Winning the political game: How to work with news reporters

(Note: This essay is from the archives, but is still relevant) Even in a day of social media and direct-to-consumer communications, the traditional news media have a big impact on politics and public policy. And dealing with news reporters is hard for some public officials.

Politicians and reporters live in two very different worlds, but they are thrown together in the realm of public policy. Some reporters pride themselves in taking an adversarial approach to their jobs, treating all public officials with skepticism and suspicion.

There’s an old axiom that anyone who really understands an issue, or who was personally involved in a news event, will be disappointed in the news media coverage of the issue or event. That’s not always true, but it often is.

The disenchantment comes, in part, because many public officials don’t understand how news reporters act and think, and what their priorities are. Some public officials have had bad experiences with reporters and some of the grief results from reporters and politicians being on entirely different wavelengths.

A big disconnect occurs when public officials think a reporter should be as interested as they are about a big issue or an initiative they’ve spent months or years working on.

When I was a young general assignments reporter many decades ago, I was sometimes assigned the night police beat. That meant I kept track of what was happening with crime and accidents. But, if things were slow, I might hit a few city council meetings or some other events happening in the evening.

Consider the city council member who has spent many hours working on a big, complex issue, and it’s coming up for council debate and a final vote on Thursday night.

The council begins debating the issue, perhaps one of the biggest initiatives the council will deal with all year. About halfway through the session a young, scruffy-looking reporter (me) walks in the door and sits in the back, looking bored and barely taking notes.  The council member thinks, “So is this poor excuse for a human on the back row going to be the conduit to the public, the person who communicates this crucial initiative, my baby that I’ve shed blood, sweat and tears on, to my constituents out there?”

The answer, like it or not, is yes. And the reporter probably had to cover two or three other meetings or events that night, probably doesn’t understand or care much about your issue, and will have limited space to write about it anyway.

To you, your issue might be the most important thing in the world. But the reporter is just there to do a job, to please his or her editor, to get a byline in the paper, or maybe to find something more sensational and simple to explain than your complex issue. The reporter doesn’t particularly care if your political future is hanging in the balance, or how much time and energy you’ve devoted to the cause.

But all is not lost. Don’t just give up. You can get better coverage if you work at it. Here are some suggestions for dealing with reporters:

  *   Understand that your priorities are not their priorities. You can’t expect them to get excited about your issue or even understand it well unless you can show that their readers will be very interested. Understand that they have a job to do, that they answer to their editors, and they aren’t “public servants” like you are.

  *   Get to know them. If the same reporter frequently covers you or your organization make a point to say hello, engage in a little chitchat, and let them know you’re available for background information, etc.  Reporters are humans too, believe it or not, and it’s entirely possible to develop a good, professional relationship with them if you put a little effort into it.

  *   Get materials to them in advance and make it easy for them to quickly digest your issues and priorities. Do summaries, talking points and frequently asked questions about your issue. For major issues, put together a media kit.

  *   Use examples and anecdotes showing how this issue affects real people in their

  *   Respect their deadlines and working conditions. Do your best to respond to inquiries in a timely fashion.

  *   Accept the fact that a story written about you and your issues and interests might miss a lot of the nuances and some points or facts that you would have liked to see covered. Understand that space is usually limited in newspapers and broadcast news and reporters have to summarize everything and be brief.

  *   If you feel you’ve been mistreated, misquoted or a story is factually inaccurate, talk to the reporter. Do it in a professional, non-confrontational, non-defensive manner and you will most likely have a good experience and will learn a few things from the reporter’s perspective. Most reporters are fair-minded and will correct obvious mistakes. If what you view as a mistake is a matter of interpretation, don’t press the matter to the point you damage relationships. Only if the reporter is rude, obstinate or dishonest should you take the matter over their head to their editor.