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Advice on working with journalists

The following provides useful advice on how to work with journalists, what you need to be aware of, and how to tackle interviews.

11 rules for working with journalists

As a researcher, the interview is central to your cooperation with the journalist. Most interviews take place over the phone. They happen either on the journalist's own initiative, or because the researcher has attracted attention because of new research findings or statements.

There are 11 key rules which are relevant for the cooperation between experts and journalists. The rules should be seen as a 'general agreement', which ensures that both the expert and journalist arrive at a satisfactory result. It is therefore important that you know your rights – but also that you accept the special situation in which journalists find themselves.

1. Know the context of the interview
When a journalist contacts you, it is important that you write down his/her name and which media he/she represents. The journalist will usually explain the reason for contacting you. If you are in doubt about the purpose of the interview and your role in the story, ask the journalist about the story's angle, and which other sources the journalist has spoken with.

2. Make a contract
Before making a statement, you should make an oral agreement on the terms of the interview, clearly establishing the basis for the cooperation.

You can ask to see and approve your own quotes before they are printed, and even ask to read the entire article before it goes to print.

The procedure for approving quotes is as follows: You can correct factual errors and misunderstandings. However, you cannot expect to make major changes to the quotes – you must stand by what you have said, unless the journalist has grossly misrepresented your statements.

When it comes to being allowed to read the whole article, most journalists accept this practice because they are keen to avoid factual errors. However, being allowed to read a whole article which also cites other sources does not entitle you to edit the basic premise of the article. You can recommend that the journalist writes or structures the article differently, but the journalist does the editing.

3. On the record – and off it
When you talk to a journalist, everything you say can, in principle, be used in the article. If, in special situations, you need to provide background information which you do not want reported, you must explicitly inform the journalist about this.

4. The prepared message
If a journalist asks to do an interview, you can start by asking for time to think out loud on the phone so you know what you want to be quoted on. Alternatively, you can offer to call back once you have looked closely into the matter and drawn up some key points. Some sources are happiest receiving the questions by email before the interview, and it is quite OK to ask the journalist to do this.

5. Availability
Members of the press work quickly and subject to tight deadlines. Therefore, you should respond quickly if a journalist contacts you. Remember that he often has thousands, perhaps a million readers, listeners or viewers as a potential target group. Even though you do not have time to give an interview, or if you are not qualified to comment on the subject in question, it is good practice to return calls. You can always refer the journalist to colleagues who may be more suitable sources. If you are pressed for time, you can always offer to do an interview later.

6. Express yourself clearly
Journalists produce news for the whole population and not just for experts. Therefore, journalists usually avoid academic or technical language because it makes the text harder to understand for the layman. You will be helping both the journalist and yourself by expressing yourself as clearly as possible. Summarising several years of research in a few easy-to-understand statements can be hard. But it is possible – as long as you remember there is only room for the most salient points.

If you are being interviewed for an academic journal, there is a much stronger basis for using expert terms than for a publication aimed at the general public. However, whatever the media, it is best to stick to the key points and to speak in plain language.

7. Talk to the press
Do not assume that a story will be forgotten because you are not prepared to give an interview. The journalist will just find another source, and Aarhus University misses an opportunity to contribute to the debate. This is particularly unfortunate if the journalist's only alternative source is someone who is less qualified than you and perhaps even biased.

8. Actively use the media
When you appear in the media, it is a good idea to note down which media and journalists have been good to work with. If you have a good idea for a story or statement, by all means contact any journalists with whom you are happy to work.

If you give an exclusive to one journalist, you are obliged to not pass on the story to others until the journalist has used it. By offering your story as an exclusive, you will usually get more extensive media coverage, yet you run the risk that other media will not mention the story. Therefore, you should carefully consider whether you should aim for broad media coverage or more concentrated coverage in a single medium.

Alternatively, you can write a letter to the editor or a feature article in which you express your views.

9. Radio and TV
In radio and TV interviews, it is vital that you are as clear and succinct as possible.

Before the recording starts, ask to hear the journalist's questions so you have a chance to consider your answers. If the journalist does not think that you are being sufficiently concise, he will repeat the question and ask for a shorter answer. You should try to comply with this request as the speaking time allocated to interviewees is usually strictly limited.

If you participate in a live interview, you will usually be given more speaking time, which allows you greater control of what viewers and listeners see and hear. In connection with live interviews, most journalists will ask you to agree very precisely on what you will be talking about, and how you intend to answer the questions. Once you have agreed on the course of the interview, a contract exists which both parties are obliged to comply with.

10. If something goes wrong ...
Fortunately, it happens very rarely that expert sources feel that they have actually been taken advantage of by the media. When they read, see or listen to the final result, many interviewees probably feel that they would have liked a bit more speaking time, to have been able to offer a more nuanced explanation, and a softer angle to the story. But remember – it is the journalist's job to simplify complex issues and to communicate them clearly and succinctly to the man on the street.

If you feel you have been taken advantage of or incorrectly quoted by a journalist, contact AU Communication or the Press Office who can help to assess whether you should take measures against the journalist or the media.

11. Clear agreements for best results
It is very seldom that people have unfortunate experiences appearing in the media; usually such experiences result from the journalist and the interviewee not being clear about the rules of the game. Therefore, clear agreements and knowing the terms are crucial for a positive result for both parties.

What you need to know about the journalist

Journalists generally apply five basic criteria when deciding whether a story is newsworthy.

These criteria are:

  • Relevance – stories of great importance to society
  • Timeliness – new figures, proposals or points of view
  • Identification – the closer to the media's target group, the greater the identification value for readers, viewers or listeners
  • Conflict – stories where people, organisations or companies have conflicting perceptions of the same issue
  • Sensation – stories that arouse curiosity or challenge conventional ideas

A news story meets at least one of the five journalistic criteria. The more criteria a story meets, the more prominent a place it will be given in the media.

As a researcher, you will most often be asked to comment on stories which are deemed to be newsworthy based on the criteria of relevance, timeliness and conflict.

Researchers are the journalist's expert sources
Journalists are very aware of the roles played by interviewees in their stories.

As a researcher, you will usually appear as an expert source to talk about new research findings or to interpret and explain trends in society.

TV interviews

Before the interview

  • The journalist is your partner. Usually, as a researcher your role is either that of a commentator or an expert  because of the knowledge you possess. Before the interview, it is a good idea to discuss with the journalist how to approach the subject, and what the journalist wants to say with the story. What is the journalist's angle?
  • Perhaps ask to be told the first question beforehand so you are not caught off guard when you have to answer on live TV. You will be calmer, and a positive first impression is always good.
  • Before you 'go on', it is also important to train your voice. Sing or talk loudly to yourself.
  • Consider your attire. Do not wear anything which detracts from what you say. Dress in an appropriately neutral and classic style (for men: jacket, pale shirt and possibly a tie). Avoid wearing check shirts and strong colours, especially red.

The interview

  • Be relaxed and natural – it usually makes everything easier.
  • Answer the journalist's questions with short, clear sentences.
  • Feel free to use examples from everyday life to explain your message. For example: This interest rate increase will mean that an ordinary Danish family's disposable income is reduced by DKK 2,000 a month. This corresponds to what you spend on xx.
  • Use evidence to support your message and your key points. You may refer to a study which you or a colleague has carried out.
  • Use the Point – Evidence – Point technique to present your message in simple and clear terms. (This method is also good if you are nervous, and tend to talk a bit too quickly.) For example:

(P) The interest rate increase will not affect people's desire to invest in shares.
(E) A survey we did when the central bank raised interest rates last year confirmed that people invested just as much as before the interest rate rise.
(P) People are therefore likely to continue to invest just as many of their funds.

Emphasise what you want to say

If people fail to understand your point the first time, they still have another chance. In writing and in articles it would look silly, but because you only have one chance on TV, it is important to underline what you want to say by repeating it.

  • Use comparisons and adjectives. It works well and strengthens the journalist's story. It also makes it easier for the man on the street to understand what the story is about. For example:
    • This interest rate increase is the highest we have seen since the 1990s.
    • The new bank package will be the most important means to getting Denmark out of the financial crisis.

Of course, such words should only be used if what you are saying is true, and you feel comfortable saying it. It often takes some getting used to as many experts are reluctant to use such strong words, unless such statements are supported by research. But it works really well on TV.

  • Avoid having to answer "No comment". It is much better to say something like: It falls outside my area of expertise, so I'd rather not comment on that. If it is political, then say: This is not something I decide, so I'd rather leave it to the politicians and their advisers. In such situations, it can be a good idea to repeat your message instead. Otherwise it may come across as a slightly embarrassing break which can give viewers the wrong impression of you.
  • Also, be careful not to answer questions about hypothetical situations (What if … ). In such cases, you could say: It would be irresponsible of me to answer a hypothetical question like this, but I can say that ...
  • If the journalist asks two questions at a time (which often happens), most people choose to answer the last question. However, you can also use the situation to point out that you were asked two questions, and then highlight the message, or you can choose to answer the one question that you would prefer to answer.
  • If you are a quick talker, then make a point of annunciating all the syllables in each word. This will force you to slow down the speed at which you speak. If possible, practise beforehand so it sounds more natural.
  • Speak directly to the interviewer and maintain eye contact. Shifty eyes can make a person appear very nervous and confused.
  • Sit up straight in the chair. And slightly forwards rather than leaning back, as otherwise you can appear arrogant and indifferent. You must not appear too relaxed, i.e. as if you were in your own home. You are at work, and your most important job is to explain how the issue in question affects the general public.
  • By all means use gestures, as a lively body language makes you appear more human on TV while also helping your voice. Remember, however, to stand still, so that you don't 'fly round' the picture.
  • Avoid clutching papers and pens; instead keep your hands still.
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