Last year, I could not have had a worse introduction to the workings of the American media. At the same time that I was beginning my stint as Voices Editor of the Maroon, one of my best friends from home died after being chased into traffic by a group of muggers. The story became a media circus in New York, and reporters hounded my friend’s father and other friends for over a week. One journalist claimed to be my friend’s uncle to get into the hospital room, and my friend’s father was virtually under house arrest as reporters waited outside his apartment and called him profusely.
At the time, the press resembled vultures more than they did purveyors of information. But with a year of perspective, I sometimes wonder what would have happened if friends and family had gotten together and talked to the press briefly. Would a 15-minute press conference have allowed us to avoid a week’s worth of struggle that made the grieving process even harder?
In this country, the press has a negative reputation for incidents similar to the one I just described. They hound people who want to be left alone just so that they can get a story. Our instinct is to protect our privacy, to avoid talking to the press at all costs, and to keep them from distorting our words. Yet, after a year’s worth of experience working on the other side, I would give the following advice: The best way to avoid a media circus is to talk more to the press, not less.
When an incident occurs, people who avoid talking to the press forget that the media will be there no matter what. The whole point of the press is to report on significant events in our society. Despite what you may think about the media’s tendency to create controversy, in most cases it’s people, not the press, who make a story. The press doesn’t create the news, they market it. But unlike Madison Avenue marketers, journalists try to be as unbiased as they can. To do so, however, they need as much information possible from both sides of the controversy.
If that’s the case, then the best way to relate your side of the story is to speak openly. People always worry they will be misquoted and, a lot of times, they are. Most misquotations, however, are due to lack of clarity by the person being quoted, not to any agenda of the journalist. Furthermore, even a misquotation usually looks better to the reader than no comment at all. If a politician, for instance, makes a controversial decision, even a misrepresented explanation looks better than “the senator declined to comment.” A journalist may even up the stakes and use the term “refused to comment” if the politician’s lack of response is particularly egregious. That’s because the only way to upset a journalist is by not talking to him. Not talking to the press implies that you have something bad that you’re trying to hide. Considering that journalists are the ones who will represent your voice to a larger audience, why would you want to upset them?
This strategy of handling the media works at nearly every level. Earlier in the year, President Zimmer’s policies were controversial, not necessarily because of their own merit, but because he wasn’t communicating them well. If Zimmer had openly announced and explained the switch to the Common Application, as opposed to only mentioning it briefly after constant questioning from a Maroon reporter, we might never have seen the “I am Uncommon” T-shirts. Additionally, no matter what you think about the tactics of Students Taking Action Now: Darfur (STAND), the group’s willingness to talk to the Maroon has made it one of the more prominent campus groups in the past year.
On a higher level, this country is currently being run by one of the least open administrations in American history. The Bush administration has resembled a Skull and Bones secret society more than an executive office, and the administration’s relationship with the press has been strained, especially since former press secretary Ari Fleischman warned journalists to “watch what they say” on September 12, 2001. Bush himself has been able to avoid nearly universal scorn with the help of Karl Rove, one of the greatest spin-doctors in American history, who has made journalists fear accusations of liberal media bias whenever they criticize the president. Bush has also been the beneficiary of Web 2.0, which has weakened the power of mainstream media. Despite all those forces working in his favor, his approval rating is still in the 30–40-percent range. Surprisingly, the main worry for those surveyed is not Bush’s poor decision-making, but that people don’t feel that they know the motivations behind his decisions.
Despite the fact that mainstream media are quickly losing out to blogs and podcasts, the vast majority of blogs respond to media sources that have access to the people who make the news. On the whole, Web 2.0 is separated by an extra degree from actual news. Considering how powerful and unregulated blog reporting can be, it is now more important than ever to get your side of the story represented clearly and accurately enough that it can survive multiple levels of media filtering. How else can you do that but by talking to the press?