3 Things Every News Reporter Wants (and Why You Should Care)
I was doing a media training session last week in Leduc, just south of Edmonton, when the subject turned to news reporters and what they were after when they interview people.
Far too often, people recite poor experiences they had with reporters. I'm sure there are some bad apples in the bunch when it comes to reporters and some dirty tricks are used. I pulled some of them myself when I was in the business, but generally got the facts and presented them in an interesting way, the same as most reporters today.
Knowing what reporters want when they do interviews is half the battle when a spokesperson deals with the media. I've boiled it down to three simple things they're after.
They Want Somebody to Talk on Record
The first obstacle most reporters face is getting somebody to talk. In most cases reporters call, email, or text somebody asking for an interview. Too often in my opinion, they receive a negative reply, or no reply at all.
There are several reasons people don’t want to talk to reporters. In some cases, they’re not empowered do so, or in other words, they’re not the one from their organization who’s designated to speak to the media. That’s fine, but they need to let the reporter know who they should be talking to. I always advise people to return a reporter’s phone call, even if they’re not the person who should speak, or can’t for any reason.
In some cases, the story could be negative and the person being asked to speak doesn’t want to wade into a difficult situation. That’s understandable, but I also believe in almost all situations it’s better to say something positive than nothing at all.
Some people, even though they know they’re the one who should be speaking to the media don’t want to because they’re worried they’ll make a mistake and make the situation worse. A media training course should alleviate these concerns. Understanding what to say and how to say it sounds simple, but simple isn’t always easy. Media training can help.
One more thing on this topic. A growing number of organizations have communications or pr people who field calls from reporters and find the right person for the reporter to speak to. In many cases this works well, but as a former reporter I understand the need to try to bypass the “gatekeeper” and get right to the person who the journalist wants to speak to.
They Hope to Get a Decent Interview
Once an interview has been agreed to, reporters are now hoping the person will be a “good interview.”
There’s nothing worse than a reporter getting somebody to agree to an in-person interview and then showing up to find somebody so nervous they can hardly speak, or so tight that getting anything usable out of them is a challenge.
When I do media training I’m usually asked if people being interviewed can get a list of questions in advance. When I was a reporter (a long time ago) this was generally frowned upon by reporters. As a radio reporter I knew generally where I wanted the interview to go, but I rarely wrote questions in advance. I also wanted an impromptu response and not something that sounded overly rehearsed. Today however, it’s more common for people to get questions in writing in advance from reporters because of the comfort in using email and text. However, a reporter from CBC has pointed out to me it's the policy of CBC not to provide questions in advance.
Keep in mind, the reporter may not use all the questions on the list you get and they also have the right to ask several questions not on the list. If there’s an especially negative question don’t expect it to be on the list, but be prepared in case it comes.
There’s the famous case of communications people for Air Canada agreeing to a Globe and Mail reporter’s request for an interview with airline CEO Calin Rovinescu after getting an idea of what the reporter wanted to talk about. During the interview the questions suddenly shifted to the embarrassing story of a ten-year old boy getting bumped and the near crash Air Canada was involved in on a runway at the airport in San Francisco. The CEO wasn’t prepared for questions on that topic and came off looking defensive and unprepared (which he was).
Say whatever you want about the reporter playing dirty, the bottom line is business leaders need to be ready to talk about major issues affecting their company anytime they speak to a journalist.
They Want to Get Out of There With a Sound Bite or Two
One of the least understood aspects of doing media interviews by the people who give them is what the reporter is after. All the reporter really wants from most interviews are one or two sound bites, or quotes. These are short phrases, that in a colourful and conversational way sum up their thoughts on an issue or leave something easy for the audience to remember.
A great example came last week when the 2026 World Cup of Soccer was awarded to the United Bid put forward from Canada, the US and Mexico. Canadian men’s soccer coach John Herdman was widely quoted as calling the decision “Football Christmas for Canada.” That was not only used on television, radio and internet clips, but was also used in headlines in newspapers.
Type the words “John Herman football Christmas” into a Google search and more than 53,000 results will come up. If you didn’t think before that the media was looking for specific sound bites, hopefully you will now.
By my calculations, 97% of the words most people use in media interviews never get used because the reporter is only going to pull one or two clips from most interviews. My advice is, always take some time to think in advance what your sound bite will be. When you use it, say the words at the end of a sentence and then pause, or at the end of your answer to a reporter. The sound bite stands out more and becomes easier for the reporter to use.
Good sound bites usually don’t come on the spot. They’re planned in advance. Justin Trudeau certainly did that with his “Because it’s 2015” sound bite the day his cabinet was sworn in.
Concentrate more on the sound bite and a little less on having answers to every question and reporters will want to talk to you more often.