time flies by. This is why it is important to know your message.
Being proactive with the media
Whatever one thinks of the mass media and the stories they do or do not cover, they can be a powerful ally for an organization that needs to raise awareness of its services or needs to raise awareness about an issue. The media is often the only option unless the agency has the resources to fund expensive advertising.
It does take some time and effort to build positive relationships with a few key reporters, but the rewards can be large for an agency. Most newspapers and media outlets have reporters who focus on specific issues, like municipal politics. Find the journalists in your area that most often report on crime, policing or court cases and get to know them.
Helpful approaches to build relationships:
- Reach out – send an email to a key reporter about a concerning issue or story idea. You will be increasing the odds that when the journalist needs to someone from the victim service community to comment on a story, they will contact your agency. A journalist is more likely to call someone they know than someone they do not. This increases the profile and legitimacy of your agency.
- Help to increase your profile – Unless your agency has the resources to pay for advertising or hire a firm or person to take care of media, there are few better ways to get your message out and raise the profile of your agency. It does take some work but it is very cost effective.
- Increase trust – When you know a journalist, you will have more faith in him/her when you do provide a comment, pitch a story or refer to a victim.
- Educate – When you have a good relationship with journalists who regularly report on crime matters, you can educate them about specific issues and help them understand the justice system from the victim’s perspective, which may influence their reporting.
- Involve – There is no better way to build a relationship with reporters and get them interested in your cause than by inviting them to be involved in events that you hold, be it a charity event, workshop, vigil… Invite them to host, emcee or attend as a VIP.
Even if you pitch a story that is not necessary hard news, in that it has to be told right now, it may be something the journalist will keep in the back of his or her mind for a slow news day. Your annual report, which may show a rise in the number of cases the agency assisted, or a new program you are starting may be of interest to the journalist. If you have an upcoming fundraiser, a good profile on the organization in advance of the event can help.
Before making contact, know what your purpose is. Do you want raise public awareness about an issue or get people to attend a community event or encourage people to write letters to politicians? This will help you craft your message before you speak to the journalist. Depending on the answer, your pitch will be different and you should be up front about what your purpose is.
How to suggest a story
If you want the media to cover a new program you have started or to report on some interesting research that you have just published, you can do a news release or news conference to announce it. Or, you may seek out a journalist that you have worked with in the past and give him/her a “scoop.”
Either way, you need to understand what the media looks for in a story:
- Is it relevant? – does it impact people’s lives, is it something people are or will talk about, etc.? Relevancy may be different for local and national media outlets. For example, city council issues are very relevant for local papers but not necessarily for national papers.
- Is it something new? – to a certain extent, it is not news if it is not new. An old story may be important again if something new has happened, such as a parole hearing for a case that happened ten years ago. There has to be a change or a new development or something unique. This is why much of the crime that occurs in society is not reported – it happens all the time and there is little “new” about it.
- Is it a story that will sustain the public’s interest for a period of time? – This will usually be a story that is complex or interesting enough that more stories or news will continue to be generated beyond the original story. It requires new development or new angles and these are often the kinds of stories that journalists love because they get to investigate as opposed to just report.
- Is it interesting? – some of the things that get the most media coverage have none of the previous criteria but are covered anyway. Stories about actors going to jail or having affairs are routinely covered by mainstream media, not just entertainment media. This may not be an encouraging trend and there are limited opportunities to capture this kind of attention unless your agency or cause has the support of a well-known personality.
- Is it compelling? – news has to be compelling and in the media’s mind. Conflict is important. The media like to have good guys and bad guys. Victims are good; criminals are bad. This simple narrative can often be seen in the strategies of politicians when they introduce law and order measures to target criminals and support victims;
- Simplicity is important – most news stories can only cover a part of a bigger story. If you have ever sat in court watching a trial, you may not recognize the case if you were to read about it the next day. The most important parts of the case may not be covered but the more interesting parts will be. Complex legal arguments may be summarized in a paragraph. If you are ever asked to do an interview for television, plan out of a couple of short sentences that sum up your point in an interesting way because seconds may be all you have to make your case;
As an agency that may be looking for news coverage, these are all essential questions to ask about your story or issue. You may pitch a story based solely on your issue or your program but you should also watch for opportunities to capitalize on other stories. If, for the example, the government announces some research or introduces legislation on a specific crime, you may be able to contact a reporter or issue a news release about an aspect of your work that relates to the government’s initiative.
If the journalist did a good job on a story you suggested or with a victim you worked with, or just one that you heard or read, send a quick email saying so. Tell him/her what you liked and if there was an aspect you disagreed with or you were concerned about, respectfully point that out as well and perhaps offer to provide some additional information. Reporters are not experts in the field like you are so they will make mistakes and their work if often changed by editors. Most reporters would appreciate feedback, especially from someone they know and trust.
Here are some general tips from journalists about dealing with the media:
- You may get one chance to win over a reporter – make it count.
- Few journalists have time to chase people.
- Be efficient in your communication; do not flood them or nag them; do not leave multiple phone calls or repeatedly send long emails.
- It is helpful if the victim/advocate can provide any relevant documents, statistics, reports, etc.
- Do not expect control over a story or expect the reporter to be is on their “side”.
- The easier you can make it for journalists, the more likely they are to call again.
- Do not be too discouraged if a journalist passes on a specific story…it may be a busy news day or that story may not be right for that editor at that time.
- When possible, relate an event or report to a real person.
- Do not call right before deadline with a story idea.
- Do not call with a story idea every day or week.
- If you invite a journalist to an event, touch base with them a couple of days beforehand to ensure that they remember and have all the details.