Top 10 tips for telling your story

Presentation for USGS scientists, 2007

By Mark Schleifstein

Staff writer
The Times-Picayune
New Orleans LA


10: Persevere – Understand that your relationship with a reporter is not a one-time event. It may take a long time for you to trust the reporter and for the reporter to trust you.

9: Be accurate, and make sure your message is clear before the reporter leaves. Don’t exclude facts or take short-cuts in your explanations, because they’ll lead to errors in the story.

8: Complain – If the reporter makes an error, make sure he’s aware of it, and be clear if you want a response to your complaint. Don’t assume the reporter knows he or she made an error, or it could be repeated in future stories.

7: Respect the rules – And make sure both sides understand those rules. Remember that while there seem to be clear rules about what off the record or on background mean in Washington, D.C., the rules may be different in the hinterlands. Indeed, local reporters outside of Washington are much less used to spokespeople attempting to go off record.

6: Embrace my deadline – The news business has changed dramatically in the past few years with the addition of news blogging, online publication and all-day updates. If I say I need the information immediately, be clear whether that’s possible. If something comes up that will make it difficult to meet a deadline, let the reporter know as quickly as possible.

5: Be available – Remember, if you tell me you can’t reach your boss, that’s not necessarily going to keep me from trying to reach him. So don’t get angry when I reach him.

4: Be a generalist – My readers aren’t stupid, but they’re not the most technically educated and often neither are reporters. And even if the reporters are technically adept, it’ll be helpful to avoid jargon and alphabet soup. Think how to simplify difficult concepts. Like Richard Fehynman explaining how the Challenger accident occurred by dropping an O ring in cold water to show how easily it would break.

3: Be patient – It may take several explanations before we figure out what you’re saying. Yes, you may have two or three other reporters to call, but an erroneous story can’t be unpublished. And if you seem annoyed, the reporter may stop trying to understand, and it’ll be your fault the error is made.

2: Know your B words, Bias and Balance. Sources like to talk about how a reporter has biases. Reporters like to talk about achieving balance. But I’ll tell you that I’ve rethought both in the aftermath of Katrina. In New Orleans, we’re in the unusual position of having to report on issues where the bias seems clear – I been reporting on the reasons for levee and floodwall failures in New Orleans for the past two years despite the fact that my house was destroyed by those failures. Yes, there’ s a clear potential of bias there. But there’s no reporter in the city who doesn’t have a similar bias, and we have to just deal with it – both sides. And I’ll tell you that I’m much more interested in accuracy than balance. I’m not going to give equal time to two sides of an issue when one side is clearly wrong. It’s like giving the crook equal time with the cop who arrests him.

1: A disaster is no time to be making new friends. Reach out to reporters and editors now that you think you might be working with during a hurricane or an epidemic or a terrorist event. Now’s the time to be bringing them up to speed on what they should know about how your agency works, what kind of information you have available.

Also --

I'ed urge you to make better use of tools you already have -- the listserves that provide reporters and the public with information about publications and research are not well-known.

You might want to talk with people with my professional journalism organization -- the Society of Environmental Journalists -- about better ways of getting your information out to our members, and do the same with other similar groups, like the National Association of Science Writers, the Radio and Television News Directors Association, and even Investigative Reporters & Editors.
Most of these organizations have their own members-only listserves where tips about such tools or sources are welcomed. Some, like SEJ, even publish tipsheets on subjects that you may be involved in.

This is where I also usually urge scientists, activists, and public officials to make a special effort to reach out to reporters they know are covering issues they're working on -- identifying who is likely to be reporting on them, setting up meetings with them in advance of publication dates to introduce yourselves and getting to know each other.