Recent experiences with the media have inspired me to share what I’ve learned about communication in general and media interaction in particular. Last week a few of us were contacted, via NORML Ireland, by a freelance reporter called Michael Sheils Mcnamee. Michael wrote his piece titled ‘I found that nothing worked, except cannabis’: Who are Ireland’s marijuana users?’ and it was published 22/11/15 on thejournal.ie, the Irish news website. To date, 24/11/15, the article has had ‘47,377 Views’ and has generated 97 comments - incidentally, the vast majority, and by that I mean 99.8% of all opinions stated, agreed with the necessity and desirability of decriminalisation leading to full legalisation. I thought the response was very encouraging.
When I read the piece on-line I was impressed by the measured, non-judgemental pace of the story. When I read back the statements I’d given to Michael I was grateful that he’d appeared to have approached the project sympathetically - when I’d made some of the comments reported I was stressed and anxious and I probably made some comments I wouldn’t normally have made, and in this I’ve got to thank Michael for his discretion if I did, then again, I might not have done. It’s difficult to recall your exact words and the order you put them in when you’re talking in a windy carpark waiting to pick your wife up from the leisure centre.. It struck me then, that if David Quinn, the journalist responsible for The Independent opinion piece 'We cannot decriminalise drugs without having a proper debate first', had interviewed me over the phone, I might have got a much rougher ride and be left roaring into the wind about context and selective quoting and being able to do exactly zilch about it after it’s been published. ‘Who are Ireland’s marijuana users?’ generates 47,377 views - ‘I Was Misquoted In An Article Two Days Ago’, I’m guessing, might attract 3 views - the author and two people who misread it as ‘Mosquitoed’.
So I looked up some basic do’s and don’ts for interacting with the media. Most of it is common sense, but all too often common sense can fly out the window if, and when, you are under pressure to talk about something. Especially something that you know a lot about, think a lot about and are generally accepted for in your circle of social contacts. The adrenaline is flowing and you are taking logic leaps assuming the journalist knows dot 1 about the subject you are being asked about. He might, he might not but he’s asking for quick easy soundbites that can be fed to a reader via enlarged, coloured text or highlighted in boxes. These are what drives the story.
So here is a rough breakdown of what I’ve found.
Contact. If you are contacted by a journalist and left a message it is a good idea to get back to them as soon as possible. If negative copy is about to be run against you, the lines, ‘wasn’t available for comment’, and, ‘Didn’t reply to journalists…..’, can be used. Your viewpoint won’t get a hearing if it’s not submitted. If the journalist wants a quote from you about something you are involved in or knowledgeable about they will probably be on a deadline to produce copy and are often grateful for a speedy response. If they have your contribution early and solid they might come back to you for follow-up points and clarifications if other contributors don’t submit on time. The deadline is a whip to the journalists back and it doesn’t hurt to be aware of that.
Identity. Who are you? Before saying anything to a journalist or reporter you must have it clear in your head. Are you speaking on behalf of an organisation or are you speaking in a personal capacity, as you, yourself? This is vitally important and you must tell the journalist at the earliest opportunity who you are speaking for. Ideally ‘gotcha’ questions aimed at an individual can be answered with, ‘As an individual I think…..’. If you’re speaking on behalf of an organisation and have permission to do so, then you’ll be repeating little mission statements and policy stances.
Veracity. Tell the truth. I’m tempted to just leave that there as is but the concept goes deeper than that. Point 3: Tell the truth. As you know it. After all, eleventy-twelve per cents of people know that dihydrogen monoxide is a deadly government cover-up. If you quote statistics and make claims you will be asked for your sources - what paper was written by whom and which peer-reviewed journal published it and how many times has the proposition been tested and who funded the original study and research. As cannabis decriminalisation gains traction there will be more and more research done and more and more journalists and reporters looking for copy about both it and the lives of, the people that the research benefits or enhances. Basic fact-checking is a journalists bread and butter - if you lie, misrepresent or exaggerate you will be found out. Our modern lives are valued by our reputations - if you compromise your reputation in any way then input by you into the public arena, in the future, will be suspect.
Relax! Paradoxically given all that’s gone before! Ask the journalist if you can have time to think about their questions and how long. Ask the journalist to read back any ‘nugget’ quotes they might have marked and you can ask them for a brief rundown of how you’re being presented. This gives you an opportunity to see if you’ve missed anything you might like to say.
I hope this is helpful. As always please use the comments below. Thanks! SW