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INFOWIRE: How to talk to reporters when there's a lot on the line

Jun 19, 2015

Credit Tina P. / Flickr

Infowire fills the information gap and meets the news needs of families struggling to make ends meet. Get all Infowire alerts by texting INFOWIRE to 734-954-4539 or email infowire@michiganradio.org

At State of Opportunity, we believe everyone should have the opportunity to share their story.

It's not a reporter's job to make you sound exactly how you want to sound - whatever you say to them will be part of a larger story. If you want to have total control over your story, we suggest you find a way to tell it on your own. 

This is especially true for folks who have experience with many of the issues we cover: poverty, trauma, juvenile justice, you get the gist. It can be hard to talk about those situations, but it's valuable to hear first hand what it's like to live through them. 

We put our heads together and came up with a list of tips for people who want to share their story through talking with a reporter. These tips include things we've learned through our reporting, like how difficult it can be for some people to recall certain experiences. Through the years we have interviewed several students from Eastern Michigan University's MAGIC Program about their experience in foster care. Joi Rencher, their program coordinator, always sits in on these interviews and she meets with students before and after to check in. Talking about these experiences can bring up a lot of memories and feelings. A reporter can't work with MAGIC students to process their emotions, but someone like Rencher can.

We can't offer that level of support, but we do want you to feel free to download these tips, print them, share them, whatever. Make them work for you and think about sharing your story.

How to talk to reporters when a lot is on the line: Tips from Michigan Radio’s State of Opportunity

It’s important reporters treat every story they do with care. But it’s also true that some stories are more likely to be misunderstood or treated in a way that lack depth. There are also stories where somebody’s future or safety could be on the line. If you think your experience is often misunderstood yet you want more people to understand what it’s like to have your experience, these tips are for you.

Before you start the conversation:

One:  You’re the one in control. You can always say “no” when you’re asked to talk to a reporter or share your story. You can also say you are willing to talk “on background” if you don’t want to be quoted.

Two: If the reporter doesn’t tell you, make sure you ask what the story is going to be about and how the reporter sees you fitting into the story. The story might change, but you should be as informed as you can before you make your decision.

Three: If you have time, look at other work by the reporter and make sure you’re comfortable with their reporting style.

Four: Remember that you can’t control if your story or interview actually makes it into a final piece. If it does, you have no power over how many people see or hear the piece, who sees or hears it, or how you’re portrayed. It might exceed your expectations, or it might disappoint you. The reporter is working on a full story - and your contribution and experience is probably only a part of that.

During the interview:

One: Always tell the truth. If you’re not sure about something be honest about that. If you’re not sure if your memory is totally accurate about events, say that.

Two: If you feel your safety or future will be impacted by what you’re about to say, ask if you can only use your first name, or a pseudonym. (Most reporters will need permission from their editor to allow this.)

Three: Assume you're always on the record when speaking with a reporter. Unless you specifically say you don’t want to be quoted on something, or that something is "off the record" a reporter will feel free to use it. Make sure a reporter agrees to go "off the record" before you say something, not after.

After the interview:

One: If you’ve spoken about something difficult, it’s a good idea to have somebody to process with (not the reporter) after your interview. It would also be a good idea to talk to that person when the piece comes out.

Two: Make sure you know how to access the piece when it’s published or aired.

Three: You should feel comfortable providing feedback to the reporter when the story is done. You do not have to share how you feel, but if you liked it or you didn’t, reporters can handle it.

Four: Don’t read the comments! That’s a joke. But understand that many people are cruel and thoughtless and may say mean and hurtful things on the internet. On the other hand, they may shower you with love, or ignore your story all together. You can only control the story you tell, you need to feel good about that.

Telling your story and sharing your experience can be helpful and a good exercise, even when you’re not ready to go on the record. If you’d like help or resources we recommend Googling “Teen Reporter Handbook, Radio Diaries.”

You should also feel free (really!) to contact Sarah Alvarez or Brittany Bartkowiak at State of Opportunity by emailing: alvarez@michiganradio.org  or brittanyb@michiganradio.org.