10 Tips for Scholars Working with News Reporters
by Yonat Shimron
Unlike many other newspaper beats, religion reporters need scholars and often consult them. Many times university professors are the best source for explaining a religious concept and giving historical context. For that reason, I think it's crucial that religion reporters and scholars better understand one another. Beyond whatever temporary gain it might bring the reporter or the scholar, such relationships ultimately benefit society at large by helping people of increasingly diverse religious backgrounds learn more about one another.
As a religion reporter of seven years, it's my experience that reporters take pride in their work. They're interested in ideas and want to develop a professional relationship with scholars. With the rare exception of a Jayson Blair, reporters care about getting the story right. They hate to have to publish a correction after the story has appeared, and they take journalistic values such as fairness and balance very seriously.
That said, newspapers publish every day and reporters work under intense deadline pressures. In these conditions, mistakes do happen. Here, then, are 10 tips that might help prevent them, and some advice on how best to work with a reporter given the unique way the media operate.
1. If a reporter leaves a message on your answering machine, try to get back to them that day. I often get calls from scholars two or three days after my story has appeared. Calling early will not only help you get in the paper, it will also give you a bigger role in shaping the story.
2. Feel free to ask the reporter a few questions before you begin. You may want to ask if they cover religion full-time, or if they've ever written on this subject before. You may also ask questions about what kind of story they're writing. This might give you a clue as to how much background you'll need to provide.
3. Resist the urge to answer the reporter's questions by email. I understand why scholars prefer to have their answers in writing. But in most cases, reporters need good lively quotes. Email correspondence is often stilted. More important, email doesn't allow you to develop a relationship. Reporters are much more apt to do the right thing by their sources if they can talk to them on the phone.
4. Don't ask the reporter to review the story before it goes into print. Newspapers don't allow it. That said, if you're worried about how a quote will come across, ask the reporter if he or she would be willing to call you after they've written a draft and read back the paragraph in which you are quoted.
5. If the reporter calls you back with your quote, resist the urge to tinker with it. If the quote is generally accurate and rings true to what you said, let it be. Don't try to parse the nuances. Quotes are intended to be reflections of how people actually talk. If you start qualifying it, it won't serve as a quote and either the reporter or the editor will delete it.
6. Most reporters will ask you to spell your name and give your title. If they don't, remind them. But beware, most newspapers don't always make a distinction between an assistant professor, an associate professor or a full professor. Rarely will they include the name of an endowed chair. Often space is at a premium and clarity comes first. John Doe, professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University, is about as long a title as newspapers want.
7. Even if you've spent 15 or 20 minutes with a reporter, you may not ultimately get quoted. Reporters may talk to half a dozen people for a story, but if they only have 500 words, they may end up quoting only two. Being interviewed by a reporter is not a guarantee that your name will appear in the paper.
8. If you have an idea for a story, call it in or email. Reporters are always shopping around for story ideas, and those who have an ear for untold stories will usually get a return call. That said, don't assume your idea is a bad one if a reporter passes on it. There are lots of factors that go into news decisions. A lot depends on what's happening elsewhere in the world that day. If you do call in an idea, give the reporter as much lead time as possible.
9. Be aware that newspapers generally don't like to cover lectures or academic conferences no matter how sexy the topic. With rare exceptions, lectures don't make for very exciting reading. You can, however, get a lecture topic listed in the paper's public calendar.
10. Finally, if you liked the story, let the reporter know. Reporters usually hear about it when they've made a mistake. But they often don't know when they've gotten something right. The better you are at communicating, the more likely you are to get a return call.