talk to The Wildlife Trusts Directors' Conference, Pitlochry, 12 June 2007
Hello. The title of my talk today is 'How to increase your column inches'. Unfortunately that reminds me of a slightly rude letter I read recently in New Scientist about the phenomenon of junk email. A male reader wrote in to say that he didn't see what the problem was with junk email. He had been faithfully following the instructions he had received in every junk email for years, and his penis was now 42 feet long.
It is an unusual privilege for journalists to be asked to give a talk to the organisations they report on. We are used to the relatively easy task of reporting other people's views rather than formulating our own. Nevertheless, I am grateful for your invitation to me to talk to you today. What I want to do is to say a little about news values, then something about the nature of the newspapers and the media and how to understand them. Then a little about how you can use that to your advantage to influence the media. I will end with a few thoughts about the responsibilities of journalists. More than happy to take questions of discuss any of the issues raised. All my personal views and not necessarily those of any of my employers. Please forgive my caricatures, and forgive me if I'm telling you things you already know.
Misunderstandings about the media are widespread. Opinions are conflicting and views are extreme. Some people regard television and newspapers as the lowest of the low and wouldn’t be seen dead talking to a journalist. Others venerate them as honourable defenders of liberty and spend all their time trying to talk to them. Some people believe everything they read in the papers: others believe nothing. If you are serious in wanting to use the media to influence opinion, your first task is to understand what the media are and how they work.
All of the media in one way or another deal essentially in news. They talk about the relative “news value” of different items, a concept that determines what gets reported and what does not, and what stories lead the news bulletins, lead pages or make the front page. But what are news values? After more than 25 years as a journalist, constantly talking to the news editors who define news values, it is a concept I still have great difficulties with. It is an ever-changing, chameleon-like notion, which every time you think you have grasped it, slips between your fingers.
That said, here is my latest attempt - tongue slightly in cheek and by no means exhaustive - to list the 14 key components of what makes a goods news story:
newness: something that has not been said before. News editors are generally not interested in things that sound like yesterday's news.
quirkiness: the odd, imaginative, original, surprising. Story not so ago about the discovery of the world's oldest penis on a fossilised Daddy-Long-Legs near Aberdeen. Operation in 2002 to remove an old WW2 bomb from near the Faslane nuclear weapons base - Operation Clouseau.
human interest: the personal, the intimate, the moving. Marriage break-ups, tug-of-love cases, celebrity drug addictions, sickness, bereavement.
other news media: there is an incestuous interest in competitors. Editors are often keen on stories that advance or knock a rival's story.
exclusives: Journalists like nothing more than to be first with a story, and the media will devote a lot more space or time to stories they have for themselves, ahead of their rivals.
local tie-in: Scottish newspapers stress the relevance to Scotland, the Stirling Observer will want something that affects the people of Stirling, newspapers in Kent will want stories that affects their readers (inverse problem of parochialness, Press & Journal on death of Charlie Chaplin: 'NAIRN: ONE OF THE FAMOUS COMEDIANS' FAVOURITE SPOTS', or The Times, famously, once: 'FOG OVER THE ENGLISH CHANNEL - CONTINENT CUT OFF'. Another definition of what makes a story for a London newspaper: 'ONE DEAD IN THE THAMES, FIVE DEAD IN THE CLYDE, 1000 DEAD IN THE GANGES').
flavour of month: Blair on the rocks, Tommy Sheridan, Madeline McCann, alleged terrorist plots. News is very fashion-conscious, very prone to fads and obsessions - what is a story one week may not be one the next.
photo opportunities: unusual, amusing or dramatic pictures. Ramblers silhouetted against the skyline climbing over razorwire, for example, the head of the local Wildlife Trust up to his or her waist in a peatbog, fantastic pictures of weird and wonderful wildlife. Miss Scotland hitching up her tartan skirt to help protect the Capercaillie - corny, questionable but effective.
famous people: Royalty, soap stars, film stars, pop stars, reality TV stars, politicians, sports people. David Beckham, Tommy Sheridan, Princess Diana (still). The Sun learnt what an 'Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty' so it could apply it to Kylie Minogue's bottom.
real people: the victims, those directly affected, those who speak for no lobby but have valuable things to say. Local people upset about wind farms or pylons or nuclear waste dumps, for example, or scientists who discover something new about wildlife.
sex, animals, royalty and religion: stable diet of much of the media, preferably all four together (SEX-CHANGE PRIEST IN ROYAL PUP MERCY DASH). Animals - your greatest asset, endless scope for stories. I did one at the weekend about plans to reintroduce beavers to Scotland. SWT wildlife watch with The Scotsman - high profile, seems very successful.
violence and death: court reports, crime, war. Murders, muggings, rapes now assuming a much higher profile in the broadsheet newspapers than they did, say, ten years ago.
secrecy: leaked documents, suppressed information, freedom of information requests. One definition of news that I like is something that someone somewhere doesn't want to become public.
genuinely important events: wars, elections, political decisions, disasters, strikes.
Understanding the media
First and foremost television, radio and newspapers are businesses. Their overriding aim is to produce a product that people want to watch, listen to or read. Even the BBC - which is slightly different from the others in that it has traditionally been a public service - lives or dies on its ratings: the numbers who watch or listen to given programmes. There are some parts of the media - sections of the redtop tabloid press or some TV channels for example - which cannot really claim to be anything other than entertainment businesses. Other sections of the media - mainstream television, BBC radio, the quality newspapers, local newspapers - regard themselves as something more than just businesses. They are institutions with a duty to reflect the public interest, organs of mass communication with a responsibility to enable to spread of accurate information, a fourth estate.
Journalists are not always noble beings. But we are not always ignoble either. It may sound obvious but we deal in news: the previously unknown, the surprising, the enlightening, the revelatory, the new. We like to deal with all the infinite shades of grey in simple black and white. We are not particularly interested in harmony: we are far more interested in conflict. We love stereotypes. We dislike caveats, complexities and cop-outs. We prefer soundbites to lectures. We are more concerned with understanding a few essential facts rather than a wealth of detail. We work at great speed with the aim of getting things roughly right rather than at leisure with the aim of getting things precisely right.
Journalists are not academics or experts or decision-makers. We are merely observers trying to provide, as someone once said, the first draft of history. We prefer events instead of issues, personalities instead of ideas and criticisms instead of praise. We are much more preoccupied with bad news than good news. We are much more interested in the things people don’t want to say rather than the things they do. This is because conflict, events, personalities, criticisms, bad news and secrets are much more interesting to read about. It is also because, I would argue, they are the stuff of life.
The nature of the media poses awkward problems for those who work in government, but distinct advantages for those who want to influence government. Our fondness for bad news over good means that we are bound to run far more stories about problems than about benefits. I would have difficulty selling a story to a news editor about a new study showing that some pollution was not doing any harm. I would have much less difficulty selling a story about a new study showing that the pollution might be doing some harm. Accidents and mishaps that have damaged wildlife or spoilt the countryside are news: the routine operation of wildlife reserves over decades is generally not. Arguments with landowners or residents is a story, years of harmony and constructive discussions are not. If we are honest with ourselves, I think we are all more interested in learning about other people's dramatic mistakes than about their mundane successes. We are far more likely to read an article about someone who committed a murder than one about someone who simply went to work and then came home. And what we want to read is what the newspapers are bound to print. I can understand if this sometimes produces frustration. But it is a reality that we all have to learn to live with.
Influencing the media
The character of the media and journalists presents anyone attempting to influence them with a series of problems. Nevertheless, with some skill, knowledge and cunning, it is my belief that organisations who wish to influence the media can do so, often greatly to their advantage. This is what we'll been practicing in the workshops later. I have formulated a few tips, that at hope will at least start you thinking. Of course this is not an exhaustive list:
always be clear: Say exactly what you want to say in the first two sentences, like a news story. Don't use jargon, acronyms, or unnecessarily long words. Remember that many journalists are not specialists, may not even be interested in wildlife or the environment, so it's vital you get your message across in as concise, accurate and interesting a way as possible. Use named people not anonymous spokespeople. In the email age, please no attached documents, a bug bear of mine, one click too many. Also impolite to send large, unasked for files (that's enough photos of men in suits handing over cheques, thanks) And no visible circulation lists - could breach data protection legislation.
timing is all: Properly timed and embargoed news releases. No point in issuing a release at 5pm for the following morning's papers as, unless it's really shocking, it won't get it. Don't expect a Sunday newspaper to be interested in a story you've embargoed for Thursday, but do expect them to lobby to break your Monday embargo. News releases without embargoes more likely to get ignored. Remember the importance of anniversaries, which allow media organisations to plan which often news doesn't.
target your audience: Understand what the media want and find ways in which their interests and yours coincide. So that, for example, national radio, television and newspapers will only be interested in things that have a national relevance. Sunday newspapers will want to forecast next week's news rather than repeat last week's. TV will want pictures, and radio will want sound. And local newspapers will want stories of relevance to their readership, consumer affairs magazines will want stories about shopping, science magazines will want men and women in white coats making breakthroughs etc. Know whether your story is more likely to fit into a news format (here, now, new) or a feature format (more personal, more in-depth, less directly linked to day-to-day news agenda).
use events to publicise issues: Media stunts like photo opportunities, protests, comedy to get across ideas. Pantomime animals are good. Hold news conferences if you've got something new and exciting to say, also visits, openings.
make yourself available: Put phone numbers at the end of releases, landlines and mobiles, be prepared to answer them at all hours. Sewage leak from Seafield in Edinburgh, we learnt about it shortly before 11pm, so before midnight I had to reach Thames Water, Scottish Environment Protection Agency and Edinburgh City Council - all responded via out-of-hours procedures.
go off the record: Useful technique, based on trust. Very commonly I speak to people about a situation or an event off the record, then, after we've talked, we agree what they want to say on the record, often by email. Helps journalists understand a situation, helps you explain it properly and provides some protection against giving embarrassing quotes. But be wary. Don't tell me something of huge public interest like wildlife are being wiped out by some hitherto unknown toxin and expect me to do nothing about it.
develop a media strategy: Invest in a media division. Monitor media coverage. Don't contact journalists in an unplanned, ad-hoc, way. Cultivate journalistic contacts. Have people trained to deal with daft journalistic inquiries. Identify those who perform well on radio and television in your organisation, and who enjoy the limelight rather than hating it. Remember that those who are expert in a particular field are not always the best at communication. An eloquent lay person with charisma may come across better than a shy specialist with a personality by-pass. Ensure all your staff have an understanding of how the media work, and know some of the basic rules about communicating with the media. Make it part of the culture of your organisation.
get your rebuttal in first: Sooner or later you may have to deal with a crisis either within the organisation, or in the environment. The media loves crises, they feed on them. So you need a strategy for dealing with them. Rule number one: if you know bad news is on the way, get your rebuttal in first. If you are the first to tell journalists bad news about yourselves, or about some event, the coverage will not be as bad as when your critics are the source of the story (example of National Trust for Scotland and resignation of Robin Pellew, email to everyone, only option to tell the news first, not just react to it). Always be prepared to talk. Journalists have an obligation to listen and reflect all points of view, so there is nothing to lose in always keeping lines of communication open. The agencies or companies that get the worst press are often those who refuse to talk to them. Of all the responses to media inquiries, by far the least helpful is “no comment”. It doesn’t give the journalist the chance to understand a different point of view and it implies guilt. Talk off the record, if you want. Take a few minutes to think about what you want to say if you like, even offer to call back or send an email when you've collected your thoughts, but please say something.
don't complain without good cause: Of course the media sometimes get things wrong. Don't be surprised by that. Don't expect 100% accuracy. Most of the time, it doesn't really matter. Don't get agitated by it. Don't threaten - my boss will speak to your boss, we will sue. Don't tell journalists what is and what is not a story. Annoying. If you are victim of a serious misrepresentation, write a short, polite letter correcting it. Maybe talk to the journalist, but don't assume it was their fault. Stories are edited by subs, and journalists don't write the headlines. Complain to newspaper's internal watchdogs, or to the press complaints commission if you feel you have to. Please don't embark on legal action. Wastes so much time.
don't get downhearted: Journalists need stories, they may not always be polite or appreciative, but they need you at least as much as you need them. As well as emails and letters, phone journalists up, they need stories, try to put your view forward, firmly, politely and quickly. Be pushy but polite. But if it's plain they are on a deadline or just not interested, quickly go away. But please don't give up. It is possible to manipulate the media to your advantage
The responsibilities of journalists
Finally, what about the responsibilities of journalists? Sadly, I think overall journalistic standards may be declining. Dumbing-down is a real phenomenon. You are nowadays much more likely to see a murder story on the front of broadsheet newspapers that you were, say, a decade ago. There is more sex, more human interest and less and less coverage of genuinely important topics. One result of this is the obsessive, almost morbid, fascination that takes hold when a famous person - be it Princess Diana or Steve Irwin or Madeline McCann - dies or disappears in unusual circumstances. It is getting increasingly hard to make a television documentary about serious issues. More liberties are taken with the truth than they used to be, particularly in tabloid newspapers and tabloid television. This is depressing.
Set against that there are some encouraging signs. Although the concentration of ownership of the media in a few hands is still a major problem, from the internet one can get a glimpse of more encouraging future possibilities. You no longer have to get Rupert Murdoch or some other newspaper baron to published your writing, you can just put it up on a website at no cost and anyone who wants can read it. And there is a huge proliferation of TV channels and radio stations. To me, that is healthy. That has great possibilities for the future. And some newspapers, radio programmes and TV stations are still doing good jobs.
What about bias and objectivity? A very personal opinion, not every journalist would agree. The great journalist, James Cameron, wrote extensively about nuclear weapons and about the Vietnam War, often making fierce criticisms of them both. Cameron often found himself the butt of criticism for being biased or lacking objectivity. His response was typically robust:
"I do not see how a reporter attempting to define a situation involving some sort of ethical conflict can do it with sufficient demonstrable neutrality to fulfil some arbitrary concept of 'objectivity'. It never occurred to me in such a situation, to be other than subjective, and as obviously so as I could manage to be...As I see it, the journalist is obliged to present his attitude as vigorously and persuasively as he can, insisting that it is his attitude, to be examined and criticised in the light of every contrary argument, which he need not accept but must reveal."
James Cameron, Point of Departure, Oriel Press, 1967.
As far as I am concerned, Cameron is right. I have difficulty with the idea of objectivity. I have never met any human being, let alone any journalist, who I would regard as objective. Those who have claimed it, were deceiving themselves and their audiences. In every angle in every story, in the choice of each word - who 'claims' something to be the case and who 'states' it? - we are all revealing our opinions, our prejudices, our perspectives. That is not something to be ashamed off, to hide, it is something to accept and be as open as possible about. In practice as a journalist I think that means that there is nothing wrong with taking a particular line, with - if you like - slanting a story against someone or in favour of someone else. But in so doing you do have responsibilities. You should expose yourself to opposing views, listen to those who take a different line and reflect their views in whatever you write. You should always give those who are criticised an opportunity to defend themselves. You should obviously try to be as accurate as you can. In a nutshell, it is not the job of a journalist to be objective, but it is his or her responsibility to be fair.