It's my story: helping care-experienced young people give effective media interviews
Some myths about the media
The following myths underpin many of our concerns about working with the media. You will probably be asked questions about these issues when you are helping young people to prepare for media interviews. So it’s useful to know what really lies behind these myths in order to give young people a balanced and accurate picture.
Journalists misquote you on purpose
Most journalists are trying to represent stories as accurately as possible. They are seldom specialists in the issues they cover and they rely on the people they interview to put information across clearly. As human beings we don’t always get our point across very well and the journalist trying to make sense of what we are saying may be confused, or misunderstand our point. We can help them by trying to get our points across as clearly as possible and repeating key points several times.
Journalists deliberately edit out all your best bits
Journalists work within very tight boundaries. A researcher may spend several days interviewing 20 people for a 15-minute radio programme, for example, or a journalist may interview someone over the phone for 10 minutes for approximately a 50-word quote in a 500-word article.
Journalists usually have to work within detailed guidelines laid down by their editor, including what issues to cover, who to speak to and so on. They then have to select which bits of the pre-recorded interviews they believe will make the most interesting and lively listening or viewing. Or they may have to include many different people in one article and need to choose a variety of different points of view. You may have made a very good point but this point may also have been made by someone else – so the journalist won’t want to repeat this but may decide to use something else you have said instead. (Very clever interviewees repeat their main point over and over again in lots of different ways to increase the chance of this being used.)
It’s best to do a pre-recorded interview rather than a live one
As the above point highligts, all pre-recorded interviews are likely to be edited in some way. So if there is a choice, always go for the live interview.
Journalists are very well paid
Apart from a small number of journalists working for the tabloids and some famous TV presenters, most people working in the media – especially local media – earn relatively little compared with other professions. Many people working in the media these days are on very short-term contracts and have little or no job security.
Journalists should always let you see or hear their piece afterwards so you can decide whether it’s OK
If everyone got to check their interviews before they were published or broadcast then journalists would never be able to put a programme or article together! Just imagine if the 20 people they interviewed said: ‘You have to add in this bit, and you must include a lot more detail on that …’. The journalist would never be able to fit the piece into a 15-minute slot or keep the article within 800 words!
There is another reason why many journalists won’t let you read an article or see a programme before it is edited. If you see the piece and say: ‘I want you to change X’ and they do this, you will then assume that this is how the piece will appear. But the journalist doesn’t make the final decisions – these are made by the editor. The editor may decide to add in some extra detail from a news story which has just broken or make some other form of change. To keep within the time or word limit they must then cut out some other parts of the piece. Many publications and programme makers do not allow journalists to show unfinished pieces to people who have been interviewed because they do not want to imply that a deal or contract has been made.
However, it’s always worth asking if there is a chance you can see the draft piece, because there may be exceptions to the rule – especially when journalists know they are making programmes or writing articles about very sensitive information.
If you say something is ‘off the record’ before you say it, the journalist cannot use it
‘Off the record’ is a convention but it has no legal status. Many journalists do respect the notion of something being off the record, for example, ‘I don’t want you to mention my sister’s name in this interview. Off the record, this isn’t for any mysterious reason, but she’s been very ill and I don’t want people calling her up just because they’ve seen her name in the paper.’
However, journalists are always looking for a good story so it is foolish to tell an interviewer something fascinating ‘off the record’, and then expect them not to use it! (Somebody once told a journalist off the record that a famous painting was a fake – and was then surprised when the story made front-page news.)
You own the interview so you can change your mind afterwards
Once an interview is given it becomes the property of the person who recorded the interview. This is why it’s best to prepare carefully before deciding to give an interview. Of course, if you realise you have made a major mistake or some important change of circumstances has happened, it is always worth contacting the journalist to tell them about this. They may be able to make some changes – but this cannot be guaranteed.
Journalists should always pay young people to give interviews
Nobody should be out of pocket for doing an interview. So it is fair, for example, to expect that travel costs will be covered. If on top of this the journalist is able to make a donation towards an organisation, or pay a little over the odds for the interviewee’s expenses, that is great. But most journalists don’t pay for interviews, for a number of reasons:
- We live in a country with a free press and paying for interviews doesn’t sit very well with this. The term ‘cheque book journalism’ is a derogatory one – for exactly that reason. If you expect interviews to be paid for then only the very well-funded parts of the media will have access to interviewees – and local media, community and voluntary sector media and specialist press will not be able to cover these issues.
- In most cases there is no money allocated to pay for interviews. Local radio and community television stations are often run on a shoestring and some presenters may be volunteers. Even at national level the budgets are often very tight. Journalists who might be paid £200–£300 for a feature that took them five days to put together will not have spare money to pay interviewees – and it’s unlikely their editors will have any spare money in their budget to supplement this.
- People tend to give the best interviews when they care passionately about an issue. If you encourage young people to expect a fee every time they give an interview you may find that some young people come forward because they want the fee rather than because they have something interesting to say.
If you are unhappy with the finished programme or article you should never have anything to do with that journalist again
The journalist may be unhappy about it too! They may have explained very carefully to the editor how important it was to keep in this quote or use this particular expression, but the editors or sub-editors have changed things.
If you are unhappy with a finished programme or article, it is much better to ring up the journalist and ask nicely about what happened, rather than get angry with them or write a letter of complaint to the editor. If you handle things well, the journalist will probably remember you as a helpful person and will do their best to get things right for you and your organisation next time round. They may be working for a different programme, publication or editor next time and you may find the next piece is much closer to what you hoped for.