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Guide to Talking with the Press and News Media

Students and their families are constantly seeking information about student financial aid, and will turn to whatever sources they can find. Chief among the information providers are the news media, including newspapers, magazines, television, and radio.

Financial aid administrators should do everything in their power to ensure that the information presented by the news media is accurate. This means letting your local newspaper, TV and radio reporters know that you're available as a resource to answer questions, agreeing to be interviewed for articles about financial aid, and correcting errors in a prompt but friendly fashion.

The purpose of this section of the FinAid® Page is to explain how to communicate with news media so that your message is presented accurately.

Be Proactive

Instead of waiting for the newspaper, magazine, TV station, or radio station to make an error, try to be proactive in providing them with information. It will take you a lot less time to speak with a reporter than to repeat the same information to hundreds of parents. If you get accurate information out in the ear of the public, it will save you time in the long run. Talking to reporters is a very good way of educating the public.

Identify the reporters who are responsible for the education beat. Sometimes this is a specific reporter (you'll see his or her byline on the articles) and sometimes it will be part of the city desk. Occasionally there is a separate personal finance reporter. Give them a call to introduce yourself and let them know that you're willing to be interviewed about financial aid issues, on the record and off the record, and to help them with background information. Reporters need help understanding the issues just like anybody else, and they will welcome the opportunity to add local color to their articles. If you prove yourself to be a good resource for them, both in terms of good quotes and background information, your name will go into the Rolodex and they will call you for all their financial aid stories.

If you don't know the answer to a question, refer them to someone who does. Resist the temptation to prevaricate. If you state opinion as fact, or are unsure, you won't like the results when you are quoted in print.

When a good story comes along -- and they come along every week or two -- call the reporter and tell them about it. Newspapers have an information gap, and will be very happy if you help them fill it.

On and Off the Record

If you want to tell the reporter something, but don't want to be quoted, tell the reporter: "The following is OFF THE RECORD." Make sure that the reporter explicitly agrees when you are speaking off the record. When you are done speaking off the record, tell the reporter that "we are now talking ON THE RECORD again".

Be aware, however, that off the record information may still wind up in the article, if the reporter can find another source to say the information on the record. Good reporters know how to get another source to confirm information, especially if it makes a good story. They may even tell the other source that you told them the information. All "off the record" means is that the information will not be attributed to you. It doesn't mean that it won't appear in print. When you speak off the record, you are giving the reporter background information for their story. Don't tell the reporter idle gossip. When you speak to a reporter, you are doing so for only one purpose: to provide them with information for their story.

If you don't want something to appear in print, don't tell it to them, even off the record. Be very careful with on and off the record. With established publications, if you say "the following is off the record" they tend to respect that. But reporters do sometimes make mistakes. With lesser publications, just don't tell them off the record information.

If you get sandbagged, don't become defensive. If you do, you'll seem like you're either whining or covering up. (For example, blaming it on the feds, even if it is their fault, just makes you seem slimy.) Definitely don't overreact. Either refer them to someone else for the answer (and call that person to give them a heads up), or answer the question with a question. It takes a lot of skill to put the proper spin on an answer, so don't try until you have more experience. If you have to answer, don't talk to the specifics of the challenge, but the intent behind them. For example, state that privacy rules prevent you from discussing student records, and describe the general procedures you follow in resolving problems. Changing the topic can backfire on you. The right way to change the topic is to toot your own horn on a related subject. For example, if the reporter asks about mistakes made concerning a particular student, respond with general statistics on the number of students you serve and the total amount of aid you administer.

If you don't want to answer a question, answer simply "no comment". If say that you don't want to answer in too many words, you're giving the reporter something they can excerpt.

General Tips

  • Spell out all names when talking to a reporter. Not only will this help ensure your name is spelled correctly, but it increases the likelihood that they'll quote you. For example, when being interviewed on camera, the first thing you should do when standing in front of the podium is state your name, title, affiliation, and a very brief (one sentence) biography. Don't forget to spell out ALL names, slowly enough that they can write it down.

  • Don't be long-winded. Try to find the shortest possible way of answering the question. Sound bites are more likely to be quoted that detailed explanations because they are easier to remember, so try to be concise. Every time you talk on a topic, try to simplify your explanations. Try to say what you need to say in 30 seconds. (A typical hour-long taping for a TV segment will result in maybe 15 seconds of footage. If you can give them what they want concisely, they'll use more footage. Pretend that you're paying them $10,000 a minute and you want the most effective message for your money.)

  • Avoid jargon. When you use jargon, the reporter may get confused. On TV interviews, the anchor will have to explain what you mean, which perpetuates the impression that aid administrators don't know how to talk to plain people.

  • Think before you talk. Don't be so eager for the interview that you launch into an explanation without gathering your thoughts together. It is ok to pause before answering. If you're being taped, they'll edit it out. If you're being interviewed live, they can still edit it out (there's a 5 second delay). Even if they don't, a slight pause doesn't look bad. Most people talk too quickly on air. A pause will help you speak more slowly.

  • If the reporter asked a good question, say so. Tell them "That's a good question."

  • If being interviewed for TV, know in advance what you're going to do with your hands. Don't fidget. If you brought props or charts, don't play with them. If seated, rest your hands on the desk or keep them below the desk out of site. Don't cross your arms, as this appears confrontational. If standing, keep your hands at your side.

  • Be yourself. Don't assume a persona -- you'll come across as artificial or uptight. Use personal pronouns and don't use the passive voice.

  • Use concrete examples to illustrate abstract topics.

  • Don't stare into the camera, but at a spot to either side. In a studio, the camera with the light on above it is the active view. Don't get distracted by all the detail and the teleprompter.

  • Don't wear stripes on TV, since it sometimes results in moire patterns. Clip the microphone three inches (one fist) below your chin. Don't fuss with your clothing, hair, or glasses. Visit the restroom before going on camera, and don't drink caffeine or a diuretic.

  • Remember, a reporter is telling a story. They may be using your voice to tell it by quoting you, but it is their story. If you recognize the story they're trying to tell early on, you will be more effective in getting accurate information into the story, and less disappointed when they quote you on what seems to you to be a minor matter, ignoring the rest of your interview and the points you were trying to make. Even when the reporter is writing a question and answer interview, it is still their story.

  • Reporters like to attribute information to reliable sources. So if you know of a report or other reference that answers their question, especially one by NCES, the College Board, NASFAA, or similar reliable sources, tell them about it. If you can give them a name and phone number, they'll be ecstatic, since reporters like to tell stories using quotes from several people.

Preventing Errors

  • Before you begin the interview, ask the reporter to verify all of your quotes with you before they appear in print. The highest quality publications, especially personal finance and news magazines, do this as a matter of course, employing "fact checkers" to verify every statement in an article.

  • Be very careful what you say, and try to avoid saying anything that could be misinterpreted. Keep it simple. Sound bites work well because they are less likely to be misreported and make good quotes. The longer an explanation, the more likely it is to be misunderstood (or just plain ignored).

  • You will probably have a few gaffes, and be misquoted a few times, but you'll learn with experience. Sometimes the reporter will get things wrong no matter how much you try. But most of the time they'll get things right. And they'll certainly get it right more often if you talk to them.

Some special tips for dealing with student newspapers include:

  • Ask the reporter to tape record the interview. This improves accuracy, since they can review the tape in addition to checking their notes.

  • Introduce yourself to the editor of the paper (you'll need to do this every year, since editors change annually), give him or her your home telephone number, and ask them to call you if they ever have a question about student financial aid. (Warning: This can sometimes mean being called very late at night.)

Correcting Errors

If a newspaper runs an article containing factual errors, write a letter to the editor correcting the error. Keep the letter short and to the point. Be concrete and direct. Attribute facts to the source. Use humor when correcting a false statement.

Do not repeat the error. Why give it any extra exposure? Just give the context, such as the general question or topic, and state the correct answer.

If a quote was mistakenly attributed to you, think twice before correcting it. Sometimes correcting an error ("I didn't say that") is worse than the original error.

Don't Annoy the Reporters

Nothing annoys reporters more than misuse of terminology. A news story is an article, not an editorial. An editorial is an opinion piece that represents the official position of the newspaper, not that of a reader. So never refer to a letter to the editor as an editorial. An article that is not so much news and informative is called a feature.

If you encounter ignorance, don't get angry or frustrated. Think of it as a challenge. Try to be as helpful as you can. If the reporter is confused, the general public will probably be even more confused. It is a good investment of your time to help the reporter understand your field.


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