How to Talk to a Reporter: Making Journalists Write the Story You Want

Most business people have no idea what to do when a reporter calls them, be it for a quote or to write a story about their business, yet knowing how to handle newspaper reporters, free-lance writers, and even bloggers, is one of the best ways to get positive stories out in the world. In fact, knowing how to handle reporters and understanding what they want is crucial if you're in any position in which media relations is a component of your business.

The basis for this article comes from many years working in a business that's often the target for reporters: the college bookstore industry. While this may not be analogous to everyone's business situation, it should provide many examples of how to deal with reporters. Both prior and during my experience in the college bookstore industry, I worked at a small, college-focused newspaper, so I know something about reporters and the newspaper industry.

  1. Who are newspaper reporters? It's an almost universal truth that beat reporters are underpaid and overworked. Okay sure, most people in general would say they're underpaid and overworked, but beat reporters are dramatically underpaid and overworked. Unless you're talking to a reporter from the New York Times or Chicago Tribune, your average newspaper reporter is just barely getting by. Most reporters are likely to be young and just out of school because as they gain experience they move on to become editors or quit because newspaper reporting doesn't pay enough. In the case of most smaller newspapers, you'll probably be talking to somebody who's just inexperienced.
  2. What do newspaper reporters want? With regard to the above point, reporters want a few juicy quotes they can use to form a story or good quotes that fit easily into the story they've already formed in their head. In most cases, and because they are lacking in experience and training, the average newspaper reporter wants a quote or two that will confirm for them the opinion they have already formed about their subject. In my particular case, reporters like to write about how textbooks are overpriced. While this may be true, you will not be able to get the reporter to write about the things you are doing to lower prices because that doesn't fit into the story they are writing. They are not gathering facts. They are simply looking for a few quotes. Furthermore, they are looking for quotes as facts. If a reporter can get you to say something that confirms something for them, they will quote you and substitute your quote for research. For instance, if you run a sandwich shop that has a great reputation and they can find a customer who says "Mr. Hub's sandwich shop has the best sandwiches", they will use that quote to assert you have the best sandwiches instead of doing any research about customer satisfaction or comparing one sandwich to another. Now, that may seem a pretty standard thing, especially where sandwiches are concerned, but think about what happens when somebody says "we have the lowest prices." Such a statement can be great advertising for a business, but it's up to the reporter to verify the veracity of that statement and most often they don't.
  3. How are newspaper stories written? Reporters and the editors they work for no longer have the time to fact check. Furthermore, many journalists are literally trainees - learning as they go. So don't assume that the reporter you may be talking to knows what they are doing. That being said, let's assume you're talking to a reasonably experienced reporter. Understanding how they write their stories is important. Most reporters do not gather facts and then write a story based on those facts. Most reporters have a particular goal in mind before they ever call you. So, for instance, if you're a stock broker, the reporter may already have it in his/her mind to write a negative story about Wall St. You'll notice immediately because the tone of the questions will be designed to elicit a certain kind of answer.
  4. You don't have to answer their questions. This is an incredibly important point to understand. If a reporter asks you a question you don't like, don't answer it. Call the reporter on their crap, particularly if they ask a question that's designed in an obvious way. For instance: "Are you ripping your customers off for profit or just for fun?" However, an even better idea is to rephrase the question however is best for you, if possible. When you can't do that though, just don't answer. You might even go so far as to tell the reporter you believe their question is unfair and biased and that you won't be able to answer more questions like that.
  5. Ask for questions in writing. Reporters have a huge advantage when they call for an interview and you don't have any time to prepare. If you get misquoted or something you say is taken out of context, it's usually because the reporter hasn't transcribed your speech word-for-word. While you talk, the reporter just scribbles little chunks of things that you say. Mostly, if you're the main source for their story, they're going to paraphrase a lot of what you say anyway. If you ask for questions in writing before you ever talk to the reporter, you can work on your answers and get input from others.
  6. Submit questions in writing. You can't be misquoted (one of the most common frustrations with newspaper stories) if you submit all your questions in writing. If you're having trouble with your local newspaper and feel like your words are being taken out of context, offer to answer questions in writing.
  7. Be cautious of reporters who have an obvious thesis before they've even spoken with you. As I've mentioned elsewhere, reporters are under the gun, time-crunched, stressed. They don't have time to write unbiased stories. They usually have an idea of what they want to say. They aren't reporting in the objective sense of the word. They usually have a theme or a thesis. If you sense this is the case, be cautious, because no matter what you say, the reporter is going to write the story they want because they don't have time to change the theme of the story. If what you say contradicts everything they think, they'll just take a quote or two to support their idea. In some cases, they might use it to show that there's a different opinion. However, if the overwhelming sense of the story goes against your one quote, it'll just look like the token that it is.
  8. What can you do to trick a reporter into writing the story you want? Don't just do what the reporter wants. The reporter wants to be in charge and ask you questions. Therefore, demand to ask a few questions of your own. Some carefully prepared banter can disarm a reporter at the very beginning of an interview. Such banter does two things: it makes the reporter like you and it gets important information for you to use in your question answering. The first question I would ask any reporter is this: how long have you been a journalist? I would follow that question with some questions that express genuine interest in them like: What's your favorite part of the job? What do you hope to do in the future as a journalist? And always ask them what the story they're writing is for. If they say something like "my editor asked me to write a story on the high prices in your industry" you know something important.
  9. You don't have to talk to reporters at all. Stories are hard to write without interviews, so if your particular experience with your local newspaper is that they're always writing negative stories about your industry, don't talk to them. Newspaper stories are provided legitimacy when comments are made by experts. If there are no experts to comment, there's not much of a story. Sometimes it's better to say nothing than to say something and be misquoted or have your words taken out of context.

Conclusion

You've probably figured out that I have a low opinion of journalists. In my opinion, the state of journalism has declined considerably. Much of it has to do with the Internet and the ability of anybody to be (or appear to be) an expert on anything. People are less apt to ask questions and less apt to search out the truth, allowing journalists to be extremely sloppy in their reporting. You see this sloppiness all over the place, all the time.

So don't be the victim of a bad reporter. Learn what you have to do to get the story you want.

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Comments 3 comments

crankalicious profile image

crankalicious 2 years ago from Colorado Author

If you think reporters are objective, you're crazy. Cub reporters mostly begin a story attempting to write from a particular position. It's the job of a seasoned non-reporter to get them to write the story they want. There are ways to do that.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

It sounds to me like you are frustrated because the reporter won't write the story you want from your point of view. His job is to be objective.

Submit questions in writing? What self-respecting reporter is going to do that? It's also not his job to be your stenographer.

But you are right that you don't have to answer his questions. That is the first thing any press secretary will try to drill into his candidate. But instead of "no comment" you should issue a press release. On a busy day, with a half-full paper, they might just run it. Then you've gotten exactly what you wanted - him printing your point of view, but it won't be on the front page. Press releases go in the back.

Yes, reporters are usually young, inexperienced, and under-paid. And they do tend to move on to better jobs at their first opportunity. But most don't already know what the story is when they sit down to interview you. If they don't understand your situation, ask to talk to them off the record and educate them. But they still might write what you don't like because what you don't like might be what is actually going on. And that might be the actual source of your frustration. Only you can change that.


Crystal Tatum profile image

Crystal Tatum 4 years ago from Georgia

Interesting hub. As a reporter, I have to say I disagree the point about reporters having already formed an opinion about the subject matter they are writing on - I think that's a common misconception that isn't true for most journalists. Now the TV talking heads who aren't journalists, maybe not so much. But most reporters that I know try to be open minded, fair and balanced and take into account all sides. I do agree with the part about reporters being overworked and underpaid!

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