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Pro tips on speaking to the media

A report released last month by independent think tank Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures found that Kiwis have declining trust in New Zealand’s media– a long-term trend that appears to be accelerating, mirroring attitudes in comparable countries.

Although the reasons for this are [as ever] complex, some of this trend is definitely down to the way media operates.

However, instead of engaging in some constructive self-criticism to work out how to correct course, it appears that [for the most part] mainstream media has taken the self-serving view that the fault lies with the disaffected segment of the population, who are dismissed as complete morons who just don’t have the wit to recognise all the wonderful work being done on their behalf.

But you know what? As someone who’s been working as a journalist for [checks notes] 28 years, I don’t have complete trust in the media either.

Despite the heroic self-image many reporters demonstrably have, they’re as subject to human foibles as anyone else [and maybe more so, given studies suggesting the media tends to attract more sociopaths than many other industries].

There’s also the more mundane reality that traditional media’s revenue has declined dramatically in the past two decades, so fewer warm bodies are doing more work. [We’ll leave the rise of ideologically motivated “advocacy journalism” for another day.]

Whether it was due to work pressures or defective personalities, I’ve twice been terribly misquoted in stories by other journalists, so I’m sympathetic to those who would rather poke their eye with a sharp stick than speak to a reporter.

However, a well-functioning society needs a well-functioning media [consider us a necessary evil if you like], and mileage varies on how much of this criticism applies to different media outlets. [Provincial paper like the one you’re currently reading, for example, simply can’t afford to treat the people and organisations as tomorrow’s fish ’n’ chips wrapping, even if we were inclined to – and we’re not.]

And to be fair, some of the public’s suspicion is simply down to not really understanding media’s basic rules of engagement.

So here are a few tips if you should find yourself reluctantly [or even eagerly] speaking to a journalist …

You’re not compelled to speak to us [although if you front a public organisation, you probably should, and if the story is in the public interest, not speaking won’t mean it’ll go away; it’ll just be published without your perspective].

If you are speaking to media, be very clear about what’s on and off the record.

“On the record” means whatever you say can be attributed to you in the resulting story.

And there are two sorts of “off the record”: although it most commonly means “you can use what I tell you but I can’t be identified as the source”, there’s also the “deep background” option, which means you’re providing info to help the reporter understand what’s going on but it can’t specifically be used in the story.

If you ensure you’re on the same page with the reporter in this way, you’re less likely to be alarmed by what ends up in the paper.

Better media, everybody!

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