Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Tips for farmers on how to handle journalists

As I listened to the tips a former journalist gave dairy producers recently, I thought there were some good suggestions on how farmers can handle the media better, but frankly I also worried about some of the advice.

Dave Yewman, a former newspaper reporter and columnist who now is a strategic communications expert, held a session for the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association complete with some role-playing to see how farmers handle journalists, and offering 10 tips to help them out.

The 10 tips were:
1) Tell stories.
2) Use facts.
3) Be prepared. Know when the deadline is, or who the reporter is. The first question the farmer should ask is when is the reporter’s deadline. Then if possible, offer to do the interview a bit later that day or the next day, and think through what to say to the reporter.
4) Think visual. A farmer should think what visuals are behind him or her on the farm while doing the interview. Those visuals could help support or may conflict with the message the farmer is giving.
5) Ask questions. Ask what type of story that reporter is writing, and ask if there is anyone else the reporter would like to talk to.
6) Be quotable. Make them memorable, be conversational. Use statistics, specific quotes and anecdotes.
7) Practice. Practice an interview out loud several times.
8) Keep it simple, short and compelling.
9) Beware of loaded questions. He reminded people it’s part of the game and everyone is always on the record.
10) Respond rapidly. Even if farmers are busy, they should ask when is the deadline, ask if they can call back, and make sure they do that before the deadline.

Do I think farmers should be given advice on how to handle reporters? Absolutely. Like in any profession, there are good and bad journalists in our media industry.

I agree with Yewman that people should know such things as who is the journalist, and what’s the story supposed to be about.

Be prepared though: a story can change, even based on the interview or on other circumstances.

For example, the story might originally have been a scheduled friendly profile of a farmer and his family-run operation.

However, that day there might be some unfortunate disease that killed a cow on the other side of the country, which the farmer knows nothing about. The reporter sees this as an opportunity to do a local angle on a national story, and suddenly the farmer is being quizzed on such things as food safety, import rules, market prices and even why should the consumer trust the beef or milk from American farms.

Is it fair to the farmer? No. But unfortunately, that’s what can and does sometimes happen.

Knowing the identity of the journalist is also important, particularly during a time when there are so many special interest publications, personal agendas, and unfortunately people who may look for a chance to attack rather than report agriculture.

I always shudder when I hear how often members of animal rights groups or other special interest groups have passed themselves off as journalists and visited farms to collect damaging “evidence” of “atrocities” they claim to find. This doesn’t mean there aren’t farms who can and should do things better, but unfortunately these types of undercover visits give all agricultural practices a bad reputation, not just the ones visited.

Always be aware of and also wary of journalists who might not be tied to a publication or organization you have heard of or that may be asking questions that seem strange or biased. Listen very carefully to questions and how they are presented. What was the tone, what were the words, how loaded were the questions? Did the person seem more distracted by other things going on around than actually listening and writing down what you said? Have there been statements made by this so-called journalist that made you wonder if there was already a bias or different motive for this interview? What pictures did this reporter take, or what visuals seemed to draw the most attention?

Go with your gut feeling at times, and be prepared to end the interview if you don’t feel comfortable. You have that right. You also have the right to ask the reporter to read back a quote or give back his or her interpretation of what you just said, to clarify and ensure the reporter got it right in words as well as meaning.

Even if it’s a legitimate reporter for a familiar publication, ask how long has the person worked for the newspaper or even in that news beat, and how familiar is that reporter with agriculture or even that type of agriculture.

This lets you know how much background or explanation you need to offer, or might even influence you to decline the interview because you don’t feel comfortable talking to that reporter. You may wish to recommend the reporter talk to someone else, such as the executive director of your organization, or someone else you know could better handle as well as teach this reporter.

I said teach: often we don’t think of interviews in that term, but that is what a source does all the time.

A journalist is being taught about markets, production methods, breeds, varieties, ideas, attitudes, and issues that are relevant to agriculture.

No journalist knows it all. Any journalist who claims to know-it-all is probably not going to be the best person to interview anyone, because that journalist might already have biases and opinions that will mean the reporter won’t listen or be willing to write what the source says but be more tempted to write what he or she thinks should have been said.

This type of reporter might also use too much jargon, miss good questions or skip explanations since he or she is not thinking from the readers’ perspective, and not be open to new angles in the interview or story.

Even though I come from a farm and have been an agricultural journalism just about my whole career does not make me an expert on agriculture: in fact, I will be one of the first to declare the only thing I have learned is that there is so much more out there to learn. It’s a challenge, but it’s also why I love my job: I am continually learning about agriculture from the farmers and other sources I meet.

Yewman stressed journalists have deadlines and are busy people, as are farmers. He made a good point. Another suggestion is to make it clear from the start how much time is available for the interview, from both sides: the farmer’s side, as well as the reporter’s side, so each side knows the need to focus better on getting certain questions out and points across during that time.

One of the things I didn’t necessarily agree with Yewman is when he suggested people should always see if they can do an interview later so they have time to prepare. The media world has been changing, where deadlines even for a weekly newspaper aren’t what they used to be.

In this electronic age, even our weekly newspaper is trying to get stories up as soon as possible on our internet site. For other publications and especially in the broadcast world, there is a rush to be the first to get a story out on the air or on the World Wide Web, and there isn’t always the luxury of time to wait a day or even a few hours to get that interview again later.

Also, sometimes it’s better to do an interview more promptly because of other circumstances. For example, say a farmer speaks up at a conference or other event. After the session, the reporter approaches the farmer. The reporter will probably get the best quotes at that time while the event is still fresh in both the minds of the reporter and farmer: each will remember more clearly what was said, there might still be some of that emotion carried over from what the farmer said at the meeting. There might also be a better chance of the reporter getting things right in terms of what happened, such as having it straight who said what, and going over the precise words again.

A reporter is memorizing sources (if it’s strangers, what did they wear, is it possible to approach them later), what words were used, what mood was the person in and why (the farmer was responding to comments by a speaker, or certain facts in a presentation, or maybe talking to another farmer beside him).

The reporter may have already scribbled down the quick follow-up questions that will help complete the story. A few minutes might be all that is needed with that source.

If the farmer turns down the interview immediately afterwards or delays it for hours or days, the reporter may lose interest in the source, get more things incorrect, and the farmer and reporter might both have problems remembering more of the circumstances of what happened and why the comments were made in the first place.

That’s the reality of human nature and our memory span.

Yewman did offer some valuable tips, and hopefully farmers learned how to work with the reporters. Some farmers deal with media all the time, but some have never been contacted by a reporter before, and that is why such training is useful.

There are some great reporters out there who truly want to understand agriculture, make sure they get the story right and make sure it’s factual, fair and in context: but there are also those who are just trying to make a deadline, no matter what the consequences are to the farmer who shared the story.

Farmers can be valuable ambassadors getting the story of agriculture out to others, but they also deserve to have some tools to help tell the story better — and if needed, protect themselves at times against reporters.

Technorati tags:

Ag in the West social media watch

Capital Press videos on YouTube

Our most popular videos