Don Cardinal, a professor at Chapman College, drew some big-time national attention years back when his research on facilitated communication, a controversial technique used to help people with autism or mental retardation communicate more effectively, got ripped in the media.
Programs such as “Frontline” on the Public Broadcasting Service and “60 Minutes” on CBS produced stories whose premise was that facilitated communication was a hoax that creates false hope for “a naïve group of people hoping for miracles.”
Cardinal was angry that the media did not understand the nature of scholarly research, had a predisposition going in to their stories and failed to give him an opportunity to explain his work or put it into scientific context.
He pounded out a Chronicle of Higher Education opinion piece headlined “Researchers and the Press: A Cautionary Tale” in which he offered some interesting strategies researchers can use to avoid media distortion of their work.
- Ask the reporter or producer why he or she is doing the article or broadcast. If you think the media representative already has made up his or her mind about the issue and will not be able to really “hear” you, refuse the interview or provide very limited information. If you agree to an interview, ask to see some of the questions in advance.
- Before the interview develop a media plan. It should contain concise statements that can be easily understood by laymen and that capture your main points. Repeat these points frequently to insure that the interviewer absorbs them. Also, decide what you should not say and write it down. If you are going to attempt to explain a complicated concept, write out your explanation and read it to the interviewer, if you must. Then, after the interview, make sure that the interviewer has a written copy of your statement. This will decrease dramatically the possibility of your being misquoted.
- Ask for the right to edit your contribution to the story or program. Some interviewers (usually newsletter editors) will agree readily; others will refuse. If the interviewer is unwilling to let you see your contributions in writing, ask him or her to call you before publication and read you the quotes attributed to you, to allow you to correct any misquotations.
- Do not be impressed or intimidated by the organization that the interviewer represents. Your message should be the same regardless of who is doing the interview. Know your media plan by heart and stick strictly to it.
- Talk to interviewers at your convenience, not necessarily when they first contact you. You may need time to locate (or develop) your plan. Tell them you will call them back at a specified time, even if it is 10 minutes later.
- Consult the director of media relations at your institution. Ask for help with everything from developing your media plan to determining which interviews to accept. He or she can help you decide when to turn down high-risk interviews, such as those on radio and television talk shows, where drama frequently wins out over content, and can also assist you in handling the logistics and other details of the face-to-face interviews you agree to do.
- Do not let the interviewer maneuver you into saying more than you mean to say. Interviewers are experts in getting people to do so. If you are angry or lulled into complacency or even just caught up in the moment, you may draw conclusions for which firm data do not exist or provide more information than you intend—saying things you may not have carefully thought through and may regret saying later. Undoubtedly, those unguarded statements will be the ones broadcast or printed.