Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Media (But Were Afraid to Ask)
I'm doing a media training session this week for lawyers. Last week it was training for realtors and mining company executives. Regardless of the group or their profession, I am surprised by some of their very basic questions about how the news media operates.
I shouldn't be, because I wouldn't know many of the fundamental aspects of their jobs, so it makes sense they aren't sure of some basic habits of reporters.
I tend to get some of the same questions from each group and have kept a list. Here are the four questions I get the most about the news media and how it operates.
Can I Get the Questions in Advance?
I used to say no to this question because that’s the way it was in “my day”, but I’ve changed my answer over the last couple of years.
When I worked in the media, we rarely granted this request. Quite frankly most reporters don’t think about specific questions until they start the interview. They understand areas they want to get into before the interview, but preparing a list of questions in advance is too much of a bother. Besides they want the person’s responses to be spontaneous and not something scripted.
That’s changing through thanks to email and text. Many reporters are now emailing questions and asking for written responses, so sending questions in advance to the people they’ll be interviewing is something reporters are getting used to.
My answer now is, you can always ask for questions in advance, but don’t feel offended if you don’t get them.
Where Do I look?
When doing a television interview, people ask me if they should look at the reporter as they answer the question, or at the camera.
I tell them to almost always look at the reporter because if you look into the camera as you speak during a TV interview you’re actually looking right at somebody through the TV and that makes some people uncomfortable. It’s a little creepy in some cases. The exception is what’s known in the business as the “double ender”, in which you’re interviewed by a person in the studio and you’re listening to their questions through an earpiece or a speaker. Then you can look into the camera.
Generally speaking though, the camera is just there to capture a conversation and you shouldn’t even think about it as you’re giving your responses to the reporter.
What Do I Do If I Mess Up?
The biggest fear people have during media interviews is making a mistake and perhaps saying something they shouldn’t. In some cases, they lose their train of thought and don’t know what to say next. It happens.
The vast majority of media interviews are recorded and if you mess up, just admit it and ask the reporter if they can ask the question again to allow you to give a better answer. Always ask for the question again instead of asking if you can start over because the reporter’s question gives you a good starting point.
If you’ve doing a live interview and stumble just shrug it off and keep on going. Most people won’t notice. If you realize you’ve said something wrong, quickly correct yourself and then keep going. I find there’s actually less pressure on people interviewed live because they’re not trying to be perfect like they are during recorded interviews.
What If I Get a Question I Didn't Expect?
I teach people how to anticipate questions reporters will ask and develop answers to those questions. At times though, you’ll get a question or two from a reporter you didn’t expect. It’s normal. There are good questions I don’t think about and I’ve been doing media training for ten years.
If you really don’t know what the answer is there’s nothing wrong with saying so. Just tell the reporter you don’t know and offer to get the information to them as soon as you can after checking with somebody else.
If it’s a tough question that you didn’t anticipate, you can should try this approach. Start answering the question as best as you can and then bridge to an answer you want to use. This is a good example.
Question: Don’t you think taxpayers are paying far too much this year because of City Council’s decisions?
Answer: I understand some residents may be concerned with this year’s increase, but I should point out almost everyone we heard from in public hearings didn’t want services cut and this budget should do that.
Those are the four questions I get most often. If you have a question I didn’t cover, put it in the Comments section and I would be happy to answer it for you.