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Thinking Like a Reporter

reporterThis document originally appeared on the Michigan Land Use Institute website.


When interacting with the media, these steps are essential:
  1. Frame an accurate, creative, intriguing, succinct, locally-relevant message.
  2. Stay on message when talking and working with reporters.
  3. Be nice.
  4. Don't complain about a news article, radio piece, television story. One piece that you think is poorly done won't generally hurt your work.
  5. Correct factual errors but do it in a spirit of cooperation. Reporters are people too and they dislike whiners just like anybody dislikes whiners.
  6. Compliment journalists who do a good job.
  7. Stay in touch with reporters and editors. Reporters and editors only understand what is "news" because they understand the issue and its development. So keep in regular contact with reporters in order to help them stay up to date. And when you get in touch, make sure what you tell them is accurate. One bad fact ruins your credibility.
  8. Don't expect everything you tell a broadcaster or reporter to turn into a news article or television piece.


We are sources for reporters, media, and the public in general. Reporters want fast,
accurate, and compelling information that is relevant to their readership.

How do we work with reporters?
  1. Frame the Message. Make the issue local to their readership and make people care about what you're reporting.
  2. Respond. Respond quickly to reporters and respond accurately so that they report our issues and we stay in the news. It is a mutually rewarding relationship that we should always continue to foster.
  3. Fun Facts. Provide reporters with interesting, quick, fun facts that move our issues and make people care about what we are saying.
  4. Pithiness. In your writing, be succinct, clear, intelligent, and stick to the issue.Thinking Like A Reporter
  5. No Nos. DO NOT call people names or speak to people with disrespect, off the record or on the record. DO NOT bad mouth people in the press. DO NOT sink to personal attacks. It is essential to always respect both our opponents and our friends. Be positive. As difficult as it is sometimes, it is important to rise above incivility and distinguish the environmental community as reasoned and rational.
  6. Intelligence and Accuracy. People trust us. It works to our benefit. Let's continue to print the facts. Our reporting will compel people to act and to care.
  7. Reasonable. The environmental community's reporting is reasoned, fair, and intelligent, and it makes us unique. The best approach? Be practical, thoughtful, rational, and truthful.



1. Ask Yourself: What is the problem?
When pondering this question, ask yourself: What will it take to find the problem? How do you shape or approach the issue so that you make a point that is compelling, informative, accurate?

Find out what has been said or written before. Find out what's out there.

2. Ask Yourself: Who Are the Key Figures in Your Reporting?
Who are the people that are critical to your article? CALL THOSE KEY FIGURES. Find out how these key figures influenced the problem. After a preliminary assessment over the phone, distinguish the people who are essential to your reporting. Know the issue that you are getting into so that you can know how important or unimportant these people are to your story. This helps EFFICIENCY.

3. Ask yourself: Where Do I Start?
GROUND LEVEL INTERVIEWS. After you've figured out who the "key figures" are in your story, do an interview that gives you a broad overview of the issue at hand. Let the interviewee fill in the pieces of the story. LISTEN to him/her. That person will help you fill in the pieces to the ‘problem' that you are researching. These pieces will help to tell you what you will actually USE in your article. Again, these ground level interviews foster efficiency. NOTE: Quality not quantity. It is not important to do a ton of interviews but to make the most of the interviews that you do. 2-3 interviews a day. Maybe 5-6 interviews, on average, per story.

4. Ask yourself: How Do I Interview Effectively?
In interviewing, remember the CARDINAL RULE - no question is stupid. Ask anything you think you need to know. Accuracy is ESSENTIAL, so it is vital to KNOW YOUR FACTS.

In the bicycling community it is our job to write about tough issues and make them easy to understand and compelling to everyday people. We translate complicated issues, and we need to UNDERSTAND the issues fully before we can accurately report them.

In an interview PREPARATION IS EVERYTHING. The better prepared you are in an interview and the more you have researched the issue and understand it, the better the interview.

The start of an interview is also very important. It sets the tone. It is best to establish a comfortable rapport with your interviewee so that he/she feels that they can trust that you will report the facts.

Let the interviewee go off on a tangent at the beginning if that helps establish rapport. In that comfort zone, the interviewee is more likely to give you real, compelling, tangible information that will make your piece better. It is important, though, that if they start to drift "out there" too much, that you tactfully and respectfully draw them back in to the issue at hand. Refocus their attention.

Tape recorders are usually only necessary when you're doing a profile article. If you think your interview necessitates a tape recorder, ASK PERMISSION. Etiquette is vital here. Most often, environmental organizations publish pieces with 2-3 quotes. It is usually better not to use a tape recorder because the interviewee is generally more comfortable without one. But always make sure that you've quoted your source correctly, whether you quote one word, 10, or 100.

Quotes are used to elicit a point. They are to provide emphasis. THEY RARELY NEED TO PROVIDE FACTS. The reporter provides the facts.

Quotes shed light on the facts. They add a human element. Reporters can use pointed, effective quotes to turn a piece, to state an opinion, to move to a new point, or for effect. But, almost NEVER use quotes for stating a numerical fact.

6. Note-Taking and Accuracy
The best technique for note taking is accuracy. However, it is not essential, nor is it good practice, to write down every word in an interview. Listen to what the interviewee is saying and write down the most important, key elements of the conversation. NEVER GUESS. Accuracy is at the heart of what the environmental movement is about - accuracy and credibility.

The environmental movement's strength is based on how well we present information to the public. It is essential that we continue to provide accurate, reliable, and poignant FACTS. When fact gathering, DOUBLE CHECK your "facts." Be careful and take such measures as calling someone to double-check the spelling of their name.

7. Sources

Your sources are vital to fact-checking efficiency. Find a system that works for you, but to ensure efficiency and accuracy, use methods like creating a phone list or establishing a
database of names and numbers of contacts and sources.

When you have finished a draft of your piece, it is often very useful and general good manners to provide your interviewees with a copy of the first unedited draft. This allows your sources to get a sense of your approach to the issue and how you used their quotes or cited them in the article. This helps to ensure accuracy, but is also just a ‘good neighbor' policy. This is a comforting, fairly effortless task that allows people to have a chance to comment or add their thoughts or make changes to the piece.

There is a transparency in the best journalism that distinguishes it from the rest. As a bicycling communicators, we have nothing to hide. We publish the facts fairly. Remember these key words: Fairness. Accuracy. Reasoned. Essential. Bring those ideals to whatever writing you do as an bicyclist.


8. Freedom of Information Act
Freedom of Information Act requests are important sources of information. When sending a FOIA request, hone down what you are looking for so you are not barraged with too much information, and your request does not cost thousands of dollars. Put in a call to friendly staff members at the FOIA office to see if they may help you narrow your search.  For more information, see our article on FOIA.

9. Framing
Think about what you want to say, how you want to approach the ‘problem,' and consider the LEAD that will take you, full-circle, from where you start, back to where you end. A compelling LEAD is essential to a good piece. Lay out the issue and then back it up as you go along.

10. Visuals
Think about crafting your piece VISUALLY as well. Consider what graphic elements will add to your article. Put thought into what's out there, what you're seeing in your article, and what you're hoping others will see when they read your piece. Think about how the visuals will help tell the story. Writers need to see images to translate words into compelling stories that move people. The public needs to see visuals to get a broader sense of what you're writing about.


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