Talking to Reporters

From Simson Garfinkel
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Simson's guide to dealing with reporters

Last updated March 18, 1995

Reporters are your friends

Nearly all reporters want to see one thing published: the truth. They want to get as unbiased, as accurate, and as fair a presentation as possible in black-and-white on their pages. Generally, you want the same thing. So, at all times, remember that the reporter is on your side and is trying to do as good a job as possible. If there is something that you don't want printed, ask yourself why. If it is something you are hiding because it makes you look bad, tell the reporter anyway. It's better to look human than to be caught hiding something. If it isn't germane to the story at hand, it probably won't get printed.

Know your reporter

Write down the reporter’s name, phone number, and the department for which he or she writing. You need to have some way of getting back to them if there’s a problem, or if new developments arise. Things not to ask is the name of the reporter’s editor and how long they have been writing for their magazine or newspaper. These sorts of questions might cause the reporter to take offense, and there’s no reason to make an enemy.

Help the reporter

Reporters are very busy people: make it as easy as possible for them to write the very best story story. Give them the names, titles, and phone numbers. Having everything neatly typed up is always a help. And --- please --- give them the names of people who disagree with you in addition to the people who are on your side. It makes you seem more honest, which is something that reporters like.

Be Accessible

Give the reporter your home telephone number, and any other number where you might be. Make it very clear how late --- and how early --- the reporter can call you. Remember that reporters frequently need to check facts late at night, before the paper goes to press. You can say things like, ``well, if the paper is about to go to the presses, and you really need clarification, you can wake me up at 2:00 a.m. But only if it is an emergency.

Be persistent

If you haven't heard anything from the reporter after two days, call back and ask --- in a friendly tone of voice --- how the story is going. Ask the reporter if he or she is having problems with anything.

Don't offer to review the story with the reporter

Most reporters do not take kindly to the idea of having ``a source read over the article before it is published. One reason is because stories often get changed in editing, and it is a hassle to review every change with the source. They might let you see a version, and then the story gets cut at the last minute; thus, the version that you reviewed might not be the same reason that actually gets run.

Offer to review your quotes verbally with the reporter

What you can do is ask the reporter to call you up, before the article is published, and read you back everything that is attributed to you ``inside quotation marks. You can't require this, but offer. Also offer to ``rework the quotes with the reporter, which means to edit the quotes into better English.

Know the difference between “off the record” and “on background.”

Lots of people are willing to talk with reporters if their name isn’t use. Unfortunately, these people frequently say “I want to talk off the record.” Terms like “off the record” and “on background” mean specific things. Use the right term. Here’s a list: On the record: The reporter can quote what you say, using your name, in print. Not for attribution: The reporter can quote what you say, but cannot identify you by name. The reporter might identify you as “a high-ranking official at the White House” but shouldn’t say “a high-ranking official at the White House who works in room 431.” On background: The reporter can’t print or summarise you, but can use information that you give in order to ask other people questions. Of course, if other people answer the questions, the reporter might print what they say, even if it is the same information that you gave on background. Off the record: the most stringent of all the rules. Off the record means that the reporter won’t print what you say, won’t summarize it, won’t use it as the basis for asking other people questions. Indeed, it is as if you didn’t say it at all. So why would you want to say something “off the record?”

Know your speaking points.

Have a list of three or four points that you want to make. Be sure that you say them. If the journalist is asking you questions that don't get anywhere near your speaking points, then change the conversation. "Yes, that's very important. But this is the real issue..."

Remember: there's more than one game in town

If you don't like the newspaper you're dealing with, try calling another. In Cambridge, for example, there's the Boston Globe, the Herald, the Cambridge Tab, the Cambridge Chronicle, and the Phoenix. If you think the story has national significance, there's also the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and The Christian Science Monitor. And don't forget WBUR (National Public Radio).