Working successfully with news media
Washington University in St. Louis has a long-standing commitment to the free and open exchange of ideas and opinions by students, faculty and staff. Because our scholarly, research and learning activities generate news media interest, faculty and students are encouraged to cooperate with reporters who express interest in talking with them about their areas of expertise.
While there are guidelines that apply to news media seeking to visit the University's campuses, members of the University community may speak to the news media without the permission or the presence of University administrators. (Note: Federal laws, such as HIPAA, tightly restrict sharing any information about patients in all medical, clinical and counseling programs and about student records.) For those occasions where students, faculty and staff believe that the presence of a member of the Public Affairs staff would be helpful during an interview, they may request that a representative be present.
On its primary Web site, the University has directories that provide both telephone numbers and e-mail addresses, so that members of the news media are able to contact individuals directly on any of the campuses.
Before beginning to work with news media, remember that it will be more productive to plan ahead and to organize your thoughts before consenting to an interview. Here are some points to consider when preparing for interviews:
• Always return news media phone calls and e-mail inquiries promptly, and answer as fully as possible any questions you feel generally qualified to discuss. Please remember that the more we help working journalists with their stories, the more receptive they will be when future contacts are made. On the other hand, you have no obligation to agree to an interview, and you may decline the request.
• If you are asked questions relating to Washington University policy or decisions and questions relating to an institutional topic you know is important, please feel free to refer the reporter to the Public Affairs Office for additional information at (314) 935-5230 for the Danforth Campus and (314) 286-0100 for the Medical Campus. If you are not sure what is public information, be sure to check. For example, strict federal laws protect all patient information and many types of student records.
• Reporters often have tight deadlines. If you are not able to talk immediately, ask the reporter what his or her deadline is.
• If you do not believe you are qualified to help answer questions, please say so. If the requested information is not in your general area of expertise, please suggest an alternative source, if you know of one. In addition, you can suggest that the reporter contact the Public Affairs Office to help find someone who can answer specific questions authoritatively.
• Write down the reporter's name, phone number, e-mail address, affiliation and deadline for the story. This helps if you need to call back with more information.
• If you would like a few minutes to think about an issue before commenting, explain this to the reporter and offer to call back shortly. Most reporters will agree to give you at least 10 to 20 minutes to collect your thoughts.
• If you are not certain you want to proceed with the interview, don't hesitate to tell the reporter that you believe her or his interests will be better served by contacting the Public Affairs Office for suggestions for others who might be available to answer the reporter's questions. If you would prefer to conduct the interview and want advice on how to proceed, the Public Affairs Office will be glad to assist you.
• If the request involves a recent announcement or study, or if it relates to a breaking news story, a reporter or editor will often be able to e-mail or fax you information that may not yet be available publicly. In this case, it is perfectly reasonable to ask for time to review any new information with which you may not be familiar.
• When answering questions, be concise and keep your language simple, as though you are explaining your point to your neighbor. This also helps ensure more accurate quotes. Remember, the reporter probably is not an expert in your academic discipline, and most of his or her readers or listeners are not either.
• Make sure you understand the questions and the reporter's point of view. You are encouraged to ask the reporter what she or he already knows and is willing to share with you. The key to a good interview is a good grasp of the reporter's perspective.
• If you are explaining a complicated issue or discovery, please take time to be sure your points are understood. Offer relevant examples and analogies for perspective and clarity, if appropriate. Most reporters are willing to repeat back to you what they have taken down as your statements.
• Be sure to correct any errors in a question put to you by the reporter.
• Be cautious when responding to hypothetical "What will happen if…" questions. Deal with facts, not speculative commentary.
• Estimates or general understandings are fine, but never guess at an answer unless you want to see it appear in print that way. If you aren't sure of the answer, it is best to tell the reporter, "I do not know the answer to your question." If you know where the reporter can obtain the correct answer, either refer him or her to the source or offer to obtain it and call the reporter back yourself.
• Never speak "off the record." Your comments may be used or paraphrased. Most often they are not used, but you have no guarantee that always will be the case.
• Avoid saying "no comment." If appropriate to the question, you can answer "I'm sorry, I'd like to help, but that is not public information."
• At the end of the interview, check to be sure that the reporter has correctly noted your name, title and school or other affiliation with Washington University in St. Louis, including spelling. (For reporters outside the St. Louis area, be sure to note our institutional name is "Washington University in St. Louis," because there are 17 other "Washingtons" in the nation.)
• Ask the reporter if he or she knows when the story will appear in print or on air. This will help track the results.
• Don't hesitate to call the reporter back if you think of or find new information that may be helpful, but do so quickly. Delays of an hour or more may miss the reporter's deadline.
• Please e-mail Public Affairs with information about the interview (reporter's name, media outlet, subject, date and time of airing or print, etc.). Send your e-mail to: Sue Killenberg McGinn for the Danforth Campus and Joni Westerhouse for the Medical Campus. We will try to track the story for you, and we'll try to let you know what appears.
• If there is a factual mistake in the printed story, do not react in anger. If it is a significant error, call the writer about a correction or clarification, because uncorrected errors can be repeated in future news stories. If it is a matter of opinion, consider whether complaining will have any real effect. You may call Public Affairs for advice on how to proceed.
Additional Tips for Broadcast Interviews:
Interviews on electronic media — radio, television and webcast — involve a different style of reporting that relies heavily on brief, poignant statements. These guidelines are intended to help you respond in this manner.
• Before the interview, think about the two or three points you want to convey about the subject. Prepare those in short sound bites and rehearse them before going "live."
• Don't start the interview until you are physically comfortable and you feel prepared to answer questions. Avoid crossing your arms, sit upright and lean slightly forward to show interest.
• Convey an attitude that is friendly, courteous and confident — as though you are a guest in someone else's home. Be polite and avoid showing anger, even if you perceive antagonism from others involved in the interview.
• Use short words and avoid jargon. This makes your points easier to understand by viewers and listeners.
• Speak to and look at the interviewer, not the camera (unless instructed to do otherwise). It is easier to talk to a person.
• In an interview, do not be afraid to stop in mid-answer if you need to rephrase your statement. Most interviews are edited later and can accommodate your revised statement. (If you are told that your interview is being broadcast live in real time, you do not have this opportunity.)
• Remember that off-camera comments may still be used by the reporter. Do not say anything you do not want to hear on the newscast.
• For television interviews, remember that solid colors often look best, while small prints and complicated patterns tend to be distracting on camera.
• For live radio interviews over the telephone, double check the time and who is supposed to call whom — especially if you are crossing time zones.
• Do not be surprised if the time you were told that an interview would air changes. Electronic media are particularly responsive to breaking news stories, so interviews and stories with less timely content are sometimes delayed in favor of those that contain time-sensitive material.
Announcing New Research
The Public Affairs Office can help you publicize research results that have relevance to the general public and that can be understood by lay persons. For more information, contact the Public Affairs Office at the Danforth Campus at 314-935-5230 or at the Medical School at 314-286-0100.
University events are publicized on a Web-based calendar of events, and in such publications as the Washington University Record and Student Life, the independent student newspaper.
Calendar submissions for the Record should include: name of event (including notation if it is part of a named lecture series), speaker's name, speaker's affiliation, one or two sentences of information on the speaker, date and time of event, location, applicable fees where appropriate, and a contact person with phone number and e-mail address. To submit calendar release information, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org
To be published in a University Web-based calendar, events must be open to the public, must be sponsored by a Washington University entity (such as an office, department, student group, etc.), and preferably will be held on one of the University campuses. Submissions must include: name of event, speaker, speaker affiliation, date and time of event, location, and a contact person with telephone and e-mail address included. Send information to email@example.com.
In some instances, Public Affairs may determine that a separate news release focusing on an externally important event may be appropriate. Such events must be open to the public and sponsored by a Washington University entity (such as a department, office, student group, etc.).
Suggestions for Submitting Op-Eds to Newspapers and Magazines
University faculty who seek a wider audience on current affairs and issues should consider drafting opinion pieces for major newspapers and news magazines in a form commonly called op-eds (opposite the editorial page). Although the following suggestions for submitting opinion pieces are based on experience with a wide number of publications, they may not apply specifically to all cases.
If you would like to submit an op-ed piece, the Public Affairs Office will be happy to provide editorial assistance and advice to help you improve your chance of publication, as long as the message has a newsworthy purpose of general interest to the public. Here are pointers to help you increase the likelihood of success in publishing an op-ed piece:
• Open with a strong statement or argument and carry it through to the end. The Chronicle of Higher Education says "articles should adopt a clear point of view, not simply review both sides of a debate. In most cases they benefit from the inclusion of specific recommendations for ways to solve the problems they outline."
• Strong opinions about issues currently in the news and in headlines have the best chance for publication. According to the Philadelphia Enquirer, 80 percent of all features have one of the following four themes: something is or is not so; something is or is not good or worthy and why; something specific should or should not be done and why; or something will or will not happen as a result of "x."
• Capture the reader's attention in the first sentence and maintain that attention throughout.
• Express your entire message in approximately 500 to 800 words, depending upon the publication. On rare occasions a few publications will accept op-eds of greater length, but only after negotiation with the editors.
• Editors look for a fact-based approach to arguing your point of view, or they seek a compelling insider's view about an issue in the news. Personal experiences can help make a story more compelling.
• Craft a catchy headline that is mirrored in your opening sentence — a headline that captures the essence of your argument. Realize, however, that headlines are the purview of the publisher and may be rewritten without your involvement or permission.
• The likelihood of publication increases with smaller newspapers than with larger, national publications such as The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post or Los Angeles Times.
• Most successful opinion pieces close with a strong last sentence that clearly builds from the argument you have made.
• Include a cover letter with your name, day and evening phone numbers, e-mail address, mailing address, title, and association with Washington University in St. Louis.
• Type all submissions double spaced and make them available via e-mail, which saves keystrokes for the news media and assures a greater likelihood of their using what you have written accurately. Because of problems with transmission of documents, many media require that you convert your message as a pasted add-on to your e-mail. In addition, some persons include an attached file using rich text format (.rtf).
If you have questions, do not hesitate to contact the Washington University Office of Public Affairs. We will try to be helpful and are more than happy to review a draft to advise the writer of improvements that may assure a higher likelihood of publication