July | August 2017



 

Six Keys to Journalists' Hearts

by Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene, CSG Senior Fellows
When people ask us what we do for a living, we find ourselves hesitating in a fashion we imagine others find a bit odd. We know this doesn’t seem like the kind of question anybody should have trouble answering. But we’ve become a mixture of researchers/reporters/editors/fiscal analysts/public speakers/evaluators/advisers and so on—all pertaining to state and local government.
Underlying all the roles we play, however, is our training as journalists for newspapers and magazines. The two of us even met in journalism school. So, whatever we’re doing, we tend to think of ourselves as journalists in one way or another. And because of this, we also are keenly aware that the relationships between state officials and journalists can be both incredibly valuable and tricky. With that in mind, it struck us that a list of tips—drawn from personal experience—to help state leaders in all three branches improve their interactions with journalists might be useful.

1. Return phone calls and e-mails.

This may seem like the most basic notion of all, but it’s startling how often calls or notes to government offices go unreturned for days, weeks or forever. We’re pretty persistent and frequently discover that our phone message was supposed to be transferred to a more appropriate party but never made it there. In other instances, the person to whom we’re writing doesn’t have any idea how to respond to our query, and so they don’t respond at all. Or they’re snowed under by work and decide that they’ll get back when their time eases—which, given the intensity of state government work, sometimes never actually materializes.
We certainly understand and sympathize with this last issue, but here’s our recommendation: Just respond, in a sentence or two, indicating that the call or e-mail was received and what’s happened to it. It’s fair enough to let journalists know that you simply don’t have time to help. That’s frustrating, but it’s a lot less frustrating than silence. Remember, by the way, that some journalists who can’t reach the appropriate source will talk to whomever he or she can reach, regardless of whether the person interviewed can really provide them with thorough and entirely accurate information.

2. Try to avoid acronyms when talking to a journalist.

We know that some of our colleagues will just let incomprehensible acronyms slide and hope they can figure out what their source was talking about sometime down the line. You can always tell if an acronym is unwieldy if you don’t know exactly what it stands for. This comes up with particular frequency when dealing with budget and accounting-­related issues. People meander on about PILOTS (payments in lieu of taxes) or ARC (actuarial required contribution) or CAFRs (comprehensive annual financial reports) or PERS (public employee retirement systems). We’ve been at this business for more than 25 years, so these examples make sense to us. But when you’re talking to the reporter from the local newspaper or radio station, these acronyms, and others like them, are often unfathomable and their use without explanation could cause misunderstandings.

3. Think twice before making proclamations without evidence.

Recently we were talking to someone from Michigan who referred to a streamlining effort that was saving time for other activities. That sounded good, so we asked for examples of the other activities. After about five minutes of back and forth, we discovered that our source couldn’t provide any specifics to make this generality more concrete.
It’s possible that some journalists won’t follow through and ask for specifics. But when they do and there’s no specific example forthcoming, it sheds doubt on the initial comment. We’ve discovered that follow-up questions can be a key to uncovering an unsubstantiated claim. If that’s not the case, it’s probably a good idea to subsequently provide the journalist with some specifics.

4. Make sure your online documents are as usable as possible.

Time and again, we come across a government-produced piece of work online that doesn’t show the date it was produced. This makes it difficult for journalists to use the information without lots of follow-up because we can’t take the risk that we’re relying on 10-year-old information. Some journalists may use this information, assuming it to be timely, thus producing an article that will make public officials want to tear their hair out. Additionally, it’s always helpful when a source for more information, alongside contact information, is included.

5. If something is wrong with an article, be civil if you decide to send a note about a correction.

This is a real bugaboo for us. We make every effort to make sure that every nuance of anything we write is unfailingly accurate, but sometimes issues pop up.
Most journalists are happy to hear from readers, but let us share with you a remarkably typical example of a first line in the notes we often get: “Dear Ms. Barrett and Mr. Greene: Has it ever occurred to you to do any research before you write things that you claim are true?”

6. Requests for lists of questions prior to an interview are frequently unhelpful and increasingly common.

We understand that people with whom we’ll be talking want to know what we’ll be talking about, and it seems only fair to provide a list of general topics. But the notion that journalists can come up with a precise list of all the questions demonstrates a misunderstanding of the journalistic process. Often the best information we get comes in response to follow-up queries, which would never have occurred to us before an interview began. This is particularly true when a source tells us something that’s a surprise, which is often the case.
To be fair, we can’t recall that anyone has refused to talk with us when we’ve responded to a request for questions with a brief list of general topics. But receiving a request for a list of questions just doesn’t get anyone anyplace. There may be an exception to this general idea when we’re asking someone for explanations about specific data and he or she wants to see the data in question before we begin talking. Providing that material can just save everyone a lot of time during the interview.

 

We hope that the preceding doesn’t sound self-serving, or come across as a list of ways in which government sources can make our jobs easier. The reality is that the public’s view of government is largely informed by the media. The more that government officials can communicate effectively with the press—whether it’s newspapers, radio, television or something on the Internet—the likelier it is that the story that’s ultimately disseminated will be accurate and thorough. That goal benefits everyone concerned.

 

About Barrett and Greene

CSG Senior Fellows Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene are experts on state government who work with Governing magazine, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Volcker Alliance and others. As CSG senior fellows, Barrett and Greene serve as advisers on state government policy and programming and assist in identifying emerging trends affecting states.