13 Tips for Academics on How to Talk to Journalists

By
Dwight Knell

Interacting with journalists can be a valuable and important part of an academic’s job, helping to get your research out into the world and to ensure the journalistic record is accurate. It can also be slightly mystifying or frightening if you haven’t done it much before, or if you have had a bad experience. To that end, we at the Shorenstein Center’s Technology and Social Change Project hosted a panel discussion of journalists and academics to compile best practices for working together. On the panel were Dr. Joan Donovan, and journalists Emily Dreyfuss (formerly WIRED), Mario Aguilar (STAT), and Michelle Loxton (KAZU). 

Below are the main takeaways from that discussion.

  • Make yourself findable.

    Journalists need to be able to find you to interview you, so have your email address prominently listed on your university and personal website. Update your bios on social media and your official web pages to include your areas of expertise, so journalists understand what you are knowledgeable about. If you are hoping to receive requests on specific topics, make sure those keywords are listed on your bio pages. Publish op-eds when given the chance, so that your name is easier to find on Google in association with your field of research. 

  • Clarify the terms of the interview beforehand.

    Make sure you and the reporter are on the same page about whether the interview is on the record or on background, which means that your information will inform their report but not be quoted directly. If you want to say something off the record, explicitly state that (e.g., “Please do not quote me on this”) before you speak. This way, there’s no confusion about what gets published. 

  • Establish a good rapport.

    It may seem obvious, but if you’re polite and respectful, you’re going to get better results than someone who’s not. 

  • Write out talking points in advance.

    Preparing some tight statements that encapsulate your research, position, or point of view will help both you and the reporter guarantee your expertise is able to be communicated in a short article.  Construct a clear messaging framework and have specific examples on hand. Journalists are looking for short soundbites, oftentimes under tight deadlines and pressure from their editors. They are balancing this with their need for accuracy and you can help them by using your time well and conveying your main points quickly. Pivot back to your talking points frequently in order to drill them into the reporter’s head. It’s OK to repeat yourself.

  • Use approachable language.

    If you specialize in a complex issue area , make sure everyone can understand it. Have you practiced talking about it? Have you gotten rid of scientific jargon? Get local, specific, and contextual with your points. Consider, as part of your scholarship, writing commentary papers that describe what your research is about, which can be made available to journalists before an interview so they may get the gist of your work. 

  • Ask them questions.

    What is the story about? Is the interview for a newscast or an in-depth feature? Soliciting information on the context of the interview and what exactly the journalist is looking for will help frame your argument, shape a narrative, and ultimately enable them to report more effectively.

  • Don’t be afraid to rephrase your wording.

    If you don’t like the way you sounded, ask to go back and express your thoughts differently. Journalists are looking for the best quotes they can get, and they’ll almost always be happy to oblige. You can also ask to see your quotes before they get published to suggest modifications, though be aware that journalists may not always grant this request and it may be against their specific newsroom’s rules. Finally, make it clear that you’re open to answering any follow-up questions reporters might have. 

  • Give shorter interviews to increase your chance of getting quoted.

    Though this is counterintuitive, if you want to increase your likelihood of actually getting quoted in the article, decrease the amount of time that you’re going to spend with the journalist. If you are speaking to someone in order to help them understand a complex issue and are not concerned with having your name in the story, then don’t worry about this tip. But if you are hoping to be quoted, shorter pithier interviews tend to lead to greater exposure because they are easier for journalists to sort through.

  • If something inaccurate is published, contact the journalist immediately. 

    If your quote in a published piece is inaccurate, immediately get in touch with the journalist to rectify the error. They should want to make sure they get the story right as much as you do. 

  • Give them a hook.

    If you are hoping to get a reporter to write about your research or something that you think is important to be reported on at that time, present them with a “news hook.” A news hook is something that makes the story timely and relevant for readers. So, if your research is about supply chain dynamics, you may consider pegging the story to a holiday when there is increased shipping, or if your research is about geopolitical forces, peg your story to a political event. Make the case to the journalists for why what you are saying matters now.

  • When in doubt, take the call.

    If you receive inquiries on subject matters that aren’t in your area of expertise, you should still consider taking the call, as it will help increase your visibility. Never feel forced to comment on something you don’t know about, and remember that it is always OK to say “I don’t know,” but taking the call will earn you an important connection and you may not realize that you actually know something relevant to the story until you speak with the journalist. Over time, you will establish yourself as a thought leader in whatever sphere you’re working in. 

  • If you’re not the right person for the story, refer journalists to your colleagues.

    Sometimes you’re just not right for a piece. So let the reporter know who is. Not only do you help the journalist follow better leads, but you allow your colleagues to gain greater recognition in their fields. 

  • If an outlet offers you an op-ed opportunity, you should take it.

    Sometimes, reporters and editors solicit op-eds instead of traditional articles. If they are asking you to write one, it’s because they believe that you are an expert -- so take advantage of the opportunity. It will expose you to a wide audience, increase your chances of being found for future interviews, and allow you to present your work without a mediator. If you aren’t getting offers, don’t be shy about pitching ideas to select publications in your sector. Start with smaller outlets before you go bigger. 

  • Don’t be scared.

    Journalists need you -- that’s why they’re calling you! Don’t feel rushed or pressured. They’re usually not trying to trick or misquote you. You’re usually on the same side, so don’t be afraid to engage.