UNDERSTANDING THE MEDIA: WHAT THEY WANT FROM YOU
- Tell your story
- Be personable
- Think new and compelling information
The media are varied in content and style, especially now that the on-line universe is increasing its share of the media pie. But there is something that all media – old and new – have in common: THEY WANT INTERESTING CONTENT! Each media outlet has a certain number of airtime minutes or square inches on the page to fill each day; the more interesting the content, the more viewers and readers they’ll attract and the more appealing they’ll look to advertisers.
So, the media want compelling information, real people, and good story-telling. You can help them by focusing on what you communicate to them and how you go about doing it. In exchange, IT’S AN OPPORTUNITY TO TELL YOUR STORY.
And remember, being an expert in any field is something the media wants and needs. You’re that expert. So take advantage of the opportunity. Be selfish! They’re your messages and you have a stake in getting them communicated.
Pretty obvious, right? But somehow, all too often it is ignored or forgotten.
Like scientists, media have a culture all their own. Dealing with them can be easier if you know where they’re coming from and what they’re wanting from you.
What (qualitatively) is the reporter looking for?
As a scientist, always remember that you have a lot to offer reporters who don’t have near the knowledge that you do about your field of expertise. That’s why they are calling you!
HOWEVER: Your goal is NOT merely to relay information!
Information is not effective communication. Knowledge is not effective communication. Rather, your goal in any interview situation is to make a compelling impact on the interviewer and the interviewer’s readers or audience. That impact should leave a positive impression about the importance of your work and of what you are trying to achieve.
It is essential to remember that it’s not what you say that counts or even how much you know about the subject at hand, but it’s how you express yourself, and whether your audience understands and feels compelled by what you are saying.
What the reporter is looking for is not just an expert, but an expert who can convey complex information in an understandable, pithy, and concise way that makes the audience realize the importance of what is being said.
The media and their audiences love “REAL PEOPLE.” These are people who don’t play the reserved, professorial role, but are personable, humorous, and address the audience at a person-to-person level with a compelling message.
Kinds of stories
When a reporter picks up the phone to call you for an interview, they’re doing so to initiate a story or to make an existing story better or more complete.
Often, the story may relate to a larger or previously publicized story. For example, the outlet might be running a national story on methamphetamine addiction, and the reporter wants to include a sidebar or related story on your local research project.
Other times, you and your work may be the focal point of the story. This happens if you have just released important new data or a big paper with obvious implications for human health. Perhaps your findings change clinical practice, bolster our understanding of a disease, or suggest new treatment options.
The story may have come to the reporter in the form of a press release issued by your institution (see chapter 9), a tip from a source, something the reporter came up with on his or her own, another news story that has already been published or aired, or an assignment from an editor.
Interviewing the interviewer
How do you know what will help the reporter complete or enhance the story? You can ask. When you finally are on the phone with the reporter, find out as much as you can about the context of the story. You could ask such questions as “What is the thrust of your story?” and even “So, what kind of information are you looking for from me?”
A print reporter may find it sufficient to interview you over the phone. But even they may want to meet you in person or visit your lab and work space. If that’s the case, make sure you’ve blocked out enough time. You never want to be in the situation where you would have to cut off the interview.
If you think NIH deadlines are relentless, you ain’t seen nothing. Today, most print and broadcast media operate on a round-the-clock deadline cycle that varies from minutes to hours to (at most) days in length.
More often than not, the reporter who calls you is under a tight deadline. So it’s important that once you get that first message on voicemail you call back ASAP. Waiting even an hour may be too late. The reporter may be calling someone else, and you’ll miss a promising opportunity.
So how do you get from a complex research story to a message the public will understand? That’s the topic of our next section.