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Dealing with the Press
by Wendy R. Leibowitz

This past weekend I spent at a Training Institute for a newly-formed organization, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, or, in Hebrew, Brit Tzedek v Shalom, www.btvshalom.org. It was a wonderful, dynamic, inspiring yet peaceful weekend among terrific people who want to change U.S. policy to bring about a more peaceful Middle East. I loved that we came together, as Jews and supporters of Israel, to learn how to make our voices heard in Congress, in our synagogues, and on university campuses.

One aspect of the weekend focused on dealing with the press. Since I am a working journalist, it was fascinating (and sometimes painful) for me to hear people's perceptions about the press. People were upset and surprised (bless their hearts) about basic errors in names and titles. People wondered why a reporter relied on an old fax for a new article. Others tried to figure out how to place a story in newspapers, particularly community or religious papers whose choice of stories and slants can be puzzling at times, to be polite about it.

Here are a few points about the press that might be of use to anyone who deals with the media on any level on any subject. Just my opinion, from my experience. Enjoy.  

1. Reporters are lazy.

Sad but true. If there has been a story previously written on your organization, firm, or issue, some reporter will find it on Google or Nexis and just copy from it. So if there were errors in that story, the errors will be repeated from now until the end of time UNLESS you make the effort to correct the error. Reporters are also careless. If you were misidentified as the president of the whole organization, but really you're just the president of the local chapter, don't expect the reporter to make (or even understand) the difference, unless you emphasize it. I remember confusing "partners" with "shareholders" in a story about a law firm and not understanding why the copy editor made such a fuss. I was both lazy AND uncaring. The reporter you deal with may be the same.

Be precise about facts, knowing always that you are dealing with a lazy sub-species of humanity that might not take the time to double-check with you if there is any uncertainty. If you can get the reporter's e-mail address, use that, and sign it with your full name, title and contact information-I think that's the only way you can be sure that your name will be spelled correctly. At least, if it's misspelled after that, you'll know that you did everything you could.

2. Reporters are not publicists.

They can't write a story just because you are a new organization-like rock bands, many organizations form and disband within a few months. There's got to be a news hook. As a technology reporter, I received many a press release about people getting hired; legislation being introduced; or a new version of software being released. Generally, that was not news. People meeting is not news, although what they say may be news. People issuing reports is not news, although the contents of the report may be. People being fired or sued is news; legislation being PASSED (not introduced) is news, and technology malfunctioning is news. If we peaceniks ever got into a fistfight, that would be news, but I hope it doesn't happen. Not the kind of coverage we want. But we'd get it. With photos, no doubt. Think: if you were a busy parent reading the newspaper, would you stop and read the item you're sending to the reporter? Is it that interesting? If so, it's news.

3. Don't sweat the small stuff.

Reporters do not write headlines or captions. They don't choose the photographs to accompany their articles, or select the placement of an article. Reporters are pleased when their byline is on the front page-but that's the editors' choice. I was thrilled when a piece that had been held for months-a "timeless" piece on a Microsoft Word issue that could run anytime, and so did not run at all-finally appeared. "Yeah, we lost a full- page ad," said the art director, who made up the pages. "The editor is really upset." And so it goes. With the rise of electronic media, the importance of placement on the "first-page above the fold" may be fading.

4. Keep it simple.

"Can you Powerpoint that?" someone asked at one meeting. Sadly, subtle or complex messages do not get reported well or accurately. (See point #1-"Reporters are lazy.") Try to break down a complex message into small bites. A slogan and a visual helps. Yes, Powerpoint your message. (I feel myself apologizing throughout this list).

5. Send it early and often.

As with voting in Chicago (Brit Tzedek is Chicago-based), news briefs should be sent early in the week and in the day, to make daily or weekly deadlines, and often-a regular e-mail bulletin gets you in people's consciousness as a resource on an issue. Then you might be contacted to comment on something tangentially related to your field of expertise. Be courteous and quotable and they'll phone you back. E-mail, not faxes, is the medium of communication of choice. E-mail is searchable and generally does not get lost quite as easily. If you send it weekly, even if it's deleted, your contact information will be on hand.

6. The local news hook lives.

It is difficult, when writing about technology, the Middle East or some national issue, to find a local angle. But newspapers still care about that. Get local comment on the issue; or figure out if your local economy/university/shoe store will be affected. One of my favorite scenes from the movie The Paper featured a news meeting where no one cared about a terrible disaster that had occurred far from New York until someone said, "It was WITNESSED by two people from Long Island." Suddenly, it was a local story. How were the people from Long Island doing? Were they terribly affected? Do our readers know them or their children?

7. Return calls promptly.

Reporters will put off writing their assigned pieces until the last minute, just as you do. They're probably calling on deadline. Please return the call promptly, and if you get their voice mail, leave a quote and spell your last name.

8. Tone matters.

Sometimes what people object to isn't so much the content of the article, but the tone. For example, the extensive criticism on all sides of reporting on the Middle East may reflect the fact that most reporting, in all media, does not reflect the real trauma, in Israel, the Palestinian territories, and the United States, that the communities have undergone. If you report only the deaths and injuries, the same way it was reported two years ago, you're missing an important part of the reality in the Middle East. In legal stories, we are also operating in a different reality today than two years ago. A successful merger; a new implementation of technology-are much more significant achievements than before.

Remember that most reporters, like you, want their stories to be fair and accurate. Help us.


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