Dealing with the Media
Informs common folk on how to approach and interact with the media fruitfully.
No-one argues about whether a big story is newsworthy or not. We instinctively know it is. Death, destruction, crime on a grand scale: all need no debate among news editors and attract instant prominence. The closer to home the bigger the coverage. Sub-editors on newspapers used to have a ratio for this, and the numbers differed for every outlet. A rough estimate, after talking to a few colleagues, might be one person dead in Australia equates to fifty in Britain and 500 in a developing country. This is an understandable community response. We are less involved with stories which don’t affect our families or neighbours.
Chequebook journalism is a form of corruption: it distorts the story. If you want accuracy in a story, don’t trust the money paid to an interviewee, but always follow the money trail.
Once defined as clerks of facts, journalists who learn to humanise events and issues will always communicate more successfully than their colleagues who prefer to pile up the statistics and the details. This is not entirely a good thing but it’s a simple truth about the profession. Thus it accounts for the principal change in newspapers over recent decades as they’ve evolved into viewspapers with a growing emphasis on punditry.
If you are trying to approach the media with an unsolicited idea, you have only two options: one is to put your story in the most lively way you can; the other is to try a different outlet if someone on the news desk just doesn’t get it.
There’s also a style to writing news which most media students learn in their first year of study. It’s worth repeating because some may not know about it or have forgotten it. It’s the inverted news pyramid shown below. Crafting your story around the news pyramid is a bit like making an inverted iceberg: put everything relevant at the top and let the floating mass below carry any extra information. If you’re supplying the main premise for a story, focus on your own information and any other material you can give the journalist to help with verification and research. The main thing is to encapsulate the essence of your premise in the intro, or lead, when structuring your argument.
Selective quotes and emphasis mean there are many ways to interpret a story. The above hypothetical is also a caution about how some people might use similar material with less concern for the story and more for preaching to their audiences. The first is more balanced and skewed toward environmental issues; the second is more negative and focuses on criticism.
Every working journalist interviewed for this book implored contributors to use lively, clear and succinct language. The advice of never use ten words when you can say it in three holds true. The occasional elegantly-placed, multisyllabic word only strengthens your point if it’s placed next to shorter, clearer text. Don’t be afraid to use contractions like don’t. Use the active voice rather than the passive.
The Socratic checklist has lasted thousands of years because it works. Make sure your text covers: What is the story? Why is it important? Who does it involve? When did it happen? How did it happen? Where did it happen? Be sure to answer all these questions, but be very focused. The most important question is why. Why does your story matter for the audience? Why should they care? Answer that, and only include the information essential to support it.
People relate to physical things. Real objects form images in the mind, which helps to understand and remember a story. If you fill your text with abstract nouns, you will end up sounding vague and boring. So think creatively. What concrete objects are involved in your story? Write out a list of them. Then work them into the text to ground it in reality.
Morning newspapers have a wide-ranging news conference at about 11 am from Mondays to Thursdays, when they tentatively plan the next days paper. The next news conference comes in the mid-afternoon, when news editors solidify their ideas about what’s going to get a run. It’s best to get in by about 2.30 PM, especially if it’s on a Friday, to make the afternoon conferences agenda. If you can get an item onto the news agenda by about 10.00 am, at least it’ll be considered as a possible story for the day. The journalists then have a few hours to chase up the story and explore it from different angles. The timing is constantly in flux now and not as ironclad as it used to be. There’s usually someone on the news desk to take your calls during conference times, but they might be less experienced than the news editor who can instantly evaluate your story idea. Stick to the 10 am rule for all the media if you’ve got breaking news for that day.