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"Do's and Don'ts" in Dealing with the Press
Reprinted from the Epidemiology Monitor, October, 1984

This article was prepared from remarks made by Dr. J. Winsten at last month's meeting of the American College of Epidemiology in Boston. Dr. Winsten is Director of the Office of Health Policy Information at the Harvard School of Public Health, and has been involved in a project to improve the quality of science and health policy news reporting. He has conducted over 20 separate interviews with journalists from the nation’s leading newspapers, magazines, and networks. These interviews have provided information on factors which influence news judgments and which constrain the quality of science and health policy news coverage. Some specific do's and don'ts were suggested by Dr. Winsten to help scientists work more effectively with the press.

Be Prepared

If you are planning to publish a major study, it's essential that you coordinate its public release with your co-authors. Your colleagues may be very fastidious in the conduct of their research, but maybe rather freewheeling in their extemporaneous comments when it comes to talking publicly about the importance and implications of their findings. In the same way that you negotiate what to include in the published paper, you ought to negotiate and come to a consensus as to what you are prepared to claim publicly. Don't wait to discover conflicting attitudes on this question when you pick up your morning newspaper! It sometimes can be helpful to identify one public spokesman for the study; on the other hand, you may prefer to share that burden, particularly if a substantial number of press inquiries are anticipated.

Be Available

Make a special effort to keep your calendar open at the time that your major study is scheduled for release if there is reason to believe that it may attract significant media attention. You may have to go out of your way to determine the precise release date. For example, the weekly release date of the New England Journal of Medicine is Thursday. Reporters who have pledged to respect the release date received their copies of the Journal by first-class mail on Monday or Tuesday. They will be writing their stories by Wednesday for publication in Thursday morning newspapers. Hence, Wednesday should be kept open on your calendar. (If the calls don't come, you'll have the luxury of time to catch up on your mail!).

Second Wave

After the initial set of press inquiries coinciding with the release of a newsworthy study, there will be an immediate second wave of inquiries from television stations, radio stations, and newspapers which did not have advance knowledge of the study. These people will be playing catch-up. They often will have 1- 4 hours to write their stories. They will frequently be general assignment reporters who may well have not seen your paper but only a wire service story, and they are at high risk of making errors. Your own reputation is at stake, and many of your friends and colleagues in other fields will get their first exposure to your work through these press reports. If you're intending to assist them, they will require a rapid response on your part.

Prepared Statement

It can be useful, particularly if you're not accustomed to dealing with the press, to prepare in advance a formal statement which summarizes your study in lay terms and which includes statements about the importance, the relevance, and the implications of the study. That prepared statement can serve as a vehicle for negotiating with your co-authors what you're prepared to claim publicly.

Ask Questions

When you receive a telephone call from a reporter, there are a number of important housekeeping chores which should precede the actual interview. Before an interview, find out who the reporter is - who he or she works for - and write it down. Is this person a staff writer or a freelancer?

More Questions

Before an interview, try to determine the degree of sophistication of the reporter with regard to your subject matter. Is he or she a science writer, or a general assignment reporter? Has he read your paper? Try through various questions to gauge the degree of familiarity of this reporter with research in your field so that you will know how much knowledge to assume in your answers.

Ground Rules

Prior to proceeding with an interview, negotiate ground rules - and be careful here - you must take the initiative to negotiate any ground rules you want to negotiate. If you don't do so, the assumption of the reporter will be that everything you say can be quoted. In most cases, if it's an interview about your research, there is no solid reason for declining to go on the record. You simply make a reporter’s job that much tougher if you don't. The reporter can’t put himself in the position of being the expert, and, therefore, has to quote others. On the other hand, if you're called for comment on another investigator's work, you may or may not want to talk for attribution. But it's critical that you talk, because that reporter, if he's going to perform his job effectively, needs to know about a range of attitudes and views towards that work, if such a range exists. You can negotiate a rule whereby you will talk not for attribution, stating that your name must not be cited; you may also wish to ensure that the name of your institution will not be cited, because in some it will be obvious to others in your field who was speaking, if the institution is cited. So you want to negotiate attribution. Parenthetically, if you're called about a controversial matter in science, such as an alleged case of fraud involving one of your colleagues, and if you have not worked previously with the reporter such that a relationship of mutual trust is developed over time, be very careful if you decide to talk with that person; be careful to restate the ground rules in every conversation. If there is something that you don't want to see in print, either from you or others, follow carefully the dictum, "If you don't want it known, don't tell anyone." A reporter, once told something by you, may attempt to convince others to tell him on the record what you said on background; he would not have known to look for this if you had not disclosed it.

Call Backs

You may want to negotiate what are called "callbacks" or "check backs ", whereby a reporter will agree, if asked and if time permits, to call you back and read you direct quotes attributed to you. And to also read you the lead-in to those direct quotes. (Some reporters will occasionally go even further, and read back the entire story although this is uncommon).

Typical Questions

As the actual interview on your research progresses, these are the kinds of questions the reporter will be seeking answers to:
  What led you to undertake this study?
  Have similar findings and reported elsewhere?
  From what other directions are researchers attacking the same questions?
  Who were the pioneers in this field (in addition to yourself!)
  What are the general limitations of your research approach?
  Are there risks associated with your research?
  Are there alternative interpretations of your data?
  What future directions can be anticipated in your research?
  What are the next steps?
  Who else in this field can I call for comment?
  What are the possible applications of your research?
  What might it lead to that would be of interest and benefit to the public?

In all of these questions the reporter is trying to gauge the true face of the research, making the assumption that you are presenting the best face.

Final Check

As you proceed through the substance of the interview, don't make the false assumption that only the reporter can ask questions. Check from time to time to make sure that the reporter is hearing correctly what you're saying. You can ask them to repeat what you said - but be careful that your tone is not condescending, because many of these people have been in the field 10 -  20 years, and many of them are very, very good. At the end of the interview, you can ask the reporter to sum up the key points as he or she has understood them.

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