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Fifteen Tips For Dealing With Reporters Productively

What follows is a message that was posted to the CAR-PGa's Yahoo! Group by John Clark.  John is a reporter for the Republic in Columbus, Indiana, and a gamer.  He currently runs a Third Edition D&D campaign for his wife and three other reporters in his newsroom, and spends the rest of his free time working on a PBEM game and several personal gaming sites.

John describes his reasons for being interested in the CAR-PGa's discussion group:

"I decided to join the list because I have been appalled at some of  the "reporting" that has been done on my favorite hobby over the years and would like to help defuse that terrible journalism. But having read some of the posts that have been sent to these wayward reporters, I think I could also make some suggestions from a reporter's viewpoint about the best way to get car-pga's message across without angering, alienating or further inflaming a situation."

Not long after making his introduction to the group, John gave us this list of 15 tips on dealing with the media, along with an excellent illustration of how an anti-game story makes it to the papers.  I thought it was something worth reposting here, and when I asked John if he would mind my doing so, he was more than agreeable.

So here it is.  Read this before writing that letter to the editor or calling the news desk to make a complaint.  Keep these tips in mind, and you're more likely to convince them that you're not just a raving fanboy (or fangirl).

From:  John Clark
Date:  Wed Jun 20, 2001  5:46 pm
Subject:  Tips for dealing with reporters productively...

Howdy again folks. I have consulted with three reporters, an editor and an AP writer, all who are gamers, to get some consensus on how best to interact with reporters from a pro-RPG perspective. They generally agreed with my suggestions, so I thought I would zip them off to the group. Sorry if this comes across as overly wordy, but, well, I'm a writer. What can I say? 

What is this?
From what I have seen presented on the car-pga list and on the Escapist Web site, it is clear that the anti-gaming message has a foothold in the public consciousness.  Police and some religious groups are predisposed to view gaming in a bad light and pass that information on to a reporter when there is the flimsiest of tie-ins to a gaming product. 

Let me be clear on what I am going to suggest below. I would hope that the goal when interacting with a reporter is for gaming (and gamers) to receive fair coverage in the media. I think these tips are the way you are most likely to reach that goal. If your goal is only to bludgeon someone then feel free to tear into the reporter with gusto, but I doubt that will advance the group's goals. 

How does this negative information get out there in the first place?  Let me set up the scenario on how something negative makes its way into the paper in the first place.  Something bad has happened in the community the reporter covers. A murder. A shooting. A vandalism. The reporter either hears about this event over the police scanner, through a press release or from a source. The reporter then either goes to the scene or makes a few phone calls and someone he talks to implicates gaming in the event, blaming it on the perpetrator's hobby. 

"This was a D&D game gone bad," Officer Joe Schmo or the Rev. Ronnie Righteous said. "We are investigating the suspects' ties to an occult game that led them to commit this crime." 

The reporter rushes back to the newsroom and scans his notes, looking for good quotes and trying to find the gist of the story. Officer Schmo or the Rev. Righteous's quote jumps out because it is clear, concise and points to the "Why," which is always the hardest of the "Who, What, When, Where, Why and How" questions. The reporter is also looking for the angle that will grab the public and make this story stand out from the other murder, shooting or vandalism stories that will go in the paper tomorrow. 

Then, under a tight deadline, the reporter hurriedly pounds out a story and sends it up the editing chain, where he doesn't see it again until it hits the paper or airs on the news. Editors are free to change the story as they see fit, playing up some angles or quotes and playing down others. They want to get the most interesting news up front, because they are under constant pressure to make the newspaper or news program more interesting. And a juicy crime story with a nice quote about the "evils of gaming" can generate some reader interest. 

Finally, the story makes the paper or news broadcast. And then sometime later the car-pga hears about the slander against a game and is left playing catch-up. The reporter has gone on to other stories and the editor has probably forgotten that they even ran a story last week on the "evils of gaming." 

So how can this be set right?
When writing a letter or making a phone call, you have to recognize that the reporter has to be gently persuaded to give you what you want. And what you should want is a complimentary follow-up story that exposes the good side of gaming, or at least dispels some of the myths about gaming. In gaming terms, the reporter is the guardian you need to pass to get to the treasure and you are unarmed. This is the time for social skills. But go for the softer, persuasive skills instead of trying to bluff, intimidate or shame a reporter into doing what is right. Unloading a blast at the reporter's stupidity, gullibility and general ineptitude is unlikely to get you that follow-up story. 

What motivates a reporter?
Let me take a second to explain two important aspects of the general reporters' psychology. 

First, more so than most other professions, a reporter lives in a fishbowl. If you make widgets down at the factory, and you screw up a widget, your supervisor may have a word with you. The widget-maker himself is unlikely to get a phone call from the customers about his screwed-up widget. But if you are a reporter, your work is seen by thousands of people every day. And all of those people are happy to tell the reporter when he screwed up. Consequently, a reporter works hard not to screw up. Which makes it even more painful to get that call or letter saying "You screwed up." So most are a touch sensitive to criticism. 

Secondly, a reporter lives or dies by the stories he produces. Where the story runs in the paper or newscast, the length of a story, the accuracy, the immediacy and news-worthiness all are professional benchmarks for a reporter. If they do those things right they are a good reporter. Do them badly and they are a bad reporter. You may run into the occasional exceptions, but most reporters are more interested in hitting these benchmarks than making a given subject appear in a positive or negative light. They just don't have the time to try to slant a story. 

It is good to remember that every reporter is working on many stories each day on a wide array of subjects, most of which have nothing to do with gaming. Generally, the larger the newspaper the fewer stories a day a reporter is expected to produce. But reporters at the smallest papers may be working on five or six daily stories, plus a couple of briefs. Conversely, all reporters are always looking for more stories to do and especially in the case of a sensational story just past, they are looking for a way to do a follow-up story. Editors love the follow-up story that gives the reader new developments, even if that follow-up story just says "There are no new developments." And reporters are happy to get a shortcut to a follow-up story. 

How can I approach a reporter to get a positive story?  I have put together "15 Tips For Dealing With Reporters." 

1.  Don't blame the messenger. Most reporters see themselves as a funnel, taking raw information, filtering it and passing it on to the readers as a story. When the story quotes Officer Schmo or the Rev. Righteous saying "Gaming is bad," the reporter is just passing on that information, not creating it. Yes, a reporter chooses what
information to put in the story and what to leave out, but few view their role as that of an active participant, instead believing that they have a more passive role. 

2.  Recognize the reporter's ego. A reporter wants to get every story right every time. And they are generally well-respected in the areas they cover. And they generally are as smart as the average bricklayer or widget-maker. So attacking the reporters accuracy, ethics or intelligence is not a good way to get what you want. I'm not suggesting you coddle the reporter, but rein in the instinct to "straighten them out." They will resent it and it will not get you the story you want. The larger the newspaper or the bigger the television channel, the correspondingly larger ego the reporter will have. 

3.  Don't go over the reporter's head. First of all, editors are probably even more sensitive to criticism than reporters are. They truly want to believe that yesterday's paper was error-free and to that end they tend to take a legalistic approach to accuracy. "Did we spell the name right? Did we accurately quote Officer Schmo or the
Rev. Righteous?" Second, the reporter is the one who will be writing the all-important follow-up story and it makes them look good to come up with a follow-up idea to their editors. Which means they will be more likely to write that friendly, upbeat story you want. Having an angry note from on-high saying "call these people and write a follow-up," is not a motivation tool for a good, positive story. Remember that the reporter controls the tone of the story and a disgruntled reporter is the difference between a story about the nice, normal kids who play pretend games with neat dice and an article about the whack-jobs who pretend to slay demons while shouting obscenities and rolling occult polyhedrons. 

4.  Moderate your tone and language. I really can't stress this enough. Accusing a reporter of being a member of a vast conspiracy against gaming, calling them an uninformed jerk and bludgeoning them with their own mistakes is not going to win them over. I have known reporters who will hang up when the language starts getting foul. Keep it positive, sound professional and act appropriately. 

5.  Make a suggestion instead of a complaint. Reporters hear a lot of complaints. No one is ever completely happy with the story the reporter wrote yesterday and reporters generally get pretty thick-skinned to the "You didn't cover it the way I wanted it covered" complaint. Instead, phrase your concern as a suggestion. "I think there is another angle you ought to look into," are magic words that a reporter likes to hear. 

6.  Understand the source-reporter relationship. When a trusted police officer or community leader says something to a reporter, the reporter is conditioned to believe it is true, especially if the source has been accurate and reliable in the past. If the reporter has worked with Officer Schmo or the Rev. Righteous on 20 other stories, then the source's words carry more weight than yours. Attacking Officer Schmo's or the Rev. Righteous's credibility is likely to provoke a defensive reaction from the reporter. You can't discredit the source, so instead try to provide an alternate viewpoint. 

7.  Understand the news cycle. Reporters work on deadline. They have to get the story done by a certain time. If Officer Schmo or Rev. Righteous provides them with information on a breaking news story, they are unlikely to have the time to take six hours looking for a source to give an opposing viewpoint. Likewise, calling a reporter
who is working on deadline will not get the response you want.  Instead if it is a morning newspaper, call early in the morning, and an afternoon paper, call early in the afternoon, when there is less deadline pressure and the reporter is more likely to have time to listen to your side and work on your story. 

8.  Don't ask for a correction, it's not what you want anyway. A correction is generally run very small, consists of a short sentence or two explaining an error and is buried somewhere in the paper. A newspaper is unlikely to run a complete, prominent story correcting a previous story unless they are provably wrong on a matter of concern to a great number of readers, or are trying to stave off a potential lawsuit. Instead, suggest a follow-up story. 

9.  Suggest a follow-up. Reporters and editors love follow-ups. It lets them milk an old story, turning it into an ongoing saga. They keep the readers interested, and allow the reporter to feel like they are on top of an issue. Especially in police-related stories, there is a flurry of initial activity and then the well runs dry. Suggest stories that get local people in the paper, that show a different opinion, that generate some sense of drama. For example, a valid pro-gaming follow-up could be a suggestion to talk to local gamers. 

10.  Provide sources and documentation. Most reporters have probably had little to do with gamers in the past and probably will have little to do with them in the future. Give the reporter ideas on how to contact local gamers, say through the comic book store, hobby shop, local university or high school. Provide well-written, professional-looking documentation that they can access for background information. Have industry contact numbers available. And have important facts and figures, such as sales numbers that illustrate the point you are making, handy and accesible. 

11.  Don't be the Pro from Dover. Do not be the all-knowing voice from afar that calls in to set the hicks straight. Especially for smaller newspapers, reporters prefer to talk to local people, or at least people in the region. Newsrooms are notoriously stingy places, and office managers frown on long-distance phone calls. Reporters are unlikely to quote Ernie Expert from across the country, but Larry Local from the capital city is not too far away. The only exception is if they can quote an "official source," such as a game manufacturer representative or an official in an industry group. 

12.  Provide soundbites or clear quotes. When you are being interviewed, speak slowly, in short sentences. Allow pauses in the conversation. Avoid run-on sentences or rambling diatribes. The more concise and to-the-point your response, the more likely you will be quoted instead of paraphrased. If the reporter asks you the same question several times, they probably are trying to get a complete quote from you and either missed it, or you never finished your thought. If they feel you didn't answer a question, they may try to ask it again and again, taking several different tacts. 

13.  Don't resort to mail bombs or mass mailings. Having everyone you know flood the newsroom with the same, or similar letters will not have the result you want. The editors and reporters will not see the error of their ways or be cowed by the support of the pro-gaming crowd. Instead they will be annoyed, especially if all those letters come from out-of-town and have an insulting or threatening tone. A well-written, polite note or phone call with these tips in mind will be more likely to generate the response you want. While the entertainment industry is vulnerable to this tactic and may take heed, a newsroom just puts up its shields and circles the wagons under such a barrage. 

14.  Don't be a flack or flake. A flack is derogatory newsroom jargon for a pushy, clueless, public relations person. A flake is the one-issue weirdo who ties up your time without giving you a good story idea. In contrast a public relations person that is helpful and passes on good story ideas is appreciated, and the one-issue guy who gives great ideas for stories is a proponent or advocate. 

15.  Be persistent, but don't overdo it. Call or write as often as you need to get the story you want, but don't call every day or expect an immediate response. If you are polite, interesting and promise a good story a reporter will respond - eventually. But your story is probably not as important to them as the deadline story they are working on for tomorrow's paper. 

Hope this helps,
John Clark
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