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03/03/2017

Talking to the Media

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

On Chicago Med this week (Season 2; Episode 15), Dr. Rose is trying to save the life of a window-washer whose platform breaks and he plunges 33 stories. Dr. Rose is getting coffee from a cart, outside the hospital when the media ask him for news of the window-washer. The administrator has told him that all media requests are to go through her. However, he holds an impromptu press conference talking about the patient and how hopeful he is for survival. The administrator witnesses this spectacle and dresses him down. Working with the media can be an important part of working in health care, providing an opportunity to educate the public on important health conditions and issues. But one needs to be trained to speak with the media and to think carefully about how and how such interactions occur.

When a reporter comes knocking on your door, it is exciting. You realize that someone knows who you are and that you have an expertise that is recognized in the outer world. Your university is excited because they will get their name in print and will be noted for (hopefully) a positive contribution of one of their faculty members. In my annual evaluation for the university, I am even asked how many media “contributions” I made during the course of the last year.

When the media comes knocking, the question that we rarely ask is, “should I respond.” You might want to ask several questions in fact: Am I an expert on the area in question? Bioethics is a broad field and it’s not possible for us to be experts on everything. We can have opinions on everything, but are we truly informed enough to talk about advances in neuroscience, undergraduate education, psychiatric ethics, the Common Law and global health? Probably not.

Second, consider that having a bioethicist in the article gives the piece an imprimatur of legitimacy—that this is a serious topic worthy of attention. There are some issues on which we may not want to offer such legitimacy. That is, we should resist jumping on the bioethics media bandwagon. Am I responding to the article because it’s great to be in spotlight, or because I have an informed analysis or opinion on the issue?

Before entering the world of academia, I worked as a reporter in TV, newspaper, and magazines. There are few of us in bioethics who understand how the media industry works and what reporters need. To say it another way, bioethics is all about the deep view of an issue or topic and translating that to a sound bite the reporter will use is a talent in itself. I have spoken to reporters for an hour, gotten them up to speed on a topic, and then discovered my contribution amounts to a pithy phrase in the final story.

When approached by a reporter, rather than following our initial instincts and getting caught up in the moment of giving an expert quote, think about whether the story is something which anyone should be lending credence to.

If you feel that a story is important and that it deserves the weight of your expert opinion, keep a few things in mind when talking to a reporter:

  • Does your institution have a process for speaking to the press? Can you talk to them directly or must press requests go through an external affairs office?
  • Say your name and spell it; give your title and name of your institution. If in person, pass on a business card.
  • Respond to a reporter immediately. If you don’t answer the phone or email quickly, then the reporter has probably gone on to the next person in her rolodex (or on outlook).
  • Be succinct. On TV, you may get 3 seconds and in print, 2 lines.
  • Avoid jargon, technical language, and complicated phrases
  • Keep your answers short and speak slowly. Pause before and after a phrase—this gives the reporter some place to cut without dicing your important explanation (important for radio and TV). In print, the reporter may be taking notes by hand—you can go too fast.
  • If possible, ask for questions ahead of the interview—this way you can see if you are the right speaker, and you have time to prepare answers. Don’t actually prepare your text, just know about the subject.
  • More and more reporters are doing email interviews—you get the questions over email. Do not write for an academic audience—instead write as you explain things to a 5th
  • Feel free to take your time to think through a question before answering. As the Jinx has taught us, everything is on the record today.
  • You control the content. If there is a question you do not like or do not know about, then do not answer it. Try not to say “No comment” as that simply sounds like you are hiding something. Instead say that you “lack the necessary expertise,” or “have not had a chance to review the case/facts/situation.”
  • If you do not understand the question, ask for it to be repeated or rephrased. If the question is double-barreled or seems to come from a place of ignorance—say so and ask for clarification rather than trying to come up with an answer.
  • Stick to your points. The reporter may try to get you to take a position, or make a declarative approval/disapproval statement. Keep on message.
  • If there is silence, do not try to fill it. The reporter may be trying to get you to talk out of turn or to simply think out loud. You lose control of the conversation when you do that.
  • At the end, you’ll often be asked if there is anything else you’d like to add. If an important issue or perspective was missed, bring it up. Otherwise, just concisely restate the most important point(s) from the conversation.
  • A reporter may send you some of your answers or parts of the story to check over for facts. If you said something you wish you hadn’t, you can ask for it to be removed but this is unlikely—it would have been better never to have said it. In no case will you have right of refusal. Beyond the facts, you won’t get a say over what is run or how you are presented.

Bioethics has had a close relationship with the media since our inception. This interaction is important for our work and theirs. Part of the role of a bioethicist is public education and the media is a large audience for that. But it pays to step back and ask whether a story should be given a bioethical angle and whether you are the person who ought to do it. And if both answers are “yes,” be sure to consider these guidelines.

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