Education Leadership Conference

When a local newspaper reporter contacted psychologist Ellen L. Nuffer, EdD, for her thoughts on an education and technology initiative recently announced by New Hampshire Gov. Craig Benson, Nuffer eagerly shared her theories on the issue.

"I was making a lot of grand points about the importance of curricular reform and technology," explained Nuffer, an associate education professor at Keene State College in Keene, N.H., at a media training workshop held during APA's 2003 Education Leadership Conference. Nuffer thought the interview--which ran long--had gone well. Then, the next day, she read the published article. "I said something quotable about a minor point, and that's what appeared in the paper," said Nuffer, who also directs Keene State's Faculty Resource Center. "I wasn't misquoted, but I felt used." Worse still, Nuffer felt like the main points she'd made--the ones she'd really wanted to communicate to the public--had been overlooked in the article.

At the workshop, Christopher Kush, president of Soapbox Consulting, a grassroots training organization in Washington, D.C., and ABC News correspondent Nancy Weiner advised Nuffer and other education leaders on how to avoid such mishaps by more effectively interacting with the media.

Kush, for example, used Nuffer's experience to illustrate the dichotomy between what journalists want in a story and how psychologists are trained to do research. Journalists like to use anecdotes and make a story's main point up-front. Psychologists amass a lot of data and statistics, and then slowly build up to a finding or conclusion. But the bottom line, said Kush, is that psychologists can improve their chances of getting their issue or finding covered--or being quoted accurately--if they learn to shape their ideas for the media.

Moreover, they can be more proactive about getting their points accurately reflected in the media by pitching stories to journalists, rather than waiting to be called. To adeptly handle the media, psychologists need to know--and then tailor their ideas to reflect--the elements journalists seek in a story, said Weiner. These elements include:

  • Timeliness. Why should the story be done now?

  • Visual appeal. For TV news, what footage can be shot to make the story interesting?

  • Personal interest. For example, if you pitch a story about a new distance-learning program you've developed, can you connect the journalist with a student benefiting from the program? Personal anecdotes engage viewers and readers, Weiner said. Also, if the student wants anonymity, let the reporter know beforehand. He or she can arrange for the interview subject to be visibly and audibly disguised.

  • A local or national angle. What's the point of the story, and why should local or national readers and viewers care?

  • Ease of turnaround. Pitching a story idea with the details above--suggesting a person to interview or a suitable location shoot--means less legwork for the reporter. Weiner said that TV journalists often begin and complete a story for an evening broadcast in a day, so they're always looking for interesting story ideas that can be easily executed.

Reflecting on Weiner's advice, Nuffer noted, "I wish I'd known what I learned from this workshop before I had that interview. I needed to be clearer and reiterate more frequently what my point was. But I was speaking more as a professor and giving [the reporter] a lot of background."

She added, "It's one thing to publish in a research journal; it's another thing to have something on ABC News. We have the opportunity to influence public policy and opinion using information that comes from a legitimate research or practice knowledge base, as opposed to 'gut feelings' or anecdotes. If we are leaders, we have to think about leadership in multiple ways--not only leading within our discipline but also in areas affecting public policy."