Being Effective with the News Media

Resources for Scholars

Being a Good Expert Source

News media provide access to a classroom of thousands. As someone with expertise on religion, you can enhance its public understanding by making yourself available to journalists.

Your Role

A journalist is unlikely to be calling you in order to confront you with controversy, as a journalist might a public figure. Being a scholar, you are likely being contacted because you have expertise. The journalist wants to better inform the public about a topic you care about.

Do not be surprised by a journalist's lack of knowledge in your area of expertise or about religion in general. A journalist might, within a five-year period, switch from covering education to covering business to covering religion, or might be a general assignment reporter, switching subject areas daily. As skilled writers, journalists are expected to be able to write on almost any topic.

Do not expect a journalist to develop a topic as fully as a scholar would. Journalists are generally allowed space to write little more than the basic facts. Even a lengthy feature article is short compared to a scholarly journal article.

Do not expect a journalist to show you the story before it comes out. News deadlines generally won't permit doing so, and journalists view the expectation to preview a story as an infringement of press freedom. Such previewing can imply that the source has officially approved the story, which can call into question a journalist's reputation as a neutral observer.

If after being interviewed you like the story that comes out, tell the journalist but avoid saying "thank you," which journalists tend to hear as expressing appreciation for a favor, and writing news as a favor is considered unethical. Do not send gifts; they are seen as an attempt to influence future stories.

If you don’t like the story that comes out, don’t fire off an angry letter to the editor or complain to the journalist’s superiors. Remember, you want to be regarded as a credible source—by journalists and the public—and an angry letter can diminish credibility. Simply call the journalist and calmly state your concerns. If you then want to write a letter to the editor to educate readers about something important the journalist missed or misconstrued, let the journalist know, as a courtesy, that you are writing the letter for that reason, not as a personal attack.

If you have a bad experience with one journalist, don't let that taint your opinion of all journalists. There are many excellent journalists.

Deadlines and Availability

When a journalist contacts you, expect him or her to be polite, but hurried. A journalist is ruled by deadlines much different from those of a scholar. Whereas a scholar often has months to write a journal article, a journalist often has only a few hours to write a news article. Because the journalist has such tight deadlines and works on many articles simultaneously, the journalist generally won't have time to read your journal article or book nor time to do library research.

Given tight deadlines, a journalist needs a prompt response when attempting to contact you. If you don't have time for a brief discussion when a journalist first tries to reach you, it's important nonetheless to promptly acknowledge the journalist's message and let the journalist know your availability. If you answer the phone to find a journalist wanting to discuss a topic you'd like time to think about first, it's OK to request a later time for discussion. But punctually keep agreements you make. Responding even fifteen minutes late may be too late to be of use, and your punctuality affects your reputation as a source.

Many journalists do not work typical 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. office hours. For newspaper journalists, a typical day may begin around 2 p.m. and end near midnight, so news will be fresh for the morning paper. Since journalists have little time to reach a source and cannot use one that's unavailable, it's helpful if journalists can call you at home or on your mobile phone.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why does a journalist want to talk with me?

You are an expert in your field and can add depth and context to the story. Reporters generally talk to lay people, spokespersons for advocacy groups, and religious leaders for their stories. With your expertise, you can add another dimension to the story.

Why do journalists need the information immediately?

Journalists generally work on daily deadlines; television reporters, on hourly deadlines.

Is it OK to call a journalist back when I'm not so busy?

Certainly, but schedule a time and be sure to call the journalist.

How do I convey information without being quoted or named in the story?

You can, if the journalist agrees, speak "on background," in which case the journalist can use what you say, but not your name, in a story. In effect, you become an "anonymous source." Or you can speak "off-the-record," in which case what you say cannot appear in a story without your prior consent. Bear in mind three things: 1) either restriction applies only to what you say after the journalist expressly agrees to it—be explicit; 2) some journalists may not agree; and 3) some public relations specialists advise against attempting such agreements, noting that through a mistake your name or what you say could end up in the news anyway.

Why wouldn't the journalist let me read the story before it is printed?

News deadlines generally won't permit doing so, and journalists view the expectation to preview a story as an infringement of press freedom. Such previewing can imply that the source has officially approved the story, which can call into question a journalist's reputation as a neutral observer.

Why didn't the journalist use more of the information I provided?

Space can especially be a problem when a journalist wants to present a variety of viewpoints, thus having room for only a snippet of your interview, if that. This doesn't mean the journalist didn't find your interview valuable; in fact, your comments might have shaped the story even if you weren't quoted.

Why did the story not reflect how it was presented to me at my interview?

Usually this occurs for one of two reasons: 1) following your interview, the story changed based on information you or another source provided, in which case the journalist should have called you back to let you know; or 2) although rare, the journalist intentionally misrepresented himself or herself, in which case you probably don't want to cooperate with that journalist again.

Why does the story never seem to grasp the intricacies of the subject?

Besides having less space and time, journalists work differently in other ways too. Scholars need to use scholarly methodologies; journalists need only verified documentation—through human and nonhuman sources (official documents, records, etc). Scholars acquire in-depth knowledge about a few subjects; journalists acquire surface knowledge about many subjects. Scholars write primarily for their peers; journalists, for the mass public. The differences in these roles dictate different ways of communicating to those audiences: scholars are educators; journalists are informers.

Handling the Interview

The more you understand about media interviews, the more effective you'll be in handling them so that you get your points across and religion gets better news coverage.

Interviewing Basics

When a journalist calls, the first thing to do is get the journalist's name, media affiliation and phone number, so you'll know the news outlet being represented and be able to reach the journalist later if you need to.

Then determine whether the information needed is within your broad area of expertise. (Having published in the general area may suffice; local newspapers, for example, may prefer a local expert over one who, though more knowledgeable, lives outside the state.) If the information needed is not within your expertise, politely decline to be interviewed. But if you know of a scholar who researches or teaches the topic, tell the journalist.

If you don't feel ready to talk, tell the journalist you are busy and arrange a time to call back. Then make sure you call back as agreed.

During the interview, make sure you get your points across and that the journalist understands them. Speak slowly, as the journalist will be writing or typing what you say. Repeat your main points often.

Avoid academic jargon. The journalist's audience is usually the general public, so be elementary.

Be concise. Avoid digressions, and stay on your main points. If a journalist is silent, do not try to fill the silence. The journalist is probably just taking notes. Be friendly, but avoid humor or flippancy, as it could appear in the story. Avoid hypothetical scenarios. If a journalist asks you to speculate, politely decline.

Be honest above all else. Your credibility as a source is at stake. If you don't know the answer to a question, say so. Journalists do not expect a source to know everything. Perhaps you can refer the journalist to a colleague who might know the answer.

If time permits toward the end of an interview, briefly discuss the information you've provided. If the journalist's comments indicate he or she doesn't understand what you've said, politely clarify. Let the journalist know you are available for additional information.

Being Quoted or Not

All good news stories quote knowledgeable sources. Quotes enliven a story, and just as data constitutes evidence for scholars, quotes constitute evidence for journalists.

However, sometimes a journalist calls a scholar simply to better understand the issues involved in a story. Your expertise helps the journalist develop background and context. Regardless of whether you're quoted, your participation can make the news more insightful.

When a journalist calls or emails, assume that anything you say can be used in a story and attributed to you; you are communicating "on-the-record." If the journalist asks a particular question you don't want to comment on, avoid saying "no comment," which can come across as if you are hiding something; rather, simply say you "don't know" or "can't speculate on that." It would be rare for a scholar to need to be unquotable (see your role as an expert source); however, if you need to (perhaps, if you are junior scholar being asked about a controversial topic) there are ways to talk to a journalist yet avoid being quoted.

You can, if the journalist agrees, speak "on background," in which case the journalist can use what you say, but not your name, in a story. In effect, you become an "anonymous source." Or you can speak "off-the-record," in which case what you say cannot appear in a story without your prior consent. Bear in mind three things: 1) either restriction applies only to what you say after the journalist expressly agrees to it—be explicit; 2) some journalists may not agree; and 3) some public relations specialists advise against attempting such agreements, noting that through a mistake your name or what you say could end up in the news anyway.

Special Tips for Broadcast Interviews

Speak in short sentences and be succinct. Have a couple of key points you want to convey, and to increase the chance of their being in the broadcast, repeat them a few times during the interview.

For television, visual presentation is important. Plan to wear solid-color clothing. Avoid wearing stripes, plaids and other designs, or large, dangling or reflective jewelry.

If the interview is being taped for airing later, as most broadcast interviews are, feel free to take your time in answering questions, even to stop in the middle of an answer and start over. The station can edit out a long pause or repetition.

Before agreeing to a live interview, make sure you are comfortable answering questions spontaneously. Ask the journalist ahead of time what kinds of questions will be asked; journalists often won't mind letting you know. If a journalist won't tell you even the topic of the interview, you can always decline. Before agreeing to be on a talk show, make sure you are comfortable with the show's customary format; some are quite confrontational.

During a television interview, look at the journalist, not the camera. Stay stationary and avoid sitting in a chair that swivels. Don't engage in nervous habits such as finger tapping. For the best effect, sit straight and lean slightly toward the journalist. Be cautious about nodding; it can convey agreement with a point rather than an understanding of the question. Keep your head up, and let your enthusiasm show in your face. Smile, unless you are discussing a very serious subject. Feel free to gesture frequently, but when not, keep hands on your lap if you are sitting or at your sides if standing.

With radio, all the listener has is your voice. Muster as much warmth, interest and liveliness into your voice as you can. Sometimes radio journalists interview over the phone; if you have call waiting, turn it off temporarily for the interview.

Taking Initiative in Getting News Coverage

You can influence what gets in the news and how it's covered. The simplest way is to write a letter to the editor. You can also try submitting an opinion piece, perhaps even becoming an occasional columnist. Another way is to develop a news relationship with a religion reporter or editor. Your institution's public relations office may also be a good resource.

Letters to the Editor

Letters to the editor are widely read. Writing one is easy if you follow the media outlet's rules for submission (check the web or where the letters are printed) and keep in mind these tips:

  • Be concise. Aim for about 200 words or less.
  • Be prompt. Write about a hot topic and fax or email it.
  • Keep it civil. Editors and readers tend not to respond favorably to angry letters.
  • Include your name, address and daytime phone number; before printing, the editor will want to verify your authorship.

Opinion Pieces

Opinion pieces usually appear on the "Op-Ed" page—short for opposite the editorial page—but are also found in other sections on Sundays and in magazines. Be warned: Newspapers get far more opinion pieces than they can print; don't be discouraged if your first attempt is rejected.

To better your chances, keep in mind these tips:

  • Be timely. Newspapers report things that just happened, are happening or will happen soon. When a topic is hot, that is the time to write.
  • Make your main point first. This is typical of all journalism and the opposite of writing for a scholarly journal.
  • Be brief. Aim for 700–1,000 words.
  • Avoid academic jargon. Write for the average reader, not the specialist in your field. Assume the reader has no prior knowledge of the subject.
  • Be cool and precise. Never write in anger.

Besides printing a well-written and timely opinion piece from someone whom the newspaper has never published, your newspaper is likely to print opinion pieces written in rotation by a group of community members, a group the newspaper sets up. You can try to become a part of the group by writing a member of the editorial board, briefly expressing your interest and qualifications and enclosing a sample of your writing (something succinct that's been published by a news outlet, not a scholarly journal article).

Developing a News Relationship

Reporters are always looking for fresh story ideas and good sources. When you have an idea you think is newsworthy, feel free to call a religion reporter. Say in a sentence what you are calling about and ask if you're calling at a good time. Don't be offended if it's not—journalists are often under deadline; simply ask to set a time that would be good.

When you do discuss your idea, be succinct. Determine ahead of time how you can convey the merit of your idea in two minutes. After making your case, pause to give the reporter a chance to respond. If the reporter doesn't initially see your idea as newsworthy, you can make one more, very brief, attempt. But if the reporter remains unconvinced, don't continue to argue; respect that a reporter knows his or her audience. Try another idea another time.

If the reporter does seem to like an idea you suggest, do not call the reporter each day to ask why the story hasn't been published. Journalists often file story ideas for pursuit at a later time, when there is a lull in the number of pressing news events they must write about. And don't expect the reporter to notify you or send you a clip if the story does come out. The continual onrush of deadlines a reporter faces makes that unrealistic. Finally, respect that, just like scholars may not get around to turning every good research idea into a journal article, reporters may not get around to turning every good story idea into a news article.

Another opportunity for developing a relationship can occur when a reporter writes a story relating to your research area but is unaware of your expertise. If so, feel free to call the reporter—not to complain about your being omitted—but to let the reporter know of your availability as a source for similar stories in the future. If the reporter missed a significant element of a story, politely point out (but don't lecture about) what was missed.

Using Your Institution's Public Relations Office

A valuable resource for stimulating media attention is your institution's public relations office. Its staff can write press releases for you and contact media on your behalf. Additionally, journalists seeking experts often contact them.

Make your PR office aware of your willingness to talk with media about specific areas of your expertise. Give the PR staff your vita and inform them when you publish an article or book. Let them know when you are invited to participate in panels and workshops. Give them clips of newspaper and magazine articles that quote you.

PR staff can also help publicize meetings, workshops or conferences, helping to coordinate media coverage of them and to schedule them in consideration of media deadlines.

Most institutions' PR offices are understaffed; they cannot be aware of all the research projects, articles, interesting courses, etc., that occur. By your taking a few easy steps, your institution's PR staff can better know who you are and steer journalists toward you.

Links for More Media Advice

You may find the following resources helpful for learning how to be more effective with the news media: