This story originally appeared on MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom in Memphis, Tennessee, focused on poverty, power, and policy. MLK50 practices ethical journalism and is committed to helping people get free.
First…Decide whether this interview is for you.
- Find out what the story is about and who the audience is. You should understand where a story will be published, what format (radio, print, online, magazine, TV), when and for what audience. If you have time beforehand, look up their work or ask to see it, and check to be sure their stories are fact-checked and fair. (Who is quoted in the story? Do they talk to more than one person? Do they interview and cite people with direct knowledge of the subject? Do they explain – or better yet, link to – where statistics and data are coming from?)
- You can say no. You do not have to talk to a journalist for any reason. You can say “no comment” or tell them to go away. Or, you can agree to be interviewed but decline to respond to certain questions. Just say, “I don’t want to answer that. Can we move to the next question?” Remember, they might still write about you; you can’t stop this, but you can weigh the risks of speaking versus letting the journalist say in their story that you declined to comment.
- You can choose which journalists you talk to. It’s okay to speak only with journalists you trust or journalists from outlets that reach the people you want to reach
- You can ask to be “off the record.” “Off the record” means you agree to talk about something the journalist is reporting on, and the journalist agrees not to put the information in the story or quote you. You may want to talk off the record before you agree to be on the record to find out what kinds of questions they will ask. An ethical journalist will respect your request–though they may not want to talk to you unless you go “on the record.”
- Caution: Everything you say to a journalist is assumed to be on the record until you say otherwise. Don’t talk unless you feel comfortable
Now…Set the terms of the interview.
- Ask the reporter how they plan to frame the story or what their “angle” is – meaning, what will they focus on, and what will be the main takeaway for audiences? Who else will they talk to?
- Suggest where, when and how the interview is conducted. For example, say, “I only have 20 minutes for this” or “I need you to meet me in a public place.” Journalists may pressure you with their deadlines or needs for information; communicate your boundaries clearly. Decide ahead of time if there are topics you don’t want to discuss or questions you will not answer.
- Ask if you can record. Having your own recording (audio or video) will help you correct any misquoting and creates a record of your requests and the information you share
Afterward…Give feedback, correct the record – and insist on it!
- Give feedback before, during, and after the process. A lot of journalists get feedback only from their editors before a story comes out. After the fact, they get feedback only when they’ve made a big mistake. Receiving feedback, including positive feedback, may empower them to do better and improve your relationship. Tell them what you think they should focus on and who they should speak with. Thank them when they do coverage you thought was good. Be honest and direct when you don’t like their work or how they treat you.
- Correct misinformation or misquoting. Good journalists don’t want to get the facts wrong. If you see or hear a mistake in a story, contact them or their editor immediately to correct it. Insist that it is dealt with. They should issue a correction ASAP. If they don’t do this, they may not be a journalist/outlet you want to speak to in the future
Things you can ask for but probably won’t get:
- You can ask to see questions ahead of time. This is useful, especially if they’re going to be asking for a lot of facts and figures, but some journalists won’t want to give you a list of questions in advance because they want you to speak naturally and not read a list of points. Still, you’ll be better prepared if you know what kinds of questions they’ll ask and whether they will be requesting statistics or research from you.
- You can ask to be anonymous. Journalists are concerned with protecting their own credibility, which means they avoid using a lot of anonymous sources. They will often grant anonymity or use a fake name in cases where you might be physically endangered (deported, arrested, attacked); they will sometimes grant anonymity to those who fear retaliation, such as losing a job. If you want to remain anonymous, be sure to discuss this before you speak to them.
- You can ask to see the article before it’s published. Most journalists won’t do this, but often they will agree to share the quotes they will use, give the context around the quote, and double-check any facts. A good journalist will carefully check your quotes and facts even if they can’t share the whole story with you before its release
Some other things to know:
- Journalists are just people. They have biases, fears, and professional pressures. The more you can understand what they want and need, the more likely you are to work well with them. Take time to get to know your local journalists if they’re open to it. Find out what makes them tick and what holds them back.
- Journalists have deadlines and bosses. They might only get in touch with you the day of a story, they’ll likely be in a hurry, and they probably won’t do the story exactly the way you want. This is pretty normal, unfortunately. They’re often doing several stories a day on tight deadlines, and they have their own editors to contend with. If you don’t like the way you are being treated, be honest and direct – and find out if there is a good reason behind their actions. There may be a workaround, or you might decide they are not someone you want to work with
- Your legal rights are very limited. Law in the U.S. often protects speech freedoms for news media over other priorities such as privacy, accuracy or even personal safety.
For example, if you are in a public place, it is generally within the legal rights of a journalist to record and photograph you even if you say you don’t consent to that recording and even if it might endanger or incriminate you for it to be published. Many states prohibit reporters from recording or photographing secretly, but the specifics vary state-to-state. And journalists have wide leeway to use and distribute any information you give them. Lawsuits after the fact will be an uphill battle. So, take care to choose who you talk to and what you say.
Lewis Raven Wallace is the author of The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity and the Abolition Journalism Fellow for Interrupting Criminalization. @lewispants