Saturday, April 16, 2011

Tips for Speaking to a Journalist about your Family History

I was speaking to a friend of mine who was interviewed about his family history by a journalist for a newspaper article.  He was frustrated and confused because the part of the interview that he thought was the most interesting was not used by the reporter in the published interview.

Speaking to a reporter for the first time can be a nerve-wracking experience.  By gaining some understanding of what is going to happen and what the reporter wants, you can help reduce that anxiety.

A major thing that can impact the interview is whether you have advance notice of the interview or not.  Many interviews are scheduled ahead of time and that provides the interviewee with the ability to prepare.  But some interviews can happen on the spot at events and can leave the interviewee feeling like they participated in a whirlwind.

Here are some tips to help make both types of experiences better.

The reporter's point of view

1) The Journalist who interviews you may not know anything about genealogy or family history.  They have been sent to write a story or to cover an event by their supervisor.  They need to cover the story and meet their deadline.

2) The journalist may not specialize in a field related genealogy, history or even liberal arts.  I Googled a reporter who recently wrote an article about the New England Regional Genealogical Conference only to discover that he was a business reporter.

3) The reporter is looking for angle to write about.  As they are listening to you speak they are trying to determine which aspect will make for the best story to meet the goal of their article.  When publicizing and event, an interviewee's story may be a secondary example in the greater goal of providing information about the event.  If the interviewee is the feature of the story they will be given greater in-depth attention.

4) Journalists, unless they are recording the interview, will inevitably forgot to jot something down or may write it down incorrectly.

Tips you can use to make the interview a success

1) Goals. Ask the reporter at the outset of the interview what their goal is and how you can help them.  Some reporters may not know at the beginning what direction they want to go but by asking you may gain some valuable insight that will guide your answers..

2) Background Check. If you are participating in a scheduled interview, research the journalist ahead of time.  Try to discover what topics they normally specialize in and what types of articles they write.  This will help you understand how much they know about your topic and what they like to write about.  This can be particularly useful in helping you understand when you are speaking to a journalist who isn't interested at all in your subject.

3) Prepare a Take-Away.  I'm sure many genealogists have war stories about journalists who covered their stories and got it wrong.  There's nothing worse for a genealogist than discovering that a journalist has contributed erroneous information to what will be used in the future as an archival document.  One way to help combat this is to prepare a one-page summary of key names, dates and information.  The journalist will be able to use this information when they sit down to write the article.  This will ensure that the names are spelled correctly and the information is correct.

4) Don't Get Too Personal. Sometimes it's easy to get carried away if you having a great conversation. Be careful not to discuss personal information with the reporter that you don't want the world to know.  You can say "This is off the record" but a much better solution is not to mention the information in the first place.

5) Provide Contact Information.  Offer to give the journalist your name, email address and phone number in the event they want to "fact check" the interview.  Don't hesitate to provide you phone number.  If the journalist has a quick deadline turnaround they may prefer to call you rather than waiting for email.  The more prestigious the publication the more likely that they will do a fact check.

I have been interviewed a number times by journalists so many of these tips stem from my personal experience.  While I have conducted many interviews, I am not a professional journalist.  I would welcome additional thoughts on this topic from anyone who can provide that inside scoop from the journalist's point of view.

Hopefully when you are contacted by a journalist you will be better armed for a smoother interview.  Interviews are worth doing but they are even better when you can ensure their success.

Photo Credit: Photo by visual.dichotomy

1 comment:

  1. Good points. Had a recent round of this with getting coverage of an oral history conference I helped produce. Wrote press release, conversed online w/ editor, and then was interviewed by the reporter (who also spent a half day at the digital audio workshop I taught) for this LA Times article on oral history.

    Wasn't first interview or press coverage, but was an experience in a bigger start-to-finish process to get the event covered. Good to have realistic expectations going in.

    Had a nice long conversation with the reporter. Knew that it'd result in, at most, 3 sentence quote. I wasn't quoted at all, but was happy with the article. Why? I was mentioned. In the online version, they linked my website. (was stoked about that)
    Plus, some of the stuff I told her DID go into the article on background.

    Oh, and one other thing: On the "angle" -- Also had to work to shape reporter's concept of 'oral historians resistant to learning technology' (a simpler angle) into the right sort of frame (digital transitions happen in every industry; look at it from generational standpoint of those starting out vs. those closer to retirement). That, even though I'd helped to brainstorm the angle while talking with our media contact re: being interviewed. Take away: Even when presenting an angle, make sure not to be so simplistic about it that you lose some of the complexity. (It helped that reporter interviewed other people on this topic, too).