Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Journalist?

I was recently invited to take part in a workshop, hosted by the AAG, entitled ‘Navigating the Media Jungle’. It’s a dreadful title, but it reflects the level of trepidation most researchers feel about having to engage with the media. In preparation for the workshop I’ve put together my top tips for postgraduate students, early career researchers, and academics seeking to engage the media. I hope these will reduce your fear and make your next encounter with a journalist a more rewarding one (for you and them!).

Stalk Your Prey
How much do you know about the media? How much (and what type of) media do you consume? If you want to navigate the media jungle, you need to stalk your prey (that’s the only jungle reference in the whole post, I promise!). By consuming plenty and varied media, you’ll have a better understanding of where and how to pitch your work for maximum impact.

But don’t just consume media passively, pay attention to the following….

  • How often do they publish or broadcast? Constantly, daily, weekly, monthly…
  • What type of pieces do they produce? Short, long, left-leaning, conservative, human interest, political, scientific…
  • Who is their audience? Children, adults, older adults, working class people, middle class people, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds…

This type of information will allow you to target your work to the outlets most likely to run with it (see ‘Pick Your Battles’ below), and give you a sense of the timeframes within which you’ll need to work. Programs like The Media Report also offer great insight into the ‘behind the scenes’ of journalism and the media.

Make Friends with the Journalists
Repeat after me: Journalists are people too. Academics often talk about journalists like they’re the enemy, but if you’re really passionate about communicating your work to the public you need to make them your ally.

Twitter is a great way to engage with journalists. You can use it to provide positive feedback on their latest story, introduce them to your work, and respond to calls for ‘talking heads’. If a journalist comes to know you as a reliable, positive source, they’re much more likely to be interested in your work down the track. Top tip:  Don’t badger them. If a journalist decides you don’t have enough for a story, say thank-you and move on.

Also, if you’re working with print journalists, it’s okay to ask to see a draft of the article. Some journalists will say no (& you must respect this!), but those who care about getting the facts right are often happy to oblige. A few tips to smooth the way…

(1) Explain why you want to see it.

(2) Don’t change the copy. Journalists are entitled to their perspective on a story and as media professionals they know what will attract readers, listeners and viewers. So correct technical errors, but leave the rest alone.

(3) Give feedback promptly. Journalists work to tight deadlines and if you don’t give your feedback promptly, they will go ahead without your input.

Start Small
If you’re just starting out, try pitching your work to local papers and community radio stations. They ‘re always eager for stories – particularly those that have a local flavour – and are less intimidating for first timers.

Also, start with print media (where there’s time to review a story before it goes to press and kind journalists will edit your waffly sentences into something tighter) and work your way up to radio and then television. Print and radio interviews are often done over the phone, which allows you to have your notes in front of you and be wearing whatever makes you comfortable. Television requires you to speak without notes and look professional, so it’s not for the faint-hearted.

Pick Your Battles
While it’s tempting to send your press release to every media outlet, it’s not always the smartest move. It’s important to pick the outlets that are going to do justice to your research and whose journalists have the necessary time and experience.

If your work has the potential to be sensationalised (topics like suicide or terrorism, for example), you may want to steer clear of the commercial television and radio programs, and stick to the ABC (in Australia), the BBC (in the UK), and PBS or NPR (in the USA). Similarly, if your work is highly technical, you may want to avoid the major daily papers and instead target high-end websites and magazines like Wired or New Scientist. If your work has a ‘human interest’ angle and you can connect journalists with real cases, target longer-form publications such as The Monthly or The Atlantic. These are also good targets for people whose work is historial, political, or creative.

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
Unless you are a seasoned professional (and trust me, you’re not), you should never do a media interview ‘off the cuff’. Never! Ever!

Instead, prepare a series of short, concise statements about your work. Think about the type of questions a journalist is likely to ask and have one statement prepared for each. Print these out and have them in front of you when you’re doing an interview. Make sure that you include some statements about the real world implications of your work and, where possible, be ready to recommend a real person the journalist can talk to (i.e. someone who’s had the experience you’re talking about, or whose life would be affected by the findings).

It’s also okay not to answer a question. Do this politely by explaining that it’s outside the scope of your expertise or wasn’t part of the research you conducted.

Work with Your University’s Media Office
Your University’s media officers deal with journalists every day and many of them are former journalists. They can help you draft and distribute press releases, arrange interviews, and even give you one-on-one media training.

A few tips to help them help you…

(1) Give them plenty of warning. You are not the only researcher in the university and it takes time to draft press releases and liaise with journalists. A week’s notice is ideal, even more if you can swing it.

(2) Draft your own press release, or at least provide some dot points. This can help if your work is highly technical or if you have a particular spin you’d like put on your story. When drafting press releases, remember to write for your audience. Keep the language simple, put the most important information at the top, and provide real world examples.

(3) Tell them who you’d like to target. Use the information provided in ‘Stalk Your Prey’ and ‘Pick Your Battles’ (see above) to identify the media outlets most likely to be interested in your story.

Work with the Journal’s Publishers
If you want media coverage to coincide with the publication of an academic journal article, you should work with the journal’s Publishers. They can tell you the exact date that your paper will go online and you can use this to schedule your press release. As a professional courtesy you should send a copy of any media coverage to the Publishers and the journal’s Editor.

Be Available
Your diary should be completely clear the day you send out a press release. You should have access to the internet and your phone should be fully charged. If a journalist can’t get hold of you they will either (a) write the story without your input or (b) dump the story and move on to something else. Neither is a good outcome.

On a related note, once you develop a profile, journalists may contact you for commentary on current events or other research. Only say yes if you really know what you’re talking about and, if you have to say no, try to recommend someone else so that you get a reputation for being professional and helpful.

Get More Bang for Your Buck
The 24hr news cycle means there is a constant demand for ‘new’ news. Unless your story has legs (i.e. it’s the cure for cancer), it’s unlikely to be replayed or republished after the initial broadcast or print run. But you can maximise its impact with your own Twitter account or Facebook page, as can your colleagues and your University. If you have a website or blog, you might consider adding a media page that includes links to all the coverage of your work.

Accept That Your Story May Not Make It
If the Prime Minister resigns the day you send out your press release, chances are your story won’t run. This  is just the way it works and there’s nothing you can do about it. Keep your fingers crossed and hope for a slow news day.

Keep It In The Family
Finally, in the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I am related to a journalist. I sent a draft of this post to my sister – the talented Erin O’Dwyer – to make sure I hadn’t missed or misrepresented anything. She gave all of the above her journalist’s seal of approval and offered the following additional tips:

  • Be easily searchable. (My interpretation: If you’re not online, you don’t exist)
  • Reply promptly to social media, email and phone enquiries.
  • Keep your language informal. (She wrote this twice, so it must be important)
  • Add yourself to expert lists, including your mobile phone number.
  • Never send a press release to a generic info@ or news@ email address. Phone and ask to speak to the chief of staff or the specific reporter. Then send your release directly to the right person.
  • If a journalist has recently written a story on a particular topic, say asthma or loneliness, they’re unlikely to want to revisit the same topic straight away.

Got any other tips? Please leave a comment.

8 thoughts on “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Journalist?

  1. Great tips – thank you. What’s your advice on whether to release information to journalists before trying to get published in an academic journal. I’ve been told definitely not by my tutor but interested in a second opinion.


    • Hi Fiona,
      Glad the tips were helpful. I know how frustrating it can be to wait around while something is under review at a journal, but you should definitely try to avoid sending anything to the press that hasn’t been published in an academic journal. Peer review is an important part of scientific rigour and most researchers are (rightly) skeptical about anything that gets a lot of media attention but hasn’t been through the peer-review process. Also, by sharing the information with the media first, you run the risk that academic journals might reject it on the basis that it’s already been published elsewhere. That said, if there is a clear reason that your work needs to get to the public ASAP (e.g. it will change the course of decision making at the G20, or is a vaccine for Ebola), you should work with the Editor and Publishers to see if there is a way to speed up the process. Most Editors are happy to help in situations like this and Publishers are always happy to see their papers in the press.
      Hope this helps!


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