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Tips for Working with the News Media

As a state supported organization, the administrators and faculty of Virginia Cooperative Extension have an obligation to respond to inquiries from the news media. Through the media, the citizens of Virginia learn about the quality and range of educational programs provided the citizens of Virginia, about the important benefits of work conducted at the two land grant universities, and about the impact Virginia Cooperative Extension has on the state and the nation.  

In an effort to make the contact between campus and local faculty and the news media a pleasant experience for both, Virginia Tech's Office of University Relations has developed this guide.

When the telephone rings, get the reporter's name and the publication or station he or she is working for. Find out what the reporter wants to talk about. Is the material within your area of expertise? Then, if you feel that the request for information is reasonable, give the reporter your full cooperation.

If a reporter calls and you feel caught off guard, tell the reporter that you are busy at the moment and will call back. Find out what topics the reporter wants to cover and, most importantly when the reporter's deadline is. Formulate brief, written answers to the questions and respond within those deadlines. If you feel you need some advice or guidance, contact an Agriculture and Extension Communications' information officer (see contact information at the end of these tips) or the Office of University Relations at (540) 231-8509.

Reporters live on deadlines. Always ask the reporter when the deadline is to respond. Honor the deadline.

Don't avoid the press. Return reporters' calls. It is better to be frank and open with the press than to avoid them. If you don't want to be interviewed, tell the reporter.

If you know in advance why the press is calling you and you do not want to talk directly with them, contact Agriculture and Extension Communications or the Office of University Relations and we can respond on your behalf.

If a reporter calls about a sensitive issue, the Office of Agriculture and Extension Communications should be notified of the call in order to better track the development of a story. Often disparate inquires can reveal a pattern about how a larger story is being put together.

Don't make 'off-the-record' comments or say anything that should be held for release at a later date, such as a major appointment or initiative. Never say anything that you would not want to see reported the next day.

You have a right to accept or decline a reporter's request for an interview.

Reporters often have a difficult job of accumulating and reporting on events against tight deadlines. The more helpful you are to them, the more you earn their respect and balanced treatment. When you are there to assist them, they will be there to help you, too.

Encourage face-to-face interviews when possible. You can get a better feel for the reporter and how the interview is going in person.

When the interview starts, speak slowly. The reporter will be writing furiously as you speak and will probably not know shorthand. You want to make sure you are quoted accurately.

Identify key thoughts that you want to convey and repeat them often.

Avoid scientific and technical jargon. Be elementary. Remember that you are speaking through the news reporter to the general public, your real audience.

Hostile questions do not demand hostile answers.

If a reporter throws you a tough question, even as the television camera is running, pause, think about what you want to say, then answer.

Don't feel that you have to answer the question exactly as it is asked. Respond to questions in a way that will convey the key points that you want to make to the general public on the issue.

As mentioned earlier, avoid 'off-the-record' comments. The press does not like to hear things they can't use; it frustrates them. And they can take your 'off-the-record' statements and then go to someone else and ask if the information is true, thus getting 'on-the-record' confirmation and exposing that which you wanted to keep quiet.

However, if for some reason you feel that you have to make remarks 'off-the-record', do so according to the following guidelines:

  • Preface each 'off-the-record' statement by saying, 'The following material is 'off the record.' Wait for the reporter to agree to those terms. Many won't.
  • Clearly indicate when YOU are back 'on the record' again.
  • Don't say belatedly, The material I have just given you is off the record.' By then it is too late; what's said is said. If you make this mistake, it is best to continue with the interview and try to shape your comments later in a more favorable light. If you get angry and walk out because the reporter refuses to treat the material as 'off-the-record,' you could well be guaranteeing the use of the information.
  • Don't let reporters put words into your mouth. Often reporters will say, 'In other words...' and then they will paraphrase what you have said using more active verbs. If necessary, tell them, "No, I would not say that," and then repeat your position, shortening it if you have to.

Avoid "what if.." questions. Tell the reporter it is impossible to address hypothetical questions since there are so many variables.

To help reporters get the facts right, give them some written material to support your statements. These support materials can be a research paper, an executive summary, a newspaper article, press release, or simply your own notes.

You should NEVER assume that you will see the reporter's story before it is published or broadcast. The reporter is under no obligation to show the story to you. If you don't like those terms, then don't consent to the interview.

If scientific or technical data are involved, you might suggest that the reporter check the story with you later for accuracy, particularly if the reporter is not a writer specializing in the field. Some reporters will do this IF time permits.

There is no perfect way to keep from being misquoted. If you are concerned about this, tell the reporter. DO NOT ask to see the story to make sure you are quoted correctly. Use short, direct words as much as possible, backed up by written documentation.

Ask the reporter a question or two near the end of the interview about the subject. You can tell from the answers whether your remarks have been understood.

To be a credible source for the media, you have to tell the truth. Failure to do so will reflect negatively on your reputation, Cooperative Extension's and the universities'.

If you don't know the answer, say so. Guessing can get you into trouble.

Sometimes a reporter may ask you to speculate on a subject outside your area of knowledge. If you do not wish to comment, tell the reporter so. Again, you may refer the reporter to Agriculture and Extension Communications so the question can be answered by someone else within VCE, the university(ies) or to a colleague if you know that person is an expert and can speak clearly.

When you give a personal opinion on any subject, make certain that the reporter understands that you are speaking for yourself, not for your colleagues or the organization.

After it's over and if you liked the story, call the reporter and let him or her know. Don't say "thank you." Reporters who produce balanced stories are doing their job. However, it is appropriate to acknowledge a "job well done" and send a note to that effect.

If there is a factual problem with the story, contact Agriculture and Extension Communications or the Office of University Relations immediately. Once a news story is run, the facts contained can be disseminated all over the country or stored in a computer file for retrieval in countless other news stories. They need to be corrected quickly.

Prepare for a television interview. Identify the three or four key points you want to make and repeat them throughout the interview. Even if the question does not directly encompass your position, weave your key thoughts in.

Be succinct and to the point.

Radio and television reporters can report only the barest essentials of a story. A 90-second news story is considered long in television.

It is best to avoid time-consuming details, rambling explanations and complicated answers. The average recorded quote in a broadcast news story runs less than 30 seconds.

Because of the time element, broadcast news deals much more with concrete statements like "yes" or "no," not "maybe," "probably" or "could be." People who speak in these nonspecific ways will be edited out and eventually not interviewed at all.

If asked a tough question, pause and develop your statement before answering. The "dead time" will be edited out, but a misstatement will not.

For the best effect for a television interview, talk with the reporter and ignore the camera. Don't feel that you have to carry on a one-way conversation with a camera. The camera will observe your conversation with the reporter.

  • Sit straight, lean slightly toward host.
  • Maintain eye contact with interviewer, not the camera.
  • Don't shift eyes from point to point.
  • Smile (unless discussing very serious topic).
  • Gesture frequently, using natural hand movements, but avoid hitting the microphone.
  • Don't drum your fingers, wiggle your feet, or otherwise fidget.
  • Remove EVERYTHING from your pockets, just in case.
  • Don't swivel, rock, or shift position in your chair, if sitting. Don't shift weight from foot to foot or forward and back if standing.
  • If sitting, place hands on your lap when you are not gesturing. If standing, keep your hands at your sides if you are not gesturing.
  • Be cautious about nodding to indicate understanding of the question; it may signal agreement with a point you don't hold.
  • Let your enthusiasm about your topic show in your face.
  • Keep your head up.
  • Breath deeply.
  • Demonstrate controlled energy in your posture, gestures, and facial expression.
  • Dress for comfort. Uncomfortable clothing may make you squirm. If you will be in a TV studio, remember that the lights will generate heat.
  • Dress simply, tastefully, appropriately. Wear light or medium weight clothing appropriate for your occupation and the location. Do not wear a suit for an interview in a corn field. Do not wear a vest.
  • Wear medium color values: blue or gray suits for men; solid medium- or muted-color dresses or suits for women. Light colored shirts or blouses.
  • Men should wear over-the-calf socks for seated interviews. Women should wear hose and bring an extra pair in case.
  • Avoid wild or "busy" patterns in dresses, blouses, shirts, and ties. Avoid extremely bright or vibrant colors. Do not wear bow ties - they tend to bob when you talk.
  • Men, once seated, tuck the bottom of your coat under your butt to reduce bunching at the shoulders.
  • Women should avoid short skirts.
  • Keep jewelry simple: avoid sparkling rings, earrings, necklaces, and pins. Do not wear dangling bracelets.
  • Makeup: men and women should wear makeup for most studio appearances to decrease glare from your skin. Women should wear regular daytime makeup both in studio and on location. Men who perspire heavily or are bald should use make up to avoid glare on location. Men with heavy beards should shave with an electric razor just before the appearance.
  • Avoid extreme hairstyles. If you need a haircut, get it several days before the appearance to avoid that "just cut" look. Keep your hair off your face and out of your eyes. Women should not attempt a new "do" the day of the appearance.
  • If you wear glasses, be prepared to work with the technicians to cut down on glare. Do not wear sunglasses or photosensitive glasses (which will darken if there's enough light to operate the camera and see your face.)
  • Try not to wear a hat, especially a baseball cap. Your face is in shade, in hiding, when everything else is out in the open. If you must wear a baseball cap, wear one appropriate to the interview.

(Adapted from Air University, Rafe, Calvert, and Marshall.)