How to Work With the Media: Interview Preparation for the Psychologist

How to Work With the Media: Interview Preparation for Psychologists

Introduction

Health and medical research is one of the most widely reported sources of news in the United States.

At some point in your career, a reporter likely will call for an interview or invite you to appear on a television or radio program. This is an important opportunity for you to let the public know more about your specialty area, latest research finding, or an issue of particular concern to you as a psychologist. You want to accurately represent your area of expertise to the public. Where do you begin?

Being a Spokesperson

Understanding the pros and cons of being interviewed by the media, whether it be print, radio, or television, is your first step to becoming media savvy.

As a psychologist, you are in the unique position of representing not only yourself but also your profession. The news media are today a critical source of information and education for the public.

Participating in media interviews will require considerable preparation. But a good interview can reap the benefit of increased public awareness and understanding of a particular issue germane to your work.

Understanding the Media

Always remember that the media are in the business of making money. They are looking for a commodity—your knowledge. You have a job to do in an interview, and that is to articulate the information you want the audience to understand. The more complex that information, the harder you will have to work to convey it clearly.

Interviews to Turn Down

Choose wisely in accepting interviews. You do not need to grant every request. Carefully consider whether to participate in an interview that

  • would compromise you in any way

  • is out of your range of expertise

  • is in a panel format.

Beware: Panel discussions are often designed by producers to be unruly debates, with panelists hand-picked for extreme points of view.

The Interviewing Process

Know Yourself

Grant a request for an interview only if you want to give the interview. Whatever your state of mind during the interview, it will show. If you are enthusiastic, you will perform better. If you are uncomfortable, your distress will show; if you are preoccupied, you will come across as uninterested.

Your answers to the following questions will help you determine whether you should do the interview:

  • What do you want to accomplish with this interview?

  • What do you want to say about this subject?

  • What do you have to gain by doing it?

  • Will there be more opportunities for you in the future?

If you decide not to accept, inform the media representative as soon as possible. All you need to say is "No, thank you." Don't worry that your decision will be used against you in the future. The media will call again when they need you, and others will call, too.

Know Your Message

Before you start an interview, know exactly what you want to say. Prepare three to five points you want to make and integrate into answers during the interview. Write them down and practice a few comfortable ways of saying them (for more information, see Checklist for Media Interview Preparation). Stories or case studies are useful to support a point, but remember to keep them very short. Also, state your conclusions first, and then use your supporting evidence.

If there are any controversial or easily misinterpreted aspects of your work, roughly frame your answers in these areas beforehand.

Do Your Homework

Watch the television programs and read the publications for which you would like to be interviewed. Familiarizing yourself with the various formats will help you to better understand the type of news in which the publication or show is interested, the target audience, and the interviewers.

The Preinterview

Because reporters assigned to psychology and mental health stories do not know the subject area very well, they often will conduct a preinterview. This is an opportunity for you to educate the reporter on the subject area, and your efforts will pay off in the form of good questions based on correct premises during the actual interview.

TIP: Take the preinterview as seriously as the interview. Never underestimate this step.

Before you are called by a media representative, a producer or editor has decided to do a story that involves your area of expertise. They have collected a list of names from which they will try to find an expert to interview. The media representative will likely have limited time in which to find an expert and has one mission: to find the most articulate, knowledgeable, dependable, and media-savvy expert available.

The three types of media—print, radio, and television—handle the preinterview differently.

Print. There is no automatic preinterview. The phone rings, and the reporter and his or her questions are there.

  1. Make this call a preinterview by asking the reporter about the area of interest and telling him or her you will have to call back.

  2. Reporters are always working against deadlines, so promise to get back quickly, within the hour or later that day, and make sure you do. Use the time between the first call and your return call to think about what you want to say about the subject area.

Radio. A radio reporter will also telephone and most often want to do an interview right then and there. However, there will be a few minutes of preliminary talk between you and the reporter before he or she actually begins to record your comments (the reporter will let you know when the recorder will be turned on). These preliminary few minutes are your preinterview. They are your opportunity to find out from the reporter what the questions will be and to think about your answers.

If you need more time to prepare, take it. Set up a mutually convenient time for the reporter to call you back and record the interview.

Television. When you receive a call from a television producer, consider this preinterview an audition. Never take this stage of the process for granted, and only agree to a preinterview once you know how you want to respond. Make arrangements to call the representative back at a mutually agreed upon time to give yourself time to consider them and your major points.

"Off the Record"

Don't consider anything you say as "off the record" simply because you say it is. Say only what you want in print, and keep confidential information confidential.

Identifying Yourself

Establish how you want to be identified. If you want to be referred to as Dr. Smith, consistently refer to yourself as that. Most media representatives will try to accommodate you, but understand that some print publications have style rules that they follow (e.g., the Wall Street Journal will not identify a psychologist as "Dr."). You may ask the reporter to identify you as a psychologist first and then subsequently as doctor.

Print Interview

Be very organized and sure about what you want to say and how you want to be quoted. Selecting your main points in advance and sticking to them is key to any successful interview.

Respect that the competent journalist also has an agenda to complete during the interview. Aggressively steering the reporter away from the main line of questioning can be counterproductive. Instead, try to interject new facts, insightful information, and a fresh perspective as you respond to the questions at hand.

Will you receive questions in advance? In most cases, no, because this practice detracts from spontaneity and comes across more like a speech. However, journalists will let you know the subject areas they are after, which will help you shape the story.

Drawing conclusions. Reporters often will ask you to draw conclusions from research that is inconclusive or does not exist. Explain the difference between preliminary research results and "known" behavioral science. Remember also that preliminary research is often more newsworthy than "known science." If a question is out of your range of expertise, the best response is "I don't know."

Will you get to read the story before it appears in print? Rarely, and even rarer is the opportunity to edit the story. You may offer to read a story or request to have portions or quotes read back to you as a check for accuracy, but reporters may accept your offer only in cases when your information is highly complex.

Take precautions. If there are any aspects of your work that may easily be misinterpreted, emphasize to the reporter during the interview the importance of such points. Assert the fact that your information may be inaccurate if stated another way.

Radio Interview

Most large cities have a radio station with an all-news or all-talk format. Other radio stations rely on feeds from network newscasts and wire services. Many news directors will accept interviews conducted by telephone, both live and taped.

In a radio interview, rephrase your important points and say them several times, because radio programs often have listeners tuning in at various times throughout the interview.

Television Interview

Preliminary Details

A media representative will generally contact you to go over more details and/or to make travel arrangements. The representative may conduct another preinterview to confirm that you are the expert for whom the media are looking. Try to fly in the day before your interview.

Television interviews are often pre-empted by newsbreaking stories. Don't take it personally; it happens often.

What Should I Wear?

Wear conservative clothing.

Women: strong, solid colors
Men: light gray or blue shirt, navy blue suit, red or burgundy tie

Avoid:

  • checks, stripes, other busy patterns

  • sunglasses or glasses that darken in reaction to light

  • heavy makeup (although powder will help reduce shine under hot studio lights)

The Interview

Arrive early to acquaint yourself with your surroundings and review your prepared statements.

Speak in short, succinct sentences ("sound bites"). State your overall message and the supporting points.

Example:
Message: Youth violence is preventable because it is a learned behavior.
Point 1: It is important to recognize the early experiences that can lead to violence and confront them. For instance, exposure to violence in the media, effects of prejudice and hostility in the home or community, access to firearms.
Point 2: Psychologists are helping to develop school programs that reduce aggression and prevent violence.
Point 3: Examples of successful programs that have been implemented in schools and communities across the country.

Let your passion for your topic show. Natural hand gestures and facial expressions help to highlight your points and show your enthusiasm, which will be reflected in your voice and serve to persuade.

Maintain good eye contact with the interviewer, and avoid looking into the camera or monitors.

Controlling the Interview

Keep in mind that your knowledge and expertise are what distinguishes you from other guests and the host of the program. Know your key points and say them throughout the course of the interview. Do not wait to be asked the right questions. Help shape the interview in a professional, assertive manner.

You can steer the direction of the interview effectively by using transition phrases:

"That's a good question, but what is really important is . . . "
"I'd like to make this point before I continue."
"Let me give you the latest information on . . . that is really interesting."

You can then shift the direction of the interview and make one of your points.

The Value of Your Expertise

You are the expert who has been called to give information for a program. Your expertise and knowledge are what distinguish you from other guests and the host of the program. The producer who calls you has limited knowledge about your field. It is therefore important that you take control by shaping the interview in a professional, nonaggressive manner.

Know your key points, and say them throughout the course of the interview. Do not wait to be asked the right questions. Do not expect to be given equal time if you are in a debate situation. Do not expect the producer or the host to have the same amount of knowledge that you have about your field. You are the expert, and the audience wants to hear your information.

Brevity and tightly constructed responses are even more important in electronic (radio and television) interviews than print interviews. In either forum, you have less than 30 seconds to make your point. Preparation is the key to success.

Panel Interviews

If you are part of a discussion panel with other experts, each of you will be competing for airtime. Do not wait to speak until a question is directed to you. You were invited on the program because of your expertise, and you should participate and raise key points or clarify ones made by other panelists when appropriate. Be assertive; most interview segments last only a few minutes, so claim airtime before the interview is over.

Further Media Training

Workshops. Take advantage of any media training opportunities that are available to you. With each workshop or lecture, you will learn something new and helpful.

Media training at APA. Media training is available through APA's Office of Public Communications.

Correcting Inaccuracies

Print

Most journalists strive for accuracy in their reporting, but you may be misquoted at some point. These errors are rarely deliberate. Your concern should be that the meaning of what you said to the reporter was conveyed accurately, not so much whether the exact words were used. If the reporter completely missed the point, let the reporter know (in as helpful a manner as possible).

In a case of serious misstatement of your data or your views, you may certainly request a correction (phone or send a letter to the editor).

Television

A common error when being interviewed on television is to allow a reporter's false or inaccurate statements to stand uncorrected. Speak up. If a reporter creates a false premise to a question, correct that first and then reframe and answer the question.

If a reporter cites information or statistics with which you are not familiar, do not assume they are being reported correctly. Simply state that you are unfamiliar with the information.

Keeping a Record

Always keep a record of interviewers. List the

  • journalist's name
  • journalist's affiliation
  • phone number and/or e-mail address
  • story idea

After an interview, you may ask the journalist if you can contact him or her with more information you think of later. Good journalists are interested in all the facts.

Tips for working with the media