How the Media Works

To work effectively with the media, it is important to know how they operate.

Who are reporters?

Reporters are professionals who attempt to convey information in the most interesting and accurate way possible. But, as in any profession, there are good practitioners and bad practitioners. The first thing to bear in mind is that reporters are just ordinary people trying to do a job — reporting newsworthy events. Generally, reporters try to be objective and to get as many sides of a story as possible, but the realities of the job — deadline pressures and the need to fill so many inches of print or so many minutes of air time — can make absolute fairness a hard goal to reach.

Within a news organization, there are usually two types of journalists: beat reporters and general reporters (generalists). Most reporters are generalists who cover anything that is considered worthy of air time or newspaper space (from major fires to international conferences on forensic medicine). Usually, they are not experts in a particular area. General reporters may know little about your field or about anything to do with the story. They will probably need even basic concepts explained to them, so be ready to simplify your ideas and be sure to emphasize your main points frequently. A beat reporter, however, is a specialist in a particular field (health, police, politics, science, labour, etc.). After many years covering their beats, some beat reporters develop a working knowledge in areas such as medicine, science, environmental issues and business. Beat reporters often have a particular interest in the fields they cover. Science writers, for example, may have a scientific background. They keep abreast of current developments in the area, ask perceptive questions and can interpret the significance of scientific information for the general public.

Why reporters call

A reporter will likely be calling for one of three things:

  • a reaction (looking specifically for comment)
  • information (after facts and may not need to quote you)
  • confirmation (has heard something is happening and may need quotes)

Different types of media

Radio: Radio reporters work under deadlines that are so tight they can be writing a piece literally seconds before it goes on the air. Because they are limited to approximately 30–60 seconds to present their stories, they look for lively voice clips of about 5–15 seconds which describe the “bottom line” of what the issue is and why it is relevant. During a radio interview, try to sum up your point into succinct sentences. Relax and talk as you would in any normal conversation.

Television: TV reporters and producers seek to inform and entertain viewers with exciting visual images and sound. Pictures are the essential ingredients for a TV story, therefore, anticipate questions about the visual aspects of your research — keeping in mind its future applications. Like radio reporters, TV reporters have a limited amount of time in which to present their stories. They must simplify information to keep stories to an average length of 90 seconds. Only about 15 seconds of what you say will likely be used.

Print: Print reporters include those who work for daily and weekly newspapers, magazines and wire services. Often, they want a lot more detail than broadcast reporters do because they do not have the benefit of using visual and audio imagery. They rely on vivid description to make their stories understandable and entertaining. Only about two paragraphs of what you say will be quoted.

Types of stories

There are basically two different types of stories: hard news (accidents, awards, elections results, natural disasters, etc.) and features.

Hard news: The value of hard news stories depends on timelines and they usually appear within hours or days of the event. If yours is a hard news story with strong appeal, you can expect lots of calls in a short length of time from radio, television and newspaper reporters. Be prepared to repeat yourself. Hard news reporting needs facts, figures and details. Interviews will often be conducted over the phone and will generally be brief and to the point. If the story is sensitive, you may want to prepare a short statement and read it to the reporter, but be prepared for follow-up questions.

In-depth reporting: Timing isn’t quite as important with feature stories as it is with hard news stories. Features often cover a subject in depth and may not appear for weeks — or even months — after the interview took place. Don’t bother contacting the reporter to find out when the story will be used because that decision rests with the editors. Interviews for feature stories can be quite leisurely and wide-ranging. The reporter wants to get an understanding of your story and its relationship to the work of others. But don’t let the relaxed tone of an interview lead you to say something you later regret. Remember, the reporter is recording every word you say.

Why are reporter’s deadlines so tight?

In news, immediacy is everything — it’s the “new” in news. Deadlines reflect the need for reporters to constantly present new information. With the internet, all reporters are now working to near immediate deadlines unless they are working on a feature or more long-term story. Reporters represent the public’s right to know and they attempt to be as objective as they can. However, the constant pressure to meet deadlines makes their job extremely difficult. Deadlines force reporters to prepare a story, whether or not they can present both sides.

Promptly returned phone calls are much appreciated. If the information needed isn’t immediately at hand, offer to obtain it for the reporter as quickly as possible. And, if the information is going to be delayed significantly, let the reporter know. Your delay or refusal to provide needed information won’t kill the story. Instead, it will likely result in an inaccurate or one-sided version being published — and that will please neither you nor the reporter.

Other newsroom realities

Reporters take pride in their independence and prickle at editorial control or censorship. You can offer to check the facts when the interview is over but, unless the story is a particularly complex one, your offer will probably be declined.

But what can you do to make sure you’re not misquoted or misrepresented?

Don’t expect to approve the text of your interview before it is printed or broadcast. Journalists are under no obligation to show you advanced copies of their stories or to read back your quotes. You may be asked to go over specific points to ensure the information is correct. However, do not expect retractions for minor inaccuracies which do not change the point of the overall story.

In the case of a serious mistake, where your credibility and that of the organization is in question, immediately contact the reporter to discuss a retraction or a correction. If you need assistance, staff members in Communications & Public Affairs are available at all times to provide help. If you feel you have been discredited or seriously misquoted by a newspaper or magazine, you have the option of writing a letter to the editor.

Unfortunately, there is no absolute way of guaranteeing that your story will be reported accurately. But you can reduce the risks by knowing what reporters want, what constraints they work under and what you can do to work effectively with them.

Newspaper reporters don’t write the headlines for their stories; they are written by editors and are rarely seen by the reporter before the paper is published. A sensational or misleading headline over a story is likely to annoy the reporter as much as it does you. Editors also have to try to fit stories into the paper. They often have to shorten stories by cutting out paragraphs and, occasionally, they remove essential paragraphs, inadvertently changing the meaning. Regrettable though this may be, it isn’t the fault of the reporter who has no control over whether the story will be used or, if it is, how extensively it will be edited.