"Knowing how to express your research findings in a 30-second sound bite is something that they just don't teach you in graduate school," said an APA member in a recent media training workshop.
Indeed, the skills acquired in psychology training and the skills needed to traverse the world of media interviews do not enjoy much overlap. Yet educating the public about the contributions of psychology and psychologists through the news media is important to the future of the discipline. Communicating about psychology to the public and policy-makers has never been more important nor more demanding for numerous reasons. One, psychology has so much to offer--so many of the problems that face our nation today have behavioral roots. Two, the national public affairs dialogue is as active as ever--if psychology doesn't define and represent itself, others will in our place. And, finally, a virtual explosion in the types of media from cable television to the Internet have made opportunities for psychology to communicate with the public more abundant and the need for psychology to correct misinformation more prevalent as well.
In light of these needs, how can psychologists prepare themselves to be spokespersons for their own research or clinical work and therefore the discipline? In several ways:
1. Meet the media on a level playing field
First, understand what news reporters and producers want from news sources. As the behavioral expert, the psychologist brings expertise and credibility to news reporting. You help explain events or put them into context. While you may not be aware of the specifics of an event and would not want to speak directly to a particular case, you can discuss the research literature and therefore make the reporting of the event more grounded in science and informative for the public.
In addition to bringing expertise to their reporting, what journalists want most from experts is availability. News breaks at its convenience, not ours. Being accessible to reporters and responding to reporters' calls quickly is critical.
Of course, you can't always anticipate events or the questions you are going to be asked. But if you limit your media work to a couple of issues in which you are most familiar and up-to-date, you can stay abreast of the research literature and clinical trends and often anticipate what is going to be topical or controversial.
2. Be succinct and speak in plain English
Reporters are always pressured by time. Deadlines in today's Internet-paced news environment are constant, and the goal for many news outlets is to update news on a minute-by-minute basis. What does this grand rush do to the quality of news reporting? At times, it hurts it; it also puts more demands on the interviewee to guard against inaccuracies.
When I do media training workshops for APA members across the country, many people tell me they have been misquoted by reporters. Some even believe that reporters deliberately misquote news sources or use what they say out of its original context. I have a different view. While there are some media outlets that have a particular point of view, most outlets do not. Most media are trying to do an objective job, and the great majority of reporters want to do two things: to get the story right and to get the story completed before deadline.
I'm not one who tends to blame the reporter. In fact, I believe there is a shared responsibility to ensure that the reporting is accurate and that the news interviewee has a major role to play in protecting against being misquoted or misinterpreted. How? By doing your homework and being disciplined during the interview.
Doing one's homework involves knowing what you want to communicate about an issue before the cameras are rolling. One excellent way to prepare your message is to think about the questions you would expect to be asked, then write out your answers and read them aloud. By doing so you have prepared for the interview by anticipating what the questions may be, and you have prepared your message points in writing out the answers.
If you are writing for the mass media, keep in mind that your audience is very different from the audience for psychological journals. Keep your sentences short and your thoughts succinct. The typical quote or sound bite today is one to two sentences in length.
Avoid psychological jargon by using plain English. A good ground rule is to ask yourself how you would explain your research to your neighbor across the fence on a Saturday morning. Are you using words and creating word pictures that your neighbor would understand?
3. Set the ground rules for the interview
As a news source, you are not powerless in the interview situation. In fact, you are at your most powerful at the initial stage when a reporter first contacts you asking for an interview.
You have the right to set certain ground rules and to be fully apprised of what the reporter or producer wants you to do. This is the time when you ask the questions. You'll want to ask the reporter what news outlet he or she works for and what kind of publication or program it is if you are not familiar with it.
You also have the right to be interviewed at the time and location of your choice. And you can set limits on how much time you can give the reporter. The idea here is to try to strike a balance. It's important to be responsive and cooperative with the reporter--always remembering that in all probability he or she is facing a deadline later that day or the next day--while at the same time making sure you are fully aware of what you're getting into so you can be fully prepared for it. If the request comes from a radio or television station, it's particularly important to ask: Is this interview going to be done live or on tape? Of what duration? Are there other guests involved? Does the program take calls from listeners?
4. Watch out: Is the reporter going fishin'?
Psychology is blessed with a number of nationally prominent reporters who know the discipline well, but some reporters are not as well versed and don't prepare for interviews as much as they should. Some are "generalist" reporters with little understanding of psychology. When this is the case, it is even more critical that the interviewee control the interview and educate the reporter. Control the interview by "discarding" questions that have nothing to do with the subject matter at hand and bring the reporter back to the crux of the matter. One effective technique for accomplishing this is simply telling the reporter, "I don't know how to answer that, it's really not germane to the subject, but what is important is...."
Often at the end of interviews reporters will ask you if there's anything else you'd like to tell them, anything they missed. This is your very important opportunity to add information or correct misinformation. Be sure to do so, even if it's repeating what you've discussed earlier in the interview. In this case, redundancy leads to more accurate reporting.
Some reporters also like to find the controversy in a given situation. They'll ask questions to get you to say something you had no intention of saying and would certainly not like to be quoted as having said. (A rule of thumb--don't ever say anything to a news reporter that you would not want attributed to you.) If a reporter asks you to speculate or lays out a hypothetical and asks you to respond, it's always best not to. Simply said, stick to what you know and never be afraid to say, "I don't know."That may be just the answer the reporter is expecting, but he or she felt compelled to ask the question to see what you would say.
Marilyn Elias, who covers psychology for USA Today and often writes about the work and research of APA members, advises interviewees to always stay within the range of their most up-to-date knowledge.
"Just because I ask you a question doesn't mean you are obliged to speak," Elias says. "If an interviewee doesn't know a lot about a topic area, I really want them to be candid with me and say so."
Last month at another media training workshop, I was critiquing an interview a psychologist member had given and asked her why she hadn't used any of her message points during the interview. I was playing the role of reporter, so her response to me was, "You asked the wrong questions, I couldn't give my answers with your questions."
Ah, but that's just the trick. Sometimes reporters ask the wrong questions (or the hard questions). And it's up to us to respond to the appropriate ones, weed out the uninformed ones and still deliver the information that we know to be important to the issue at hand.
Rhea K. Farberman conducts media training workshops for APA divisions and state associations upon request. There is no fee for these programs. Contact the Public Communications Office for more information at (202) 336-5700.