When your issue is hungry for exposure, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking "any news is good news." The truth is, bad press and TV coverage can hurt your cause more than help it. After each media event, it is important to evaluate what was said, by whom, and how.
The most important component of the story in terms of its effectiveness is whether the issue was framed in a way that supports your position. Any issue can be "framed" in a multitude of ways, sot it's important to make sure that the press is using your language, your points, and your quotes to tell the story. Pundits call it "spin" for a good reason: it can spin public opinion toward you or away from you. When you watch the newscast or read the story, ask yourself the following questions:
- Did the headline or teaser reflect your view of the issue? Was it neutral, or did it reflect the opposition's view?
- Were people from your side quoted or interviewed? If so, were they quoted more, or at greater length, than the opposition?
- Did the background information used in the story support your goals?
- Was the opposition quoted? If so, was there a rebuttal from your side afterward? Sometimes getting the opposition's message out, then refuting it, can be better than not presenting the opposing argument at all.
- Did pictures or footage accompanying the story support your goals?
- Did the reporter seem knowledgeable about the issue at hand, or were there glaring omissions in the main facts and ideas?
It can be helpful to make a list of the highlights of the coverage, the most damaging parts of the coverage, and a to-do list of what needs to be done before the next news event to improve the stories for the next time. Here are some suggestions of ways to "fix" some common media problems:
Make sure that whoever is speaking to reporters has short, clear media bites. Complete sentences are essential. Example: If the reporter asks, "Why is your coalition in favor of keg registration?" don't answer, "because it will reduce access to underage drinking;" say either, "Our coalition is in favor of keg registration because . . ." or "Keg registration has been shown to be an important tool in reducing underage drinking."
While occasionally reporters are biased against your causes, the most common reason for their not giving you equal access is that they ran out of time, you were hard to get a hold of, or they didn't know who to talk to. Sometimes they have established relationships with the opposition, or know they're good for a juicy media bite. Some ways to fix this for the next news opportunity:
- Visit with the reporter that covered the story, and explain who you are and what you represent. Make sure you give them every conceivable number for reaching you or someone else on your side for the next time.
- Make sure your spokesperson gives the reporters what they're looking for, so they'll come looking for your spokesperson next time. That means a pithy media bite, critical information, or a lead on who else to talk to.
- If it si an event where both sides are present and the reporter seems to only be talking to the opposition, approach the reporter politely, let them know who you are, and say you'd like to make a statement. It's their job to present balanced stories, and most are anxious to do so if they are given the opportunity.
- If the reporter came and left a hearing or other event without talking to your side, then make sure you get to the reporter earlier next time. Pull them aside before the event to give them your quote, schedule your side's testimony earlier, or give them a written press release before they leave. What can be even better is to pre-arrange a media event, press conference or meeting with reporters right before the main event. That way, they have your point of view before they even begin their story.
Especially in smaller media markets, reporters come and go fairly regularly. They may not have even been in town when the last event on your issue took place. After an episode of ill-informed coverage, call the reporter and ask if you can meet wit them to explain your view of the situation. Bring fact sheets with quotable statistics. Sometimes, in an effort to make up for "biased" coverage, you will end up with a feature story that is even more advantageous than a quote in the original story would have been. For the future, call the media outlets prior to an event you believe they will or should be covering to let them know you will be there. Send them a press release that clearly and succinctly explains your points. Include quotes from your spokespeople in the press release so that even if they don't et to talk to you, they can always have a statement in their story expressing your views. The easier you make it for them, the more likely they are to present your side of the story.
If you believe you gave the reporter ample access and information and the news was still slanted, or there seems to be a pattern of bias in stories, it may well be time to schedule an editorial board visit (or, in the case of TV, a meeting with the station manager or news director). These may sound crazy, but in fact most editors want to be responsible local citizens and are quite open to sitting down and discussing your issue. Obviously you do not want to be confrontational or accusatory. Bring your best information and your most articulate (and prominent) spokespeople, and explain your view of the problem at hand and what you see the solution to be. You might mention that it doesn't seem that your side of the story is being well-reported, but leave it at that. Sometimes, a newspaper will take a position on an issue, in which case your visit to the editor may result in an endorsement from the paper. Even if it doesn't, it will raise the issue on their radar screen, and will help ensure that you get fair coverage next time.
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