When the Phone Rings: Responding to the Media
Steven Leibo, February 2007
In the November 2005 issue of Perspectives Jamil Zainaldin offered a fine introduction to ways of working with the media. And there were very good reasons for writing and printing such an article. In recent years, partly due to the explosion of new local media outlets from Fox Television to 24-hour local cable news services run by Time Warner, more and more historians are receiving calls from the media. This phenomenon has developed because there is also a growing realization among local media professionals that events in the larger globalized world really do fall within their mandate of providing "local" coverage.
Given these developments it seems important now to follow up the previous Perspectives introduction to this new professional challenge with a more narrowly focused essay on successfully working with media professionals, especially TV and radio reporters.
In my own case, because my academic specialization is modern international history and politics, a field that is particularly relevant to the needs of the media, I have, over the years, worked with journalists more than a thousand times, most often with local and regional organizations but also with reporters from organizations as diverse as Fox Radio, the Associated Press, and the BBC.
Though I have made my share of mistakes along the way, I have also picked up a few ideas on how to make the media interview experience as productive as possible. Before I begin to offer some of my observations though, let me make one point clear to my professional colleagues. Please understand that this is important. Large numbers of people, many of whom are very poorly informed, are already out there making comments, people whose knowledge is often incredibly unsophisticated, and yet whose thoughts can have a great impact on decision making through voting patterns and responses to opinion polls. Better your informed voice then theirs.
At the same time, please remember that while one can invoke and use the prestige of a PhD, you cannot sound like a professor in a classroom. If we can learn Chinese or Arabic, we can easily learn the language of the media. Figure out how to say things in a very clear, simple way that does not assume the audience has "done the reading" or remembers what you said the day before. It is not a class.
Planning a Strategy
When dealing with radio or TV reporters, find out in advance how much time they plan to give the story. If it's 50 seconds—that is one thing—if it's five minutes that is another. Then think through appropriate responses to their inquires. Being told you have more time means an easier effort while the very short piece will require your best possible, most thoughtful "sound bite." And just how does one do that on the fly? Well there is a way to gain those extra moments of thought. When they call, for example, for a radio interview, ask them to please call back in five minutes. Give some excuse. These are very busy people but they can all understand such a need and will happily call you back. You have, after all, already solved one of their most immediate problems. You agreed to be interviewed.
Then use that extra time to think through the most usable version of your reaction to the current news development. This approach works as well with TV news crews that arrive in your office. Chat with them for a second while they are getting set up. Find out what is really on their minds and then find a gimmick to gain extra time. One personal favorite I use is to wait till I they set up and put the mic in place and then take off my glasses for cleaning. While I am slowly doing that I chat a bit more. You can then easily feel out their questions, feed them what you feel are the most important issues and gain the crucial time necessary to make the effort as worthwhile as possible for everyone involved. This is particularly important with TV news crews since the producer who called you is very likely not the same reporter who later shows up with a camera in your office.
Initially much more stressful, but much more productive for you, and, hopefully, for the public, is making the effort to learn how to go "live." If the producers and anchors come to trust you—if they know you understand their needs—they will let you do this. By going "live" you have a far better chance of getting your main points aired rather than edited out. Of course, if you don't make your points in a precise fashion or don't give them a chance to cut you off easily you won't be asked back.
Do try to be flexible. Only a few weeks ago I found myself doing an interview show on television but was absolutely unable to hear what the other on-screen expert was saying. I had to wing my comments and look for the little hints from the anchor (who knew what was happening) to get by. Another time, a phone kept ringing right next to me. In either case, concentration matters greatly. Worse yet, once I was asked to use the weatherman's spot to point out cities in Iraq, which sounded like a great idea until I put my leg near one of their hot lights and my pants caught fire! Happily we got it out before we went live.
Those of you who know me personally have for years seen me prowling the halls at AHA annual meetings wearing my favorite Greek fisherman's hat, but the first thing I do when someone aims a camera at me is pull the hat. I love the thing but one has only a few seconds to gain a sense of credibility from the viewing audience and anything that gets in the way—an unkempt beard, my hat—distracts from the credibility of the information I am hoping to convey. Sometimes that decision has turned out to be quite funny as when early in the 1990s a colleague approached me and blurted out "Leibo, until Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait I did not know you had hair!"
Your Media Colleagues
Always understand with whom you are working. Your media colleagues range enormously in their ages and knowledge. Some know a great deal about the topics they cover. Some know next to nothing. But regardless of their particular strengths, they are almost always generalists and can certainly use some gentle help from you in defining the most important parts of any given story.
On the other hand, keep in mind that they were most likely assigned the story by an editor/producer who came up with the idea in the first place. Your job is to find a way to meet both the media's needs and whatever agenda you might yourself think is important. In my case, I always have a double agenda, to address the immediate issue which provoked the call in the first place and to add some larger historical perspective that the audience can use the next time such an issue emerges. In short, I always remain the professor and educator.
And lastly don't forget that many of us have experienced the frustration of spending considerable time talking to a reporter only to discover later that only a short snippet lasting just a few seconds was used. Not surprisingly, many scholars conclude that their time was not well spent. That, though, would be wrong. Always remind yourself that the reporter has hopefully learned more during the conversation and is likely to become that much more sophisticated the next time the issue comes up. An educator can ask for no more.
—Steven A. Leibo, the Sherman David Spector Professor in the humanities at the Sage Colleges, was formerly international affairs commentator for WTEN Channel 10 in Albany and since 1997 has been a commentator for Northeast Public Radio's station, WAMC.