Radio 2 presenter Jeremy Vine posed the question “Have you ever been a victim of the press getting a story wrong about you?” on his discussion programme yesterday. Not surprisingly, plenty of listeners rang in to describe being “hounded by newspapers” and there was lots of talk about fabricating stories and wrecking lives.
But I can say, as a national newspaper journalist, there is a lot you can do to at least improve your chances of having a story about you reported correctly:
- Prepare properly. Most media interviews last just minutes, maybe even seconds, which tempts people into thinking they don’t need to prepare for them. It’s BECAUSE they’re so short that you need to prepare thoroughly. Basically, you know too much about your subject for us to print, so distil it.
- Stick to just a couple of key thoughts. You need to have your own “agenda”, just as the journalist will probably have theirs, which may involve them taking you down a tricky avenue you should avoid. If you stick firmly to your route, you won’t stray down theirs.
- Hold your line. Often interviewees start well and stick to their messages, but after more pushing from the journalist, they cave in and give the information they wanted to avoid passing on. So never be afraid to say, “As I explained,…..” or “I must keep coming back to the fact that we….”. Put simply, if you don’t give them “bad stuff”, they can’t use your “bad stuff”.
- Follow up. Mistakes in articles often come about because of a cock-up not a conspiracy. Don’t hesitate to summarise your thoughts or statistics in an email after the interview, which they could “cut and paste”.
- Check the article. Journalists will rarely let you see a piece before it goes to print, but you can improve your chances by offering, in a spirit of helpfulness, to take a quick look at it to check facts and figures etc are up to date. This is more likely to work with a monthly magazine, which has a long lead time during when stats etc might have changed, or trade publications which might want to have a good on-going relationship with your company or organisation.
Of course all this won’t stop the press creating a story highlighted on the Jeremy Vine programme: a shop owner put a sign in her store window after the newly-opened Trafford Centre began attracting shoppers away from her business. The sign read: “Just looking isn’t enough, you have to spend money”. The newspaper story that followed stated that her shop “…bans browsers”.
But it’s worth remembering at a time when we’ve heard so much at the Leveson Inquiry about the press being all-powerful, that there’s plenty interviewees can do to help themselves…without a Royal Charter.