Understanding Journalists

Even when journalists agree with us (and when they don’t), they have restrictions on what and how they can cover issues. Understanding journalists makes us more effective at working with them.

Common Constraints on Journalists:

  • Time, time, time newsrooms are in constant motion with deadlines, quick decisions, and no time to waste. They are constantly under deadline, so don’t waste their time. Few have any time to do in-depth research, and that means most often they’re not going to become experts on your issue. You have to give them a fair overview so they can sort through all the facts, including whatever your opposition might say.
  • Editors journalists don’t have control over what pieces they write. Most of the time their editors make the decision on what will be covered and may have political leanings. Media make much of their money by advertising, and editors may be sensitive to how angering an advertiser in an article (for example) may result in less income.
  • News, not issues — even if a reporter cares about an issue/cause, they cannot write about it unless there is a “news” hook. They struggle to report on the future (climate change will get worse) without linking to something in the present. Reporters, editors, and especially bloggers and folks on twitter are deeply interested in what’s new and fresh. Yesterday’s news is old news. You should therefore always be thinking up new tactics and angles to capture the attention of reporters. (Read more about how to make news-worthy actions and framing climate change as news: lessons from the Guardian.) 
  • Short space/timeexcept for a few exceptions (certain magazine writers, longer TV programs), journalists have very limited space or segments. That means that issues have to be simplified. And since they can’t assume their viewers known any backstory, it means the entire campaign and its story must be condensed into a very small amount of space.  Simplifying down a story is necessary to their job.
  • Covering too many issues Journalists are busy and working on many, many stories at once. So they cannot devote all their energy to thinking about and writing about yours. 
  • Speaking to their audience — newspaper writers write for a wide audience. That audience would include a varied level of awareness on your issue — and they must write so all their readers can understand. That often means writing to be accessible, at a very basic level. It means every time they write, they have to explain basic concepts about your campaign.
  • Few Resourcesjournalists often have very little time or resources to do research, investigate, or fact-check. You can take advantage of this: if you become a trusted source, reporters may trust your facts. That means you have to be reliable and always careful to be precise and factual with reporters. But it also means they may trust other sources whose facts you do not agree with.

Depending on your political context you may have additional challenges:

  • Neutrality in some contexts journalists are expected to be “neutral.”  The worst version of this is treating every issue as if there are two equal sides: for example, climate change is real and climate change is not real. Out of perceived journalistic integrity, they may publish each as if they are same.
  • Media as political actorsbeing a journalist can be highly political (and in some contexts can be even riskier than being an activist or a human rights lawyer). In those contexts journalists have to be very careful before they print something that may criticize political actors, like the government. Consider if reporters see this issue as important enough for them to take a risk to report.
  • Climate change as less important than immediate political problems — The abstract issue of “climate change” may not register as important in the face of immediate political strife — unless it can be directly connected to people’s lives locally. 
  • Criticism of government in some places, questioning government policy can be especially politically unsafe, and therefore journalists are less likely to print this. They are more likely to include something that has a pro-active, solutions orientation — so we have to place ourselves as pro-active players and not just activists who criticize. 
  • The “activist” frameeven in more open political environments, the framing of “activist” may convey thoughtless, random action and even well-meaning journalists can suffer from writing about activists as if they are not experts on an issue (“activists today allege that…”). It’s important to make clear the reasoning behind the campaign or actions taking place to avoid the framing of “angry activists.”