How to be a Press Expert

by jeremy on May 8, 2006

Interesting post (a bit late reading of it; apologies) On Being a Press Expert and dealing with the media by danah doyd [sic], a PhD student in SIMS at Berkeley and a social media researcher at Yahoo! Research Berkeley. She makes some good points, and she’s clearly exhausted after three years of becoming sought after (eight matches on Google News is quite a whack, one of them after she wrote this blog entry).

She makes some great points, which I encourage you to read. It makes me realise that despite the sophistication of the news gathering process those playing the role of “expert” have only limited information about the role they’re being asked to play. This leads them, like danah, to being mercilessly exploited by journalists who use them either as a lazy way to figure out the technology they’re writing about (MySpace, say) or simply sought out as a contrary viewpoint to whichever other experts they’re interviewing. With the rare exception of TV-bred pundits, who know exactly what they’re doing because it’s their job, most such experts pour their heart and soul into responding to journalists’ requests, quickly burning themselves out.

I thought I’d try to make these people’s lives a little easier by offering a few guidelines of my own. I’m a columnist, so I guess my needs are different, but I’ve also been a reporter for nearly 20 years on varying beats so I think I know a few things about that side too. Generalizing wildly, here’s what I’d suggest

  • Respond to all requests if you can. Not responding at all doesn’t come across well.
  • When you respond, try to get a quick and dirty idea of what the journalist is looking for:
    – What kind of outlet do they work for? TV has different requirements to print, radio to online, magazine to daily, etc.
    – What kind of piece are they researching: A primer? A quick soundbite for a bland piece? A wide-ranging discussion with a view to an iconoclastic column? A book?
    – When is their deadline?
    – Is the subject matter something you feel competent to talk about?
    – Are you being wheeled out to represent a particular point of view? The journalist might be coy about this, but it’s worth trying to get a sense of where you fit in their story, and if you’re being typecast in a way you don’t feel comfortable with.
    – Do they want to email a few questions, or an IM chat, or a phone call? If the last two, how long is it likely to take?
  • You can always turn down an interview after learning the above. Sometimes there’s no point in wasting time if you feel the journalist is not serious about their work, or that the story is not something you want to be a part of, or that you’re being cast in a role you don’t like.
  • You can always turn down an interview if you don’t think you’re an expert in this field. There’s little to be gained by genning up on a subject for a specific interview, unless a) you don’t mind spending the time doing that b) you may find yourself saying something that’s incorrect and c) you end up being an expert in that field too. It’s good to prepare for an interview but don’t learn a whole new field just to keep the journalist happy/buttress your growing fame.
  • Arrange a time to talk you feel comfortable with. The journalist shouldn’t expect you to drop everything to answer their questions, unless the story is about you and a major felony you’ve allegedly committed. If their deadline is unreasonable (“Anytime in the next 5 minutes”) think hard about whether it’s worth it.
  • Spend some time before the interview trying to figure out the main points of what you want to say. Make sure they’re what the journalist wants to talk about.

During the interview:

  • Don’t be offended if
    – the journalist isn’t interested in small talk. They may just not have time, or were rebuffed when trying to make small talk with other experts. Conversely, however warm and friendly the journalist is, they’re not your confessor or a friend, so be polite but don’t feel you have to ask about their dog, or whatever.
    – the journalist only stays on the line a few minutes. They may just need a few quotes. This is a good thing, either because the journalist already knows their stuff and just needs to reflect your point of view correctly, or else the journalist is on deadline/a freelancer not earning much from the piece/a hopeless case who isn’t really going to listen to you however long you talk to him. Most importantly, they don’t take up half your day.
  • Try to bear in mind the journalist’s needs during the interview/IM chat/email exchange. That means:
    – Don’t talk/type too much. The journalist probably won’t have much more space than two sentences to capture the interview, however long it was and however eloquent you were.
    – What you do say, make snappy. Avoid jargon. Even if the journalist understands what you say, he still has to translate it for his audience.
    – Stick to the question they ask. Unless they’re horribly off track or can’t smell the elephant in the room (in which case, you may want to make a mental note not to talk to them again) you should just answer the question you’re asked, and never add stuff that’s not directly connected to the question.
    – Think quotes. Be yourself, but remember for them a good quote is not what you might think it is. “The ex-combustible lozenge which foments the understabilizer is one of the most underutilized pigment enhancers in modern electrophotoendoscopy” may sound great to you, but the journalist may not agree. Better would be a seemingly throwaway line like “This is something the industry has been waiting for for years. It could be the rock star of our little world.” No need to talk down to the journalist, but make his job easier by trying to talk in a way that his readers are going to enjoy reading.
  • Don’t be scared to tell the journalist when you don’t know something. Suggest another person they could talk to. You can’t know everything.
  • Don’t try to persuade the journalist. Your role is not to convince them but to represent your point of view. Someone trying to convince someone else usually talks way too much. Talk too little. Make your prepared points (twice, if possible, expressed slightly differently) and then stop talking. The journalist can always ask you to elaborate.
  • A good journalist might realise there’s another story there, either an additional piece or an alternative angle to the one they had envisioned. Be ready for this. They’re not being lazy or poorly prepared, they’re doing their job. These are people worth talking to because they have an open mind. Help them frame their ideas, if they ask for it, and if you have time. An interesting chat might help both of you.
  • Keep your own notes about the interview. Jot down what you said, roughly (or keep a record of the email exchange or IM chat.)
  • Before the interview concludes, make sure:
    – they spell your name right
    – they get your title as you want it to be
    – (where necessary) they get your employer correct (I’ve made mistakes here before)
    – get a rough idea of where/when the story will appear. No need to pry too much, but it’s worth knowing.
    – the journalist will promise to email you a copy of the story. They’ll forget. They’re not being rude, they’re just being forgetful (sorry for all the times I’ve promised this and not done it. Will try to do better)
    – you get a contact number/email for them. You may want to change or clarify something, and you need to be able to reach them. You may also need to yell at them after the story hits the stands, but both of these are advised against unless you really feel strongly about it.

After the interview

  • Don’t pester the journalist about when the piece might appear. Big turn-off for the journalist who will feel a bit harassed if you do this. The Journalist Rule is: We can pester anyone and demand they speak to us now. Anyone pestering us, however reasonable their request, is interference in press freedom. Yes, I know it’s not fair.
  • Look back on the experience and work out where you could have done better. Did you get all your points across? Did you lapse into jargon? Did you talk too much? Did you answer his questions? Could you have expressed yourself better?
  • Prepare yourself for the next interview. There’s no shame in being polished.
  • Don’t be too upset if your interview never sees the light of day. See below
  • Don’t be too upset if your quotes are mangled and your views misrepresented. If you have to, complain to the journalist (not his editor). There’s not much that can be done unless there’s a factual error; that can be corrected. Put the rest down to experience, unless you’ve been doing it for 20 years, in which case, you probably want to think about retiring.

I’m sure there’s more to be said but this is longer than a post should be anyway. Experts have a difficult, largely thankless but vital role to play, and I apologise here and now for the number of times I’ve chatted with you for hours and then not had space to put you in my story. I am sorry. Sometimes it’s just impossible to find the space, or the story gets cut; while it’s going to be scant comfort, it’s likely the wisdom you shared with me improved the story. Next time I’ll try to do better. But we journalists are grateful for the time you do give us. Even if we don’t show it.

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