Tips for researchers on working with journalists

The reporter is your ally in conveying something important to the public. Like any relationship, however brief, your relationship with a reporter benefits from you being honest, authentic, listening carefully and appreciating the pressures under which the other party works. You can only control what you contribute to the relationship, not the outcome.

  • Exercise your academic freedom. Researchers who work for government and industry are increasingly muzzled. Academics are almost the only researchers left who are free to promote intelligent and open debate about important issues. Citizens are funding your tenured position in exchange for you accepting the responsibility to speak up. If you hold multiple appointments, make it clear to the reporter that you are speaking in your capacity as a professor.
  • Return calls from reporters right away if you can, or within an hour or two. Sources who are consistently available, even at inconvenient times, get called for future stories. Let your department head, receptionist and colleagues know that you’re open to taking media calls. Call back even if you can’t do the interview.
  • Seek advice from other professors or the university’s communications office if you think it would be helpful or there might be tricky legal issues involved, such as commenting on court or child welfare cases. Professors are under no obligation to notify communications staff or your department head before doing interviews.
  • Be succinct but not abrupt. If you tend to talk a lot when you’re nervous, try to keep your answer to three or four sentences, then pause to allow the reporter to ask another question. On the other hand, avoid one-word answers.
  • Directly address the question you are asked, even if only to say that you don’t know the answer or can’t discuss it for reasons of confidentiality. If you have something extra to add, that’s fine, but don’t try to evade a question by changing the subject.
  • Don’t engage in a power struggle. Politicians and corporate executives are sometimes advised by their media trainers to “stay on message” by repeating their non-answer ad nauseam. This makes them look like they have something to hide and irritates the reporter, destroying the rapport that leads to good interviews.
  • Use plain language that would be familiar to someone with a Grade 9 education. This ensures you will be understood by all generations and people for whom English is not a first language. Jargon is the enemy.
  • Avoid sarcasm or irony, which might be misunderstood.
  • Avoid data overload by only including a couple of key numbers in your interview. For example, saying people are twice as likely to die of heart attacks if they eat burgers daily is better than saying 62.3% of the 274 patients fed 4 ounces of beef a day over 18 years had a mortality rate increase of …. You can always refer people to a website for more detailed information.
  • Be animated and use clever analogies. Students may be required to listen to professors even if they are boring, but others are free to tune out.
  • Practice describing your research to someone without a university education – a high school student or an elderly aunt, perhaps. Ask them to feed back to you what you just said in their own words.
  • Preach to the unconverted. Remember that most people you socialize with are probably atypical in terms of their awareness and opinions. Often more people listen to commercial radio and television than to public broadcasters. Tune into what people outside your circles are talking about and what they believe.
  • Stay on the record as much as possible. Your best bet is to not say or write in an email anything you don’t want to appear in print or on air. However, if you trust the reporter and want to tell them something confidentially, negotiate exactly what that means before you share the information. For example, is it OK for the reporter to identify you as “an expert” and quote what you say or do you want them to just use your input to help figure out what questions to ask of authorities?
  • Avoid legal trouble by never saying anything to a reporter that could harm someone’s reputation unless you could prove in court that what you’re saying is true. The media outlet should protect you by not publishing anything libelous, but be extra careful with small media outlets where the reporters don’t have professional training.
  • Don’t ask to see the story before it is published. The answer will be no. You can, however, ask to see your quotes before they are published, if you can guarantee a quick turnaround so the reporter doesn’t miss a deadline. Only do this if you really think you’re likely to be misquoted, since the more hassle you are as an interview subject, the less likely a reporter is to want to deal with you again.
  • Accept imperfection. A reporter who knows nothing about your field of study and has an hour to write the story may not convey your work in precisely the way you intended. Note that reporters don’t write the headlines on their stories. But consider the costs and benefits: Perhaps 100,000 people have now heard your perspective on an important issue, with minor flaws in the coverage. Ask politely for corrections of significant factual errors.
  • Praise good media coverage. Reporters are as ego driven as academics. If you authentically like what you read or hear, go out of your way to compliment the reporter.
  • Develop a relationship with smart reporters. If you like someone’s work or have had a good experience with them, make a habit of passing on interesting tips to that reporter. Let them know you’re available for background information.
  • Take the initiative to call or email reporters when there’s an ongoing issue in the news you would like to comment on as an expert.
  • Support your colleagues who are quoted by journalists. Many academics give up on talking to reporters following blowback from their colleagues or department heads over aspects of the coverage about which the person interviewed had little control. It benefits no one to silence intelligent voices in public debate.

Sharing your research

  • List your areas of research expertise on your university’s website. University of Manitoba professors can access the Research Experts Search website by logging into Jump, then selecting the Research tab, then My Research Tools.
  • Host convenient news conferences. Few media outlets have reporters available outside Monday to Friday business hours, except for the most explosive issues. They also work until 6 or 7 p.m., so news conferences that start before about 10 a.m. are not popular. Holding a news conference downtown means mainstream media don’t have to drive as far. When reporters are filing several stories a day, driving time is a significant factor.
  • Make news conferences exciting. Ensure there’s something worth photographing at your event. (People in suits speaking at a podium make lousy photos.) Your chances of getting coverage increase if you can include: personal stories told by people affected, action, cool technology, emotion and even children and animals, if you can do that ethically. A demonstration by a mine-sniffing dog beats a memorandum of understanding on peace talks.
  • Ask for help from your faculty’s communications staff to plan news conferences, draft snappy news releases and distribute them to their extensive contact list. Here are some tips on writing a background document to accompany a news release.
  • Start with your results and conclusion when describing your research, followed by whatever methods or background are absolutely necessary for people to understand your results. This is the opposite of how you organize a research paper.
  • Feel free to talk about work in progress, as long as it’s not intellectual property likely to be protected by a patent.
  • Don’t take things personally. Even the best news conference might not attract attention on a day when newsrooms are short staffed or you’re competing with a plane crash. Media companies are financially stretched and employ fewer reporters than in the past. It’s a reporter’s job to be skeptical and anticipate questions the audience might have, so don’t be offended by their tone.
  • Offer scoops. Sometimes it’s not worth hosting a news conference. Consider instead offering an exclusive story to one media outlet, which other media may choose to follow the next day.
  • Submit opinion columns to newspapers, some of which are making an effort to publish more opinion by women. Contact the Globe and Mail ( comment@globeandmail.ca) or Winnipeg Free Press editorial page editor (brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca) with a column already written. Make sure your topic is timely, your opening sentence is snappy, you express a clear opinion, and you make your main point early in the column and then back it up. (Again, this is a reversal of the academic writing style with background at the top and the conclusion at the bottom.) Write in a conversational style — i.e. write how you would speak. Few people say “furthermore” or “hence” in real conversations. No sentence should be longer than 40 words and most should be much shorter. Keep strictly within your overall word limit — typically about 600 words – and ask someone from outside your field to edit the piece before you submit it. Here’s a good example: www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/analysis/no-to-sex-tests-of-female-olympians-243906831.html. If your area of expertise is health policy, the Evidence Network might help edit your column and pitch it to media outlets. Otherwise, Sean Moore in the U of Manitoba communications office may be able to help professors polish their submissions.
  • Go online to challenge misinformation in social media and the online comment sections under news stories by offering more rational and research-backed perspectives.

Other resources:

How to prepare for an interview (Hint: write down three points you would like to convey and then see if there’s a natural way to work them into the conversation.)

Tips on writing effective letters to the editor.

Getting published.

Advice from the past president of the Association of Health Care Journalists

More information on translating new knowledge for use in the real world.

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