5 Things You Should Know About Talking with Journalists

Have you ever been asked to comment on a heath- or medicine-related news story? Journalists often need the insight of clinicians, researchers, and medical educators to make sense of fast-paced changes in the medical field. 

At the same time, the news industry itself in a period of rapid flux. Lisa Brunette, director of media relations at UW Health and Robyn Perrin, PhD, public affairs and communications manager, Department of Medicine, summarize a few of the emerging trends in media relations. Over the next several months, media strategists from UW Health and Dr. Perrin will offer faculty development presentations at monthly meetings of all 11 Department of Medicine divisions.

What is trending in the news industry, and how might these developments affect faculty and staff who talk with the press? Here are five things to be aware of:

1. Today's media environment can be complex, dynamic, and confusing. "Whether you think of them as disruptions, innovations, or challenges, the media have been affected by rapid changes in technology, business models, and social and cultural trends," said Brunette. 

The three main categories of media remain the same: earned ("the press"), owned (an organization's own web sites, social media presence, and print periodicals), and paid (advertising). 

But from the perspective of news consumers, the press appears fragmented - despite a recent series of industry mergers and acquisitions that have consolidated many legacy print and broadcast organizations. 

A proliferation of digital news outlets, often coupled with branded social media presence, allows news to be tailored to very specific audiences. "This can be an advantage when trying to reach very specific groups of people, but for stories that require reaching a large volume of people, it involves a lot more footwork and coordination," said Brunette. 

On the other hand, many institutions are using the same strategies and tactics as digital news outlets to produce their own news - and the readership, in some cases, can rival that of independent news organizations. "When high standards for journalistic integrity are upheld, readers and viewers do look toward universities and health care systems for news. Particularly in locations where newsrooms have cut back on reporters assigned to health and medical topics, these institutionally-affiliated outlets are important sources of information for readers and viewers," said Perrin.

2. Reporters are stretched thin. Across the United States, newsrooms have reduced their workforce by nearly half (in 1990, daily news outlets employed 56,900 full-time employees; a 2015 study showed that number had dropped to 32,900). Pair this with the proliferation of digital outlets, and the result is fewer people reporting on more information with tight deadlines. 

"This has a couple of consequences: journalists may not have the luxury of becoming as familiar with topic details on an ongoing basis, and they often have very little time in which to develop the story," said Brunette. "If they request an interview and don’t get a fast response, they will move onto another source." 

3. Fake news is a real problem. Do you know how to identify fake versions of real news sources? A 2016 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education summarized some tips: avoid websites ending in "lo," ".com.co" or that have odd domain names, and be aware that some news outlets such BuzzFeed and Forbes offer platforms that allow bloggers to publish articles that do not go through the same editing process as other articles on the same outlet. 

Toward that end, how do you tell if an interview request is legitimate? "Always contact us before responding," said Brunette. "Our media strategists know local and regional reporters very well, and many of us are former journalists. We can help vet inquiries." Contact UW Health media relations at news@uwhealth.org. If you have an urgent after-hours need, page their offices by calling (608) 262-2122 and entering pager number 7594; a staff member is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

4. There are some timeless things that journalists still need from you. Despite all the changes in how news is produced and distributed, some aspects of reporting never change. Journalists need:

  • A good story
  • Clear, concise answers to their questions
  • The fastest possible response
  • Diverse viewpoints
  • Some element of drama to the story, to increase readers' interest
  • "Real people," such as patients for consumer news outlets

5. Know the rules. These include both guidelines and policies for the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health (UW SMPH), and universal practices in journalism.

"UW SMPH policy states that if you are contacted for a 'system opinion' on topics such as a new clinical or business opportunity, request for new regional services, or to comment on a topic or public policy issue that is outside your role as a subject matter expert as a clinician and/or researcher, speak first with your department chair," said Perrin. The chair may then direct you to others within the organization who can advise on strategy and communication priorities. 

"Be aware that members of the press also abide by rules of the profession," said Brunette. "Everything you say is 'on the record.’ When commenting, tell the truth to the best of your ability, and know that reporters almost never permit review of their stories before they are released. Your comments will be edited, and the media outlet controls the final product." 

In summary: Talking with the press can be a rewarding experience
"As members of an academic medical center, improving lives by sharing knowledge is one of the most important things we do," said Perrin. "In many cases, journalists share this same goal. Interacting mindfully with the press is one more way that clinicians can help populations stay healthy, scientists can show how research affects lives, and educators can explain how the next generation of physicians is being trained."