“That’s NOT What I Said!” …tips for Dietitians working with Reporters
It’s exciting to see your name on-line or printed in a publication, whether you’re expressing your opinion or citing science on a food, nutrition or a health topic. You can share the article with your friends, post it on your Linkedin profile or Facebook page or tweet it out.
But have you ever provided a quote to a reporter or writer and then been shocked at the finished article, annoyed that your quote isn’t correct or dismayed by a click-bait sensational headline?
I decided to get some tips from reporters along with input from dietitians experienced in working with the media to provide some guidance for a better experience.
What do real reporters advise?
I turned to 3 experienced writers/reporters for advice:
Tennille Tracy — Publisher of Edible Asheville magazine, Former Food and Agriculture writer for The Wall Street Journal.
Mackensy Lunsford — Food, restaurant and agriculture writer/reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, a Gannett/USA Today publication.
Jonathan Ammons — Essayist, journalist and free-lance writer and contributor to Asheville Citizen Times, the Mountain Express, Edible Asheville magazine, as well as other publications.
Step 1. You get a call or e-mail from a reporter/writer asking for a quote or your comments on a food, health or nutrition topic. If you aren’t familiar with the person or the publication or site they’re writing for how do you find out about it?
Tennille: “…if you have to ask you probably shouldn’t be talking to that reporter.”
Mackensy: “Look for past articles and read them for tone, accuracy…”
Jonathan: Read the “About Us” section in the menu…when scoping out a publication. “If it seems over the top or melodramatic it’s probably fake. Also, any legitimate publication that leans heavily on overly flamboyant headlines, …”Could this coffee be killing you?” …is often the sign of a fake or fictional news source.”
-Make sure the reporter has told you what their deadline is, this is also a hallmark of a reputable publication.
- Do a background check and find the writer on social media (Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin): What sort of interactions do they have with their followers? What do they post? Have they written on this topic before? Can you tell if they or their publication may already have a point of view(bias) on this topic?
2. If you’re not comfortable with being quoted or the questions you’re being asked, what’s the best way to handle this?
Mackensy: “It’s always very important to tell reporters right off the bat if you don’t want to be quoted.”
Tennille: “I’d suggest asking the reporter to send you an email with his/her questions. That way, you can choose how to respond and have everything in writing.”
-If you are uncomfortable speaking because you don’t feel like you know enough about the topic or want to confirm your facts, ask for their deadline so you can have some time to organize your thoughts.
-If the topic is out of your scope of practice; refer the writer/reporter to someone else that may be better informed. Let both parties know about the referral and clarify your area(s) of expertise so they can contact you in the future. Typically reporters will appreciate your honesty and the referral.
3. Can you ask for your comments or responses to be “off the record”?
Mackensy: “…in general, if you don’t want to be quoted on a topic, best not to talk to a reporter about it.”
Jonathan: “One can always speak off the record and most publications are quite respectful of that…it should be noted, however, that there is no binding legal requirement that a reporter respect that request…the best way to ensure that something is off the record is to simply not say it in the first place.”
4. How can you make sure you’re quoted correctly in articles?
Tennille: “I’ve had sources ask me to see their quote — which I would usually oblige…”
Mackensy: “I’ve never worked anywhere where it was policy to let sources read over a story before it when to print. Sources may ask to go over the material for fact-checking.”
Jonathan: “…many of us record our interviews.”
-Ask if the interview is being recorded. If not, ask to see your quotes before the article is published.
-Getting questions via email will give you a paper trail. If there is a misquote reach out to the editor of the publication. It also gives you a better opportunity to organize your thoughts, stay on message and provide citations and resources.
5. Can you “pitch” or suggest a story idea to a writer/reporter?
Tennille: “Yes, definitely,…I would typically look for a “news hook” of some sort — something that is new, or about to happen…”
Mackensy: “The best are short, sweet and to the point. They have a who, what, why, and when…a timely hook or a point of fairly decent interest…”
6. Who writes the headlines for articles? Why are there “click-bait”(sensational) headlines?
Tennille: “If it’s a big paper…it’ll be an editor or even a team of editors.”
Mackensy: ”The writer usually creates headlines, but they are often changed along the way to publication by designers, editors or producers….all written with SEO (Search Engine Optimization) in mind.”
Jonathan: “…usually my editor has the final say…you don’t want to just generate click bait tag lines, but you also don’t want the story to sound too clinical….So it usually takes a few minds to come up with the right headline.”
What do media savvy dietitians say?
Neva Cochran (@NevaRDLD): Never, never ever assume anything is “off the record.” No matter how many interviews you have done with this writer/reporter and even if they say, “I’ve turned the recorder off and just want to ask a question for myself,” assume it will be recorded and in print when you answer.
Have your 3 key messages on the topic firmly in mind and make sure you bridge to these when you are answering questions. Even if they continue to try to get you to say something else, stick to your science-based messages.
Danielle Bach Penick (@DanielleBachRD): Talk clearly. Try saying the same point in a couple different ways. Don’t worry about repeating yourself. Pause and think about the questions before answering.
Felicia Stoler (@feliciastoler): I think we need to speak out and be vocal with the media when their story ideas (which sometimes comes from an editor) just don’t make good stories. I’ve told writers I just won’t participate in a story because it’s just wrong and misleading.