"The Truth (At Last!) About Journalists - Spring 2000
“The Truth (At Last!) About Journalists”
by Jim Cameron, Cameron Communications Inc. http://www.mediatrainer.tv/
At the risk of alienating myself from my journalist friends, it’s time to come clean and share with you the truth about this profession.
Having worked as a reporter for many years, both at NBC News and in print, and having operated JFORUM - The Online Press Club since 1985, I know of what I speak. It’s my hope that, by better understanding what makes these muckrakers tick, you’ll have a better chance of pitching your story to them.
CYNICISM: In J-school you’re taught to trust no one. “If your Mama says she loves you,
check it out,” is the maxim by which reporters live. Almost anything you say to a reporter will be met with skepticism. “Prove it,” they’ll say. And when you do, they’ll ask, “So?
Why should I care?” When pitching your story, anticipate that cynicism. Come
armed with statistics, examples, anecdotes and third-party endorsements of your message. Offer your proof without being asked.
MULTI-TASKING: Reporters are often working three or four stories simultaneously. Their attention span rivals that of a three year-old. They hate getting calls from PR “flacks” asking “did you get my fax?” and similar time wasters. When talking with a reporter, get to the point. Don’t waste your time or theirs.
LAZINESS: Given their workload and attention span, they’ll often take your story verbatim if the release (see above) is well written. Rather than struggle to understand the
intricacies of your business, they’ll go for the top-line message. “Don’t bother me with the facts, I’ve got my story” is often their attitude. Present your message in catchy sound bites and bullet-points. Don’t inundate the reporter with thick press packets when a page or two will suffice.
LIBERAL: Reporters who tell you they’re not a little to the left of center are lying …
to you or to themselves. Many enter the profession because they want to “change the world” or “help people.” They see themselves as missionaries and do-gooders, though you’ll seldom find them volunteering for public service. Appeal to this sense of
public interest in your pitch. “What your readers will want to know” often grabs their attention. Don’t try to convert reporters. Instead, use them to persuade their audience.
UNDERPAID: Nobody gets into journalism for the money. There isn’t any. Recent
surveys have shown that major market print and broadcast reporters make less than $50,000. And those behind the scenes (i.e., not on the air or by-lined) make much less. This plays into their Robin Hood mentality Be careful about talking money when you’re
pitching. What you might consider affordable could be seen by the journalist (and their audience!) as a luxury. Stress your product’s benefits over its cost.
ETHICAL: At most media outlets, reporters cannot be “bought”… neither by a free lunch nor an outright bribe. Having taken the “vow of poverty,” journalists will pillory one of their own who gives even the appearance of being paid-off. Employers dictate that holiday gifts can seldom exceed $25 in value. Some reporters won’t even accept a cup of coffee. Though possibly apocryphal, the story is told of the young reporter attending his first “press party.” Feeling guilty as he gawked at the orgy of free food and drink, the reporter said to the PR host, “I feel like a prostitute.” To which the flack replied, “Sorry! It wasn’t in the budget this year.”
COMPETITIVE: They all want to be first with a story. They want to scoop their rivals and bask in the spotlight—even if it means violating their unwritten code of ethics. If they can’t squeeze a comment out of you, they may trick you into giving it. Always assume you’re “on the record”, even when it seems the interview is over. Don’t discuss confidential information or leave tempting documents on your desk when being interviewed. Reporters can read upside-down. And the casual chat as you escort a reporter to the door could lead to a headline.
INCESTUOUS: Nobody consumes more media than reporters. They’re constantly monitoring radio, TV and print competitors, playing catch-up. They hate getting beaten to a story, so try to play fair and not grant exclusives. More than any other media, print is where true journalism occurs. Radio and TV just repackage what they’ve seen in the newspapers. So get your story placed in print first, and the other coverage will follow.
© 2000 Cameron Communications, Inc.
55 Dubois Street, Darien CT 06820-5224