Winning the Political Game: How to Work with a News Reporter

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 leaders don’t understand how news reporters act and think, and what their priorities are. Most public officials have had bad experiences with reporters and some of the grief results from reporters and politicians having entirely different agendas and priorities.

In this day of social media, when political and civic leaders can connect directly to the public without “filtering” by the news media, some leaders see no reason to worry about the news media. That is a big mistake, because the tradition news media still set the agenda and reach the most people. A very high percentage of social media posts link to on-line stories posted by news organizations.

A big disconnect occurs when public officials think a reporter should be as interested as they are in a big issue or an initiative they’ve spent months or years working on. Consider the city council member who has spent untold numbers of hours working on a big, complex initiative, and it’s coming up for council debate and a final vote on Thursday night.

The council begins debating the issue and about halfway through the meeting a young, scruffy-looking reporter 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 being 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 three or four 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 initiative might be the most important thing in the world. But the reporter is there to do a job, to please his or her editor, to get a byline in the paper. And he or she will probably look for something sensational and simple to explain 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 don’t give up. You can get better coverage if you work at it. Here are some suggestions for working with reporters:

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