Speaking to reporters

A guide to working with the news media

<< Publicizing Your Science

We're here to help. Please call David Hosansky (ext, 8611) or Zhenya Gallon (ext. 8607) in Media Relations, or any other member of the Communications staff, to help you prepare to meet with reporters. We can offer suggestions, coaching, and practice interviews.

The Media Office in Communications receives calls daily from reporters. We screen those calls and refer only the ones we think are appropriate to the appropriate scientist or professional expert. Sometimes reporters contact staff directly.

Whether you receive a call from our office or from a reporter, here are some suggestions to keep in mind.

General guidelines

When the phone rings

  • Always ask the reporter's name and that of their publication or broadcast outlet.
  • Determine what the reporter is looking for. If you are not the appropriate person to respond, refer the reporter to David Hosansky (ext. 8611; backup is Rachael Drummond, ext. 8604) in UCAR Communications.
  • If you need time to prepare an answer, tell the reporter that you will call back within an agreed-upon amount of time.
  • Remember that reporters are usually on tight deadlines. If you don't have time to respond, tell the reporter and refer him or her to David Hosansky (ext. 8611; backup is Rachael Drummond, ext. 8604).

Think about your response

  • Know what you want to say. Have one message that you state first and no more than three supporting points with which to convey it.
  • Think in advance about any sensitive issues and plan what you will say in response to any questions on those issues. Arrange to rehearse your answers and get feedback prior to the interview (contact David Hosansky at ext. 8611 to anticipate questions or to set up a mock interview session).
  • Imagine you are explaining your work to a sixth-grader or your next-door neighbor.
    • Translate every technical term into layperson language.
    • Develop analogies and examples based on familiar, everyday phenomena.
    • Consider how your work could affect an "ordinary person" and how you will explain that impact.

During the interview

  • Spell your name and state your preferred title
  • Provide the highest level of affiliation that best explains where you work. Typically, this will be the National Center for Atmospheric Research (not the Atmospheric Chemistry Division or just "NCAR") or the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (not just "UCAR").
  • Reporters look for conflict because conflict is news. They pose questions designed to draw out whatever conflict may exist around an issue. You can manage this tendency by sticking with your message and by framing it positively. If a reporter includes negative words in a question, don't repeat those words. Even "there isn't any conflict around this issue" can look like a denial in print or on camera.
  • Assume everything you say is on the record and may appear in print or on the air.
  • "No comment" is always interpreted as a cover-up. If you truly cannot comment, explain why, on the record. If your explanation needs to be off the record, you must specifically state that before you begin and get the reporter's agreement. However, keep in mind that what you say may deliberately or inadvertently be published, whether you've asked that it be off the record or not.
  • If you don't know the answer, the best answer is "I don't know."
  • Honesty is the best policy.

After the interview

  • It is not journalistic practice to give interviewees a chance to review a story prior to publication, although this sometimes happens. However, during the interview you can promote accuracy by asking the reporter to repeat back to you any point or concept about which you're concerned. Always offer to be available for a follow-up call from the reporter and follow through. If you're concerned about sensitive subjects, ask the reporter to verify your quotes with you before the story is published.
  • If you're misquoted or a story is inaccurate, contact David Hosansky (ext. 8611) or Rachael Drummond (ext. 8604) to discuss a correction.

     

For television (live or taped)

When the phone rings

  • Call or e-mail David Hosansky (ext. 8611; backup is Zhenya Gallon, ext. 8607) ASAP, and tell the caller to do so as well.
    • TV crew: we will arrange to meet the film crew, alert security, and handle all logistics
    • Documentary: the sooner we're brought into the planning, the better. Doing so assures that
      • you spend no more time than necessary on the project
      • the documentary team gets good interviews, locations, supporting visuals, and logistial support.
  • Arrange to rehearse your answers and get feedback prior to the interview (contact David Hosansky at ext. 8611 to anticipate questions or to set up a mock interview session).
  • Practice ways to deliver your message in one sentence.
    • Keep your sentences short.
    • Sound bites in news broadcasts last about 7 to 10 seconds.

TV is a visual medium

  • Don't wear stripes or fabrics with tight, zigzagged, or raised patterns. Solid pastel colors work best for shirts.
  • For men, a sports jacket without a tie usually works well. Choose socks and slacks that cover your ankles when seated.
  • For women, hairstyles that cover the forehead make women's faces look disproportionately small on camera. Style your hair so that it does not cover your forehead. Remove any jewelry that makes noise when you move.

During the interview

  • Your demeanor on camera has as much impact as your verbal message.
    • Try standing up or sitting on the edge of your chair to stay energized.
    • Let your knowledge but also your enthusiasm and excitement about your subject come across.

Learn more

Communicating Science News: A Guide for Public Information Officers, Scientists and Physicians (National Association of Science Writers)

You and the Media: A researcher's guide for dealing successfully with the news media PDF icon (American Geophysical Union)

 

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The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research manages the National Center for Atmospheric Research under sponsorship by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.