What to know before talking with journalists about EA

by sky 3mo4th Sep 20198 min read12 comments

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Journalists regularly contact individuals, groups, and organizations who are involved in the effective altruism space. At first glance, opportunities to speak with journalists may seem like a good way to spread information about important work and ideas. However, we have found that they can also be a good way to create misunderstandings or negative impressions of EA or of particular projects. Because evaluating and engaging in successful media engagements requires specialized skills and knowledge, it’s important to seek advice or resources, proceed carefully, and be prepared.

Quick takeaway: when you are contacted by the media, we think it’s important that you connect with resources and advisors so you can make informed decisions. Many large organizations have full-time staff who do media advising, but we know most community members won’t have access to such resources. CEA staff would like to offer you information and resources for deciding if or how to participate in media opportunities. If you receive media inquiries, I encourage you to email me or schedule a chat. You can also refer others to me, to this post, or to our full guide: Advice for responding to journalists.

EA and journalism

CEA regularly hears about journalists who are interested in interviewing people about EA. So far this year, we’ve heard from ten groups or individuals who were considering whether or how to participate in a media piece.

Here are some examples:

  • A producer of a popular podcast emails someone with questions about EA for an upcoming story and states that they have a pressing deadline. The community member wants to respond professionally and feels pressured to do so quickly. They’re not sure what best practices to follow to make the decision about participating or not.
  • A journalist attends a local EA group event, perhaps without the group knowing in advance. Now attendees need to decide on the spot if they want to participate in a story, when they likely arrived expecting a casual social event.
    • Some attendees at the event may be people who work in government or other sensitive fields where they are expected to maintain a neutral public image. They may not know their employer’s policies around media, or their employer may have an expectation that employees not participate in media engagements related to their work without pre-approval. They may wonder if they need to leave the event.
    • Attendees may speak casually without realizing they could be quoted, and may misunderstand what it means to speak “off the record.”
    • If the journalist is unfamiliar with EA, they may come away with misunderstandings, depending on the direction the conversation happens to take.
  • A journalist approaches several EA organizations, local groups, and individuals with invitations to be interviewed for a story or documentary they’re working on. Now each of these people and groups must make a decision about whether to participate, often without having much time to research important considerations:
    • What is the journalist’s understanding of EA? Have they covered it before? What approach did they take in the past?
    • Who else is being interviewed or who else might be a good resource for this particular kind of story? Is the potential interview related to one’s area of expertise or outside of it?
    • What will happen if the request for an interview is declined? Will the piece go forward in a less informed way, or will it not be produced at all?

Many large organizations have media professionals who specialize in preparing and training staff or researching questions like the ones above. CEA thinks that kind of training and preparation are important, and Julia Wise and I recently participated in such a training. We recognize that group organizers and community members have limited time to prepare for such situations though, so we want to provide resources.

We know it’s not within CEA’s capacity at our current staff size to hold ourselves out as the “PR firm” for EA as a whole or for other EA organizations. And while CEA does have staff with journalism and public communications experience, we recognize that we are not professional media advisors either. We hope people will consider reaching out to resources from their employers, universities, or other professional associations and networks as well. What we can do, however, is provide a contact person who can collect information on best practices and on specific media inquiries, share information with you, and connect you with helpful resources. We hope this could save time and provide more clarity when evaluating media opportunities.

A contact person on media

Earlier this year, I joined CEA as a community liaison. Together with Julia Wise, I work in a variety of ways to support community members. Julia and I serve as community contact people for situations such as conflict between community members, diversity and inclusion questions in local groups, etc.

I am now also available as a contact person in the case of media inquiries.

Here are things I am often available to help with:

  • Gathering and centralizing information about particular media inquiries. (What kind of stories does the journalist typically write — lifestyle stories, thinkpieces, or a variety? Who might be a good resource for the journalist’s interest areas? What is the journalist’s understanding of EA? Who else in the community is involved in the story?)
  • Helping group organizers respond to a journalist’s request to attend an event
  • Helping group organizers prepare if they are expecting a journalist at their event(s)
  • Doing practice interviews and providing feedback to help you prepare for a media interview
  • Putting you in touch with other advisors

If you receive a media inquiry about EA, please contact me at media@ [at] centreforeffectivealtruism [dot] .org or schedule a meeting at efctv.org/sky_mayhew_cal.

What you should know

There are a few points which I’d like all readers to know and which have been very helpful for me and others. I recommend reading through our full advice for responding to journalists guide, but I will summarize some highlights here:

Know that you might encounter a media opportunity unexpectedly, and don’t take interviews unprepared.

Like I did, you might be at a social event and run into a journalist or author who is interested in learning more about your work or involvement in EA. Or, like many group organizers did, you might receive an email or Facebook message from a journalist who is requesting an interview. In either case, it is best not to engage in interviews on the spot. It is perfectly acceptable to decline to have an impromptu conversation.

We want to respond to journalists and media professionals with respect; by and large, they are trying to do the important job of informing the public about issues people care about. But a social event is not the best venue to speak to a journalist, especially if you’ve just met, and an off-the-cuff quick reply to a message is similarly unwise.

Instead, you can thank the person for their interest and offer to talk with them another time. You do want to respond quickly; journalists are often working on tight deadlines. You can also refer them to us for timely help at info@centreforeffectivealtruism.org. See our full guide for advice about the kind of questions you may want to ask in your response. After you’ve had a chance to learn more about their project, you can make a more informed decision about whether or not to be involved with any piece they might be writing.

Understand journalism basics; the definition of “off the record” is often misunderstood.

It’s a common misconception that saying that something is “off the record” will keep it from being printed. You may be interested to learn that it’s actually not so clear cut. First, speaking “off the record” can be understood somewhat differently by different journalists or in different countries, so a standard definition may be difficult to pin down. It's standard to consider all conversations "on the record" by default though, and after you’ve said something, you cannot later decide it was off the record. People might also think they can switch between "on the record" and "off the record" statements in the same conversation. Advisors recommend that this can easily cause confusion for you or for the journalist and lead to mistakes.

For most people, it’s better advice to just assume that what you say before, during, and after an interview may be quoted or mentioned in the piece. If you don’t think something should be said publicly (for example, you're looking for a new career and your boss doesn't know that yet), or you think something might be easily misunderstood because you haven't practiced clear ways of explaining it (for example, you're asked about a complex new research area), it’s usually better simply not to discuss it. A journalist’s ethical obligation is to follow the story and share information with the public; if they follow up on any leads or report the general nature of your "off the record" comments, they may just be doing their job.

If you find yourself considering a media opportunity related to EA, please get in touch so I can try to give you more background.

An early step in deciding whether to accept a media invitation is to learn more about the journalist, the media outlet, and the story. I may be able to provide you with more information about the journalist’s past work and the particular story they are working on, and let you know about any others in the community who have also been contacted. We all have limited time, and it’s more efficient to share information with each other than for each of us to do this research separately.

If you’re a group organizer, help your group prepare.

If there is a journalist at your event or considering attending your event, it’s essential that you prepare and let group members know, so that they can make their own informed decisions about how they want to participate.

If you decide to talk to the media, come well-prepared.

Most experts I’ve spoken to over the past several months (including journalists and former journalists) converge on this advice:

For any individual community member or professional (in any field, community, organization, etc), it is very risky to accept media engagements unless you’ve had media training and practice. Media analysis skills and interview skills are skills like any other, meaning they need to be learned and honed with practice. Some of us may find them easier to pick up or more enjoyable than others, but very few of us should expect to be good at interviews without preparation. I recommend thinking of an interview as a professional presentation. A one-on-one conversation with a journalist can feel casual and intimate, but it's actually more like being on a stage in front of an audience of hundreds, thousands, or millions of people, giving a talk that will be recorded and archived indefinitely. Most of us wouldn’t do that without practice, and even experienced professional speakers will rehearse their speeches. Rehearsing helps people convey ideas succinctly and clearly, skills that journalists appreciate as they try to write clear stories.

Training, practice, and feedback can help someone figure out their skills and comfort level, and then make informed decisions if and when media inquiries come up. Here is a brief summary of the recommended knowledge and skills required for media engagements:

  • General understanding of a journalist’s role, an interviewee’s role, and journalistic ethics (what they typically will and will not do; what you can and cannot ask or expect when participating in a story, etc). One key thing to understand is that a journalist’s incentive is often to quickly produce an interesting story. Good journalists don’t intend to misrepresent anything. At the same time, the tight timelines they have to work under may result in a less accurate or balanced picture of EA, of your project, or of you than you expect.
  • An understanding of the story’s particular angle and where you do or don’t fit.
  • An understanding of the piece and the journalist’s work, so that you can…
    • evaluate and choose opportunities where your ideas are more likely to be understood or represented accurately versus opportunities where you’re more likely to be misrepresented; and
    • predict the kinds of questions you’re likely to be asked so you can practice meaningful responses.
      • Even simple questions like “What is effective altruism?” can be surprisingly hard to answer briefly and well! If you convey key ideas in a clear, succinct way, the most important things you want to say are more likely to be what is reported.
      • It's important to analyze and decide on 1-3 points about your project that you want the audience to come away with, and to be comfortable explaining these points in a clear, quotable way throughout the interview.
    • predict the ways in which certain ideas might be misunderstood by a variety of audiences and practice how to convey points in a way that avoids such misunderstandings. (This is a fairly difficult skill).
  • A clear understanding of the scope of your own expertise, so you can be confident speaking only about related issues, while referring questions outside your expertise to others.
  • A clear understanding of the 1-3 points about your project that you want the audience to come with, and the ability to convey them.
  • Ability to be personable alongside willingness to feel awkward when necessary. You want to have personable conversation with a journalist as they're asking you questions, but your actual conversational partner is ultimately the reader or viewer. In an effort to speak effectively to your actual audience, you may sometimes find yourself talking past the journalist in a way that would be awkward in regular conversation. Doing this well usually requires practice.

If you are considering taking an interview, feel free to contact me. Julia and I may be able to help you practice or provide some feedback to help you decide about or prepare for the interview. (Early user testers report that feedback and practice sessions have been helpful and even fun!)

I look forward to being in touch to help when I can. I think that having more community members with significant media experience could be useful, but I also think that only some people will find it worth their time to do the significant amount of preparation required. For now, we’d like to help people make the most informed decisions possible.

Please see Advice for responding to journalists for more information about the recommendations we’ve received from media professionals. We hope community members will read it, leave a comment here, and/or contact us with any feedback, questions, or additional recommendations.

Note: Thanks to Julia Wise, Aaron Gertler, and Sam Deere for input on this post, and to Jonas Vollmer!

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