Working With the Media:

Reporter Calls
Preparing for Interview
During the Interview
Accuracy

The Interview

Caltech faculty often are called for information or expertise by the news media. These general suggestions were assembled by the Purdue News Service to help with the interviews.

When the reporter calls

Write down the reporter's name and the name of the station or publication he or she represents. Ask the nature of the story being written and the deadline.

Answer or return the call from the media as quickly as possible. You are not, however, expected to give the interview on the spot. When possible, ask the reporter to call you back in 15 minutes. That will give you enough time to collect your thoughts and prepare.

Ask the reporter to interview you in person, if possible. A journalist's body language often can tell if he or she is understanding you.

Prepare for the interview

Determine in advance the information you want to convey. Don't limit your responses to the reporter's questions. Prepare and rehearse two or three succinct points you want to make.

Be brief. Whether print or broadcast, the media generally can use only 20 seconds of material from you, tops. Think in terms of three or four sentences.

In preparing for the interview, especially if it concerns research, try to frame answers to some of the following questions, in a language that would interest your brother-in-law:

  • What is the purpose of your work?
  • What makes it unusual or unique?
  • Who will benefit from your research? What would you say is the single most important result of the study or research?
  • What made you interested in this area of study? Why is it important?

Approach the interview from the audience's point of view. Will your information improve their health? Save them money? They may be curious about what you've discovered and how you've reached your conclusions, but their primary concern is "what does this mean for me?"

Prepare and mentally assemble supporting material: facts, personal experience, contrast and comparison, analogy, definition, statistics, examples.

Keep responses colorful. Reporters are looking for the unusual, colorful and dramatic response.

Personalize. Reduce facts and figures to people. Prepare an example involving one person.

Have a stable of phrases to use to buy time to think during the interview.

  • "Well, I thought someone might ask me that...."
  • "I'm glad you asked that question, let me take a minute to explain...."
  • "This is a problem we are studying and expect to soon have...."

If possible, provide written background to the journalist before the interview. Have any additional supporting materials or data copied and on hand, ready to give to the journalist at the time of the interview.

During the interview

Keep your answers brief. Less is more. Make your point briefly and stop, unless you want to bridge to another topic. If you are not brief, your response will be edited, which can distort the meaning.

Don't be fooled by silence. Sometimes reporters remain silent at the end of your remarks, hoping you will continue, possibly stumbling into information you'd just as soon not share.

Most reporters are generalists. Their knowledge about Caltech, higher education issues and your research is limited. Sometimes they have been briefed for only a few minutes. Consequently, reporters often don't know the best questions to ask and don't mind if you subtly help rephrase or redirect their questions. Bridging phrases that are helpful include:

  • "I don't know...but I happen to believe....:
  • "That's because...."
  • "As you know...."
  • "But perhaps an equally important issue here is...."
  • "What I think you're getting at is...."
  • "That's not in my field, but what I can say is...."

Consider questions a general topic area and respond to a positive part of the topic. For example, if the question is about drinking on campus, you may be able to respond by focusing on efforts at Caltech to discourage drinking.

Repeat important points, especially for sensitive or controversial issues. Speak slowly and spell difficult words and names when appropriate. Repeat figures, and if they are sensitive, ask the reporter to repeat them to you.

When dealing with a question you'd rather not handle at the moment, you should always address the question, but you don't have to answer it. If you do answer, keep it short. In either case, move on quickly:

  • "Yes," "No," or "Too soon to tell...."
  • "That's in the future. What I want to talk about now is...."
  • "What I think you want to know is...."
  • "Those were important factors, but...."

You don't have to answer a question the moment it is asked. Pause to collect your thoughts. A moment is a lot shorter than you think. It will look like you are giving the answer some thought.

Beware of hypothetical questions. They make dramatic headlines, but don't relay the facts.

Don't bluff. If you don't know, say so. If the information is important to the story, be sure to give it to the reporter before he/she leaves, if possible, and for certain before the story goes to press or runs on the air.

If you don't know the answer, use that as an opportunity to bridge to one of the points you did want to make.

When speaking in an official capacity, it usually is best not to give personal opinions. However, if you decide to do so, be sure the reporter understands that you are speaking for yourself, not for your colleagues or the University.

Stick to your general area of expertise. Refer the journalist to a more appropriate expert if necessary.

In general, do not make off-the-record comments. Avoid saying anything you don't want to see on the evening news. If you do go off-the-record, be sure to:

  • Preface each "off-the-record" statement by saying "the following material is 'off-the- record.'"
  • Indicate clearly when your comments are "on-the-record" again.
  • Do not say belatedly, "The material I have just given is 'off-the-record.'"

It is generally not wise to comment on a controversial issue with the promise that your identity will remain anonymous.

Accuracy

Stay alert for a reporter who has a preconceived point of view or an ax to grind. Beware of the reporter who asks the same question several different ways or who puts words into your mouth and asks if you agree.

If the tenor of the interview leaves you feeling uneasy, you might conclude by stating, "Here is the point I wish to emphasize."

If you have reason to be concerned about being misquoted, tape record the interview. Be sure to place the recorder where the reporter can see it.

If the interview is coming to an end and you have not made an important point, be bold and tell the reporter you would like to make one last point, and do it!

Ask the reporter a question or two near the end of the interview. You may be able to tell from the answers whether your remarks were understood.

Don't ask to read a print reporter's copy. Do offer to answer follow-up questions later.

If the reporter or you make a serious mistake in a story that has already been published or aired, contact the News Service and the proper steps will be taken to have the information corrected.

Also available: "Working With the Media: Radio and Television Interviews,"


Last updated: 3:30:05 PM PST, Wednesday, January 10, 2001