Some Thoughts on Talking to the Media

by Jay Johansen
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Any social or political movement must communicate with the general public if it hopes to succeed. In our society, this frequently means working with news reporters.

I don't think I'm giving away any secrets when I say that pro-lifers have not done a very good job of working with the news media. In this article I try to share a few ideas on how we might do it better.

You might fairly ask: Who is this Johansen person, and what are his qualifications to write this article? I freely admit that there are many who have far more experience in dealing with the media than I have. There are many who have had much greater success. Unfortunately I don't see many of them writing about how to do it. Over the years I have been interviewed by a number of local newspaper, radio, and television reporters. I have been interviewed regarding my role in the pro-life movement and in relation to public education issues. I think I have gained some insight from my experience that is worth sharing.

While this article is written from the point of view of a pro-life activist, I suspect that much of what I say here could apply to people working in other areas.

So here are some lessons I've learned:

The reporter is not your friend

Do not expect that the reporter's goal is to further your cause. The reporter may or may not be sympathetic. Even if he is, he has a job to do: He must produce news stories which are interesting enough to sell newspapers or keep the audience watching through commercials.

And let's be blunt: Surveys routinely show that while a strong majority of Americans are basically pro-life (if you throw in exceptions for rape and deformed children and various other hard cases), the overwhelming majority of people in the major media are strongly pro-abortion.

This fact affects how you should work with the media in many ways, and we'll come back to it repeatedly.

This does not mean that you should be hostile to the reporter. Quite the contrary, you want to do all you can to diffuse hostility. It does mean that you should always have your guard up. It is rarely productive to be confrontational. It is always productive to be cautious.

Occasionally a reporter will tell you that he or she is sympathetic to your cause. If you really know from past experience, or referrals from trusted associates, that this reporter is a friend, that's one thing. Otherwise, such a statement may be true, but the odds are that it is a lie intended to trick you into saying things that you wouldn't otherwise say.

For example, one reporter told me at the start of an interview that she was pro-life, but couldn't join any pro-life groups because it would hurt her credibility. Fortunately I didn't fall for it just from dumb luck. Just a few weeks before a friend of mine who was a Republican party official mentioned in casual conversation that he had been tricked by a reporter who told him that she was very pro-Republican but couldn't officially join the party because it would hurt her credibility. But when her article was printed it turned out to be very hostile. It was the same reporter.

If a reporter makes such a comment, smile politely, say something positive, and make no other changes to what you say to this person.

But try to make friends

Earlier I commented that pro-lifers who have worked with the news media more than I have don't seem to be giving out much advice. There is one piece of advice that I have heard them give: Make friends.

Invite the reporter to lunch. Be pleasant. See if you can find common ground. In between the "action" try to strike up a casual conversation. If you should find that you have some totally unrelated common interest -- gardening or opera or whatever -- that's great. Remember that to the average reporter, pro-lifers are a bunch of extreme, violent, religious fanatics. Make that stereotype hard for the reporter to believe.

But you definately don't want to look like you're trying to deceive them. That could surely backfire. My suggestion: frankly admit that you're being friendly and trying to get to know them because you want to build bridges, or you are hoping to understand them and give them a chance to understand you, or some such.

P.S. I don't think I've ever done this successfully, so don't ask me for any more specific tips.

Don't run off at the mouth

When a reporter interviews you, don't go into a long rambling discussion of all aspects of the subject.

The more you talk, the more likely that somewhere along the line you will say something dumb. We all have areas where we don't know all the facts, where we haven't thought something through, etc. And every now and then we all make plain old stupid mistakes.

Even if you never say anything that you would not stand by, the more you talk, the more likely that you will say something that can be taken out of context. You might stand by what you meant, but if your statement can be quoted to sound like it meant something different, you can still be made to look foolish or evil.

This brings us back to "The reporter is not your friend". If the reporter is basically sympathetic to you, he might ask you to clarify any clumsy statement you make, or simply gloss over it. But if the reporter is hostile, he will gleefully seize on it.

A typical interview with a reporter often goes 30 minutes or more. Of that, if it's for a newspaper story, they may quote a couple of sentences of what you said and summarize a couple more. If it's for television, they'll usually pick one sentence to put on the air. (If you're someone really famous, like the president, you may have the opportunity to get several complete sentences in. That's about the limit.) So how does the reporter decide which sentence or two to take from everything you said?

If the reporter is bored or lazy, he will take the statement that is most dramatic or funniest, regardless of how important or relevant it is. Watch a few news stories about political speeches. The candidate no doubt stood up and talked for an hour about the great issues of the day and the policies he advocates. But what did they show on the nightly news? If he made a slip of the tongue and something came out funny, or if he stumbled walking up to the podium, that's what they put on.

If the reporter is trying to fairly and objectively report the positions of various people on the issue, he will take the sentence that he believes best sums up your position.

If the reporter is hostile, he will take the sentence that makes you look most extreme, or that makes you look dumb.

Even in the best case, if you talk too much, you are leaving it up to the reporter to decide what portion of what you said was the most important. Don't give them that option. Before you go into the interview, decide ahead of time what you want to say. During the interview, say it, and then stop.

Give the reporter a good quote

The best solution to this problem is to come up with a short, punchy statement that summarizes your position well. If you can put everything you want to say in one sentence, you make it easy on the friendly or lazy reporter. If you say nothing else, even the hostile reporter then has no choice but to report what you want reported. (Or say nothing about you or lie, but they could have done that anyway.)

Of course, coming up with a good quote isn't easy. We can't all be great orators. But here are a few tips:

You do not have to summarize the entire history of the world up to this point. You do not have to include citations for every statement of fact. You do not have to explain every reference. Just make one key point.

Use simple language. People often fall into the trap of thinking that a "good quote" means using a lot of big or obscure words and flowery language. That is totally wrong. Use plain English, with words that everyone will understand.

Think of some of the really great quotes that you have heard.

Toward the end of the Cold War Ronald Reagan gave a speech by the Berlin wall where he said, "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall." It was a powerful quote, oft-repeated even by people who did not agree with Mr Reagan. He wanted to make the point that the Soviet Union claimed that they were becoming a free and open society, so let them prove it. Note that he did not explain how the wall came to be there or why it was important -- he took it for granted that people knew this. He didn't offer any reason in that quote why Communist dictatorship was bad. He talked about that at other times, but he did not want to clutter up the immediate message.

This quote from Mr Reagan used the simplest and most direct language. No fancy words, no clever phrasing, just a good pointed statement. This is not to say that some clever phrasing is not helpful. If you can make a good rhyme, construct a good play on words, or use some other tool of language normally associated with poetry, that can be effective.

From the opposite end of the political spectrum, consider John Kennedy's statement, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Note he sets up a clever parallelism: country for you, you for country.

But be careful with the rhetorical flourishes. If you try to be informative or pointed or witty and don't quite succeed, you might still be somewhat informative, somewhat pointed, or somewhat witty. But if you try to be deep and profound and fail, you rarely come across as being "somewhat profound". Usually you sound like a jerk. You should almost never use hushed tones or dramatic gestures or anything that sounds pompous or pretentious. If you're a very good orator, you might possibly be able to use such techniques effectively in a speech. But in an interview, all your build-up and mood setting is going to be lost because the audience will only hear the one-sentence quote.

I once heard an anti-war speaker who showed a picture of a wall in Nagasaki after the atom bomb was dropped there, where you could see a shadow of a man climbing a ladder. Apparently when the bomb went off, the man and ladder were totally vaporized, but they left a shadow on the wall. He said he had written a poem about this, which he proceeded to recite for the audience. The full text of his poem was, "On a wall in Nagasaki / Is a shadow of a man and a ladder."

Perhaps you hear that and think, Yes, very profound. Personally, when I heard that I though, Well, there is a profound concept here, but that poem was simply stupid. I'm sure other people just said, This man is a pretentious idiot. Surely his speech would have been much more effective if he had simply shown pictures of the destruction and said, Look at this destruction. Isn't this terrible?

By the way, turning the other side's arguments against them is always good for a chuckle. I have never had a reporter ask me for a response to the shooting of an abortionist or some such incident, but if they ever do, I think I will answer, "I am personally opposed to shooting abortionists, but I couldn't impose my morality on other people." Then let the other side explain why this is valid reasoning when applied to killing babies but not when applied to killing abortionists.

Answer the question you want to hear

An interview with a reporter is not a quiz. There are no points taken off your score for misunderstanding the question.

When you go into an interview, you should already know the answers you are going to give. If the reporter doesn't ask the right question, simply use the reporter's question as a lead-in to what you want to say. If after a couple of questions the reporter hasn't given you any natural lead into what you consider the most important point, simply answer a question by saying, "Well, maybe so, but the real issue here is ...".

A word of caution: Don't answer two questions with exactly the same answer.

When he was running for vice president, Dan Quayle was asked in a debate what he would do if the president died and he became president. His reply was basically that he was qualified and that he would be prepared. A little later another reporter asked him what amounted to the same question, and he gave an answer that was almost word for word the same. In the post-debate analysis, the reporters had a great time making fun of the two near-identical answers. This was obviously rehearsed, they laughed. Of course, one might well respond that if someone was about to go before a national television audience for the most important debate of his life, you would surely expect him to consider possible questions and rehearse good answers. But by recycling his answer he gave his critics the opportunity to take cheap shots.

Don't accept hostile questions at face value

If a question contains built-in assumptions that are false, don't just accept them. When I was working on education, an editor once described me as someone "opposed to the schools", as contrasted with some other people whom he described as "supporting the schools". I never had a chance to reply to that (it didn't come up in an interview but in an editorial), but if I had, it would surely have been foolish to start giving reasons why I "opposed the schools". At the time my first reaction was, I don't oppose the schools; I oppose some policies of the present administration. But a better response would be to say, "I don't oppose the schools. I support the schools. That's why I'm working to make them better."

Sometimes you must consider whether the false assumption is the key point to rebut. Suppose you were asked, "Why do you call for special restrictions on abortion that would not apply to any other medical practice?" Depending on what point you're trying to make at the time, you might challenge the premise and point out how abortion is exempt from many regulations that apply to real medicine, and you just want to see comparable standards. But you might simply accept the question and explain why abortion is different from real medicine.

Give only your best arguments

When you are trying to be persuasive, it is usually helpful to bring up as many arguments for your side as possible. If a person isn't convinced by one, they may be convinced by another. The shear weight of the number of different arguments that can be made may be persuasive. But in an interview with a reporter, you should only bring up your one or two strongest arguments.

Remember that only a couple of sentences of what you said will be reported. If you give twenty good, strong arguments and one weak one, a hostile reporter can then take just the weak argument and put that in the story.

For example, a friend of mine was opposed to a certain book being used in our local schools because it was openly hostile to her religious beliefs, and she felt that it was not the role of the schools to be telling children that their parents' religion was stupid and evil. When she was interviewed by the local newspaper about this, she mentioned a number of objections to the book. Along the way she mentioned that it was distasteful, and pointed to a long description of someone picking his nose. When the story was printed in the paper, the reporter said that she objected to the book because it mentioned someone picking his nose. That was the only reason he gave for her concerns. Of course the average person reading this story surely concluded, Wow, this lady is getting all upset about something dumb like that?

The more arguments you give, the more opportunity you give the reporter to pick out the weakest one.

Have hard, simple facts

Unless you have some serious credentials as an "expert", a simple statement of your opinions does not count for much.

A popular technique among reporters is to describe any debate as a conflict between two partisan groups to be resolved by an independent authority. That is, they will say, Side A says this, Side B says this, but the un-biased experts say this. Watch any story about a policy dispute in Washington. They will routinely say something like, the Republicans claim this policy will improve our balance of trade, Democrats say it increase unemployment, but independent economists say ... Or, ... but the non-partisan Xyz Institute says ...

This is partially a propaganda technique. An astute observer may say, Wait a minute, who are these "independent economists"? Do all economists who are not employed by one party or the other agree, or have they just chosen those to quote who happen to agree with the reporter? Etc.

But often it's simply an easy way out of the limitations of the medium. A full explanation of all the pros and cons and assumptions and calculations going into a complex question is simply not going to be stuffed into a 30-second news story. Even if he had the time, it's unlikely that the reporter has the expertise to collect and evaluate all the relevant information. So what does he do? He goes to some expert and asks him to summarize. Even the most even-handed reporter is surely going to prefer the expert whom he finds most convincing.

As most reporters are pro-abortion, most of the time they will wrap up any news story on abortion with a quote from a pro-abortion "expert". And so you routinely see stories that say, "NARAL says this proposed law is bad, Right to Life says it's good, but legal scholars say that it would violate the Constitution" or some such. If they're really good at propaganda, they'll get an expert who disagrees with the pro-abortion side just enough to sound like he's being even-handed and moderate -- he won't be 100% pro-abortion, but a more moderate 90% pro-abortion. Thus they not only trump the pro-lifer, but make it look like the pro-lifers is a fool or a liar.

What can you do about this?

One possibility is to get someone with sufficient credentials on your side. Unfortunately, when the reporter is hostile, this can be very difficult. The reporter can always find an expert who will take the opposite position. No matter how respected an expert you can muster, if he doesn't agree with the reporter, they may simply not quote him.

A more practical alternative is to have some simple, quotable facts on your side. Have the kind of facts that reporters understand and respect. Statistics are particularly good, because reporters think they understand them and that they prove something. Scientific facts can be effective, but they are harder to use, because reporters usually don't understand science. (See the next section.)

An example where I bungled badly: I once spoke to a reporter who refused to believe that abortion was legal through all nine months of pregnancy. I read her excerpts from court decisions and explained what they meant, and she just didn't get it. When the story ran, she said that pro-lifers "claimed that abortion is legal for all nine months of pregnancy", as if this was a topic of dispute. After the interview, it hit me that what I should have done was pull out some statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and say, "The government reports that last year there were x number of abortions after 24 weeks". I strongly suspect that she would have found this convincing.

An example where I handled it well: My state passed a law requiring that an abortionist notify the parents of a girl under 18 before performing an abortion on her. The pro-aborts of course told of all the horrors that would result from this law. One of their claims was that births to teen mothers would skyrocket. I showed the reporter some statistics from Minnesota, where a similar law had been passed a few years before, that showed that after the law went into effect, not only did abortions to teens go down, but so did the overall teen pregnancy rate. In fact, the number of births to teen mothers went up the first year, and then dropped to less than what it had been before the law was passed. When the story was printed, it came out as "Planned Parenthood says teen births will go up, Right to Life says not necessarily, but statistics from the Minnesota Department of Health show that a similar law in that state ..." etc. In other words, by simply quoting a few statistics, I won the "but the experts say" clause.

Understand the reporter's mindset

Earlier I alluded to the fact that reporters find some types of facts more convincing than others.

It is, of course, dangerous to make broad generalizations about "how reporters think". But let's face it: certain occupations attract certain types of people and encourage certain attitudes. Perhaps I am resorting to stereotypes when I say that I expect artists to value creativity, or race car drivers to be thrill-seekers, or aspiring actors to crave publicity, or priests to be devout Catholics. I'm sure you could find exceptions to all such generalizations. But they nevertheless are true much more often than not.

News reporting also breeds certain views on life. The following are some broad generalizations that I make by observing reporters. For the most part I don't claim to base this on any careful scientific research, though there have been a few surveys in this regard.

Reporters tend to be impressed by experts. When reporters talk about "science", they almost invariably mean "the opinions of scientists". I am hard pressed to think of a time when I heard a reporter say, "Such-and-such an experiment was performed and these were the results". But they routinely say, "Most scientists agree that ...". When reporters talk about "religion", they almost invariably mean "the opinions of religious leaders". For example, reporters talk endlessly about how this Christian organization says the Bible condemns homosexuality while this other one says it doesn't. I cannot recall ever once hearing a reporter report what the Bible actually says on the subject. (Note I'm not faulting reporters here for failure to believe the Bible, just for their apparent inability to look at the source rather than quote what other people say about it.)

Reporters tend to be impressed by polls. What news story on a policy debate would be complete without a poll to tell us how Americans feel about the subject? Polls are often presented as conveying not only which side is winning or losing in a public debate, but also as implying which side is right.

Perhaps as a corollary to the above two points, reporters tend to see almost every debate as a matter of opinion. Is global warming a real problem? Rather than talking about the scientific evidence on each side, they talk about how many scientists are on each side. Is adultery wrong? Rather than talk about what God says on the subject or what the effect is on marriages and families, they talk about what percentage of Americans said yes or no in the last poll.

Reporters tend to be cynical, perhaps because they see so much of the seamy side of life. A priest who dedicates his life to being a good shepherd for his flock, who tries to teach people truth and love and caring, is not news. A priest who sexually abuses the altar boys is news. Thus reporters see a lot more of the second type of priest than the first. It should not be surprising that they sometimes forget that this is news precisely because it is so rare, and they start seeing the church as a corrupt institution that panders to pedophiles. This cynicism often supersedes other ideological convictions. I have always been a bit puzzled about how a reporter can conclude one story by saying how the government must be given more money and power to solve some problem, and then in the very next story talk about the terrible inefficiency and corruption in the government.

Reporters do not generally respect "traditional morality", but they have their own code of ethics. While the average pro-lifer considers such things as adultery, blasphemy, and covetousness to be serious sins, the average reporter sees these things as somewhere between minor peccadilloes and amusing forms of entertainment. But reporters are quite passionate in their defense of freedom of speech, tolerance, and non-discrimination.

If you want a news story to come out more favorable to your side, it helps if you can formulate your arguments in terms that a reporter will respect.

For example, if you show a reporter Bible verses that support a pro-life position, his reaction will probably be, "So that's your opinion." But if you show him a poll that found that 80% of Americans oppose abortion, he will probably be interested. I've had reporters ask me for proof that a poll was really taken and really had the results I claimed. I have never had a reporter ask me for proof that the Bible really said something I claimed it said.

If you try to explain facts of fetal development to him, he will be bored. But if you show him a textbook and explain that this book is used at some prestigious medical college, he will be impressed. A friend of mine routinely carries an embryology textbook in her purse when she sees a reporter. The first time they question some statement she makes about the humanity of the unborn, she pulls out the textbook. Hostile reporters almost invariably change the subject. Why? Because once she establishes that the experts say this, for the reporter, the point is proven, they've lost that one, and they want to get back to winning ground.

I have never convinced a reporter to give our side a break because abortion is immoral or an offense against God or a threat to the future of America. But I have had a couple of occasions where I have convinced a news organization to give our side a break by pointing out that they were censoring the views of a minority or demonstrating intolerance against a group they disagree with. Appeal to their code of ethics, don't expect them to adopt yours.

Don't be discouraged by bad press

Unless you are meticulously careful, a hostile reporter will almost always be able to find something you said that can be taken out of context. While you should be careful not to make statements that could easily be misinterpreted, there's no point agonizing over it. Example: When I was involved in education, my opponents tried to paint me as part of some vast right-wing conspiracy. In town at that time there were two citizen's groups concerned about public education, one conservative and one liberal. A reporter asked me if I was connected to these groups. I replied that, in my efforts to learn the views of others, I had attended one meeting of the liberal group and two meetings of the conservative group. I suppose I should have attended the same number of meetings of each, but I thought that was fairly even-handed. When the story was printed, it said, Johansen admits he has attended meetings of the conservative group. Period. No mention that it was only two, or that I had also attended a meeting of the liberal group. The statement was technically true, but highly misleading.

Sometimes they flat lie about you. I once had a reporter call me, interview me over the telephone for half an hour or so, and then print a story in which he said that I was in favor of a proposal that was never even mentioned in the interview, and that in fact I had never heard of until I read in the paper that I was for it.

Expect this sort of thing to happen to you all the time. Sometimes it's worth protesting. Often it's just not worth belly-aching over.

Closing Thoughts

Pro-lifers often complain that we just can't get our message out because the media is so hostile.

It is true that the major media are overwhelmingly hostile, and of course this is a problem. But it does us no good to sit around crying in despair. Nor does it do us any good to vainly hope that things will change. We have two real choices (not counting despair and wishful thinking as choices): We can try to bring the media around to our side; and we can try to get our message through despite a hostile media. Choice A is nice and should certainly be pursued, but it would be na´ve to suppose it's going to happen any time soon. That leaves us choice B. Let's look for methods to work with the situation as it really exists, and make the best of it.

Perhaps I should emphasize here that I am not suggesting at any point that we be dishonest or manipulative. Please do not misconstrue anything that I have said above as meaning that we should tell a convenient lie when the truth would not further our immediate goals. The whole point of the pro-life movement is that we reject the idea of abandoning morality for the sake of convenience, no matter how great the inconvenience may be. What I am saying is that we should present the truth in ways that are most likely to be effective.


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Posted 9 Sep 2000.

Copyright 1998 by Jay Johansen.
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