A reporter’s job is pretty simple, really: Learn as much as you can about a given topic, and tell as many people as possible. At least, that’s what I did as a reporter for 16 years, including five years at the network level. When I “crossed over” into the world of media training/consulting, I noticed something interesting: There are a lot of misconceptions about reporters making the rounds, even in the supposedly parallel universe of public relations. Some of these myths are passed along to unwary clients in an effort to justify the expense of media training. Others contain a kernel of truth, but are exaggerated beyond reason.
A journalist’s instincts never die. And so, I will don my press hat once more, and tell you everything I know to be true–and false–about most reporters.
1) “Watch out for reporters. They’re out to get you.”
FALSE. Reporters are out to get a story. Most journalists in most situations have no interest in making you look bad, especially if you don’t make yourself look bad. Reporters who earn reputations as being too tough or unfair will find it increasingly difficult to get the “good” interviews, and therefore, the good stories.
2) “Reporters look for controversy.”
TRUE. Controversy makes for more interesting stories. Journalists who pursue one side of an issue without seeking an opposing view aren’t doing their jobs. In any reputable newsroom, a story without this kind of balance won’t make it past the first editor.
3) “TV reporters oversimplify things.”
TRUE. The average TV reporter’s story runs about 50 seconds (around 300 words), and it’s getting shorter all the time. What’s more, if a viewer doesn’t understand the story the first time, there’s no “re-reading” it. The reporter must make his/her story as simplistic as possible, and therefore unburdened by detail. This is why reporters now commonly urge their viewers to read the rest online in order to become properly educated on an item from their own newscasts.
4) “Reporters use editing tricks to make you appear to say things you really didn’t.”
FALSE. This is perhaps one of the best ways to scare a client into getting media training. It is also nearly always erroneous. While it is true that a reporter (or an editor) will occasionally run a soundbite or print a quote out of it’s proper context, it is rare for a reporter to edit unrelated soundbites/quotes together, or to deliberately make it appear as if a subject is answering a different question than the one that was actually asked.
5) “Reporters will let you ramble, hoping you’ll say something you didn’t mean to say.”
TRUE. If there is any one bona-fide justification for media training, it is this phenomenon. Seasoned reporters know that our social instincts prompt us to “fill in the dead air” during normal conversation. Of course, a news interview is anything but a normal conversation. Reporters who ask a provocative question and neglect to immediately follow it up with another question are craftily handing out the rope with which many uninitiated interviewees hang themselves.
6) “Reporters don’t seem to care about promoting the people in their stories or the companies they represent.”
TRUE. It’s a common complaint: “I cooperated with a reporter for a week, and he didn’t even bother to include my website address/business name/phone number in the story.” Reporters have a term for a story that seems to promote its subject: commercial. And they regard it as one of the ugliest words in journalism. The harsh reality is that it’s not a reporter’s job to promote you or your company in a news story. It’s your job! Media training, of course, can help you do it.