Getting Media Coverage

Three communications professionals offer suggestions for
getting past the media gatekeepers

One of the articles in The Ecology Of Media (IC#23)
Originally published in Fall 1989 on page 36
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

Bill Baker
School of Communications, University of Washington
Former Reporter and Assignment Editor, KING-TV, Seattle

Karyl Levinson
KPLU Radio, Tacoma, Washington
National Public Radio Freelance Reporter

Doug Underwood
School of Communications, University of Washington
Former Political Reporter, Seattle Times and
Gannett News Services

Alan AtKisson, Moderator
Executive Editor, IN CONTEXT

Suppose you have a piece of information that you believe deserves wider circulation within the media ecosystem: an under-reported news item, an upcoming event, a protest demonstration. How do you get it covered? Seattle’s Alliance for Latin America (ALA) convened a one-day workshop last January to address that very question. The discussion presented here is adapted from that workshop’s centerpiece; and while the audience there was composed primarily of Latin America activists, the analyses and recommendations of these panelists have universal application.

ALA also publishes the Update, an excellent monthly newsletter on Latin American affairs available for $15 a year from PO Box 95617, Seattle, WA 98145.

Alan: How do you get coverage from the media? What kind of story – and strategy for telling that story – is likely to get you, your organization, or some event you feel is important even noticed by the gatekeepers in radio, TV, and the newspapers? Each of our panelists is intimately familiar with the culture behind the editorial curtain, and they will now try to demystify the process of getting into the news.

We’ll hear first from Bill Baker, who is on my far left.

Bill: But not in a political context, right? I’m going to talk for 3 minutes and 35 seconds [starts a stopwatch]. I’m not going to talk for 3 minutes and 30 seconds, and I’m not going to talk for 3 minutes and 40 seconds. That’s the kind of world I live in. The first speaker this morning [who presented an analysis of institutional and ideological bias in news reporting] had a certain period of time to talk, and he couldn’t get it all in. He wanted to go on and on. People on the liberal side often have that problem. They just can’t get it down. Let me tell you, the conservatives do it damn well. They can give a talk on the same topic, influence you very effectively, and do it in a short period of time. So therein lies one lesson – you have to make your point.

I used to cover the antiwar movement – the demonstrations, the marches, all the press conferences in this very room. Incidentally, are the FBI bugs still here?

Doug: Testing, testing.

Bill: Are they still working? Good. Are there a couple of agents here? Usually there are. And is the NSA satellite overhead? I just want to make sure they’ve got a clear signal.

I’ve been a reporter for a long time, and I was also the assignment editor at both KIRO and KING television. Now, the person you think you want to get on panels like this is Jeannie Enersen [the KING-TV anchorwoman in Seattle]. She can tell you how to get on the air, right? But Jeannie Enersen comes into the newsroom at about 3 in the afternoon, and by that time the 5 o’clock news is blocked out. So who does make up the 5 o’clock newscast? The assignment editor. When you deal with television, you have to remember the people behind the scenes who make the real decisions.

When you’re trying to get access, you’re also competing with political consultants, corporations like Boeing, or public institutions like City Light. If there’s any doubt in your mind, believe me – you’re competing to get space. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have it or don’t need it, but if you think it’s a God-given right, you’ve lost already. If you think things shouldn’t be that way and that we should change the world, I agree with you. But let’s deal with the world as we see it.

I knew a guy at Boeing who had two sayings on his wall. One was the Golden Rule: "He who has the gold rules." The other one was, "Stop trying to redefine the chicken and learn how to handle the eggs." That I can probably help you with. The eggs are sometimes difficult – but they can be handled. But don’t forget – you own the airwaves. The stations and networks would like you to forget that sometimes, but don’t ever let them convince you otherwise. You have the same right to access that anybody else does. [Clicks stopwatch.] Three thirty-five.

Karyl: One question we were asked to address is what’s the best way to get our attention. Unlike television and print media, most radio newsrooms are small – if they exist at all. So my suggestion is simply to call up the news director. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions like: How much news coverage do you provide? Do you have any reporters on beat, and what are those beats? What sort of emphasis do you put on Central American issues, or whatever issue you’re interested in? What kind of format do you have besides newscasts? In public radio, for example, there are interviews, public affairs programs, commentaries, and many other opportunities for exposure. What is the station’s network affiliation? That will determine how much national or international coverage they will provide on your topic. Finally, a very practical question: What’s the best time to reach you? You’ve probably made a phone call or two and gotten brushed aside – or hung up on – simply because there’s that ever-present deadline.

If you’re staging a protest or an event just to get media attention, it’s not going to get you very far. You may get some coverage, but if you’re trying to get some points across about specific issues, I recommend that you have people on hand who know what they’re talking about. Sometimes when we get to an event, it’s very hard to find people to answer our questions. And we don’t have a lot of time to research it ourselves. We rely on experts, just like anyone else does in their business. So select someone to talk to the media – someone very well-versed on the issues.

Another big thing – and this goes for all of the media – is to humanize the story. A lot of dry, factual things in a story make it easy to turn off. For example, the recent "Pastors For Peace" convoy that took supplies to Nicaraguan hurricane victims made a very successful story. It involves local people, makes good TV footage, provides an ambient sound for radio and some good photographs for newspapers. But it’s also more than that – it’s about people helping people. You can make something like the situation in Nicaragua a lot more understandable by presenting it through a story like that.

Doug: When you look at how press organizations work, you have to look at (a) the economic structure of that press organization, and (b) how that press organization views its market. Those two things are very, very important.

It’s curious a thing, but most reporters have limited access to information. A lot of what we learned about the Iran-Iraq war, for example, came out of Washington, DC through reporters getting all their information from the U.S. government. Yet those reporters – and this is true on the local level too – believe that they’re operating within the traditions of the mainstream U.S. press. They believe they are being at least fair and balanced in their coverage, if not objective. It’s true that the press stifles certain viewpoints. It doesn’t allow people from either the left or the right to have much access to the mainstream. But it’s a waste of time to try to convince somebody who works on the inside of that truth, because they believe that they are operating by high professional standards. You have to start from there.

So to get more pragmatic, how does the press view its market, and how does a large bureaucracy work? That’s what you’re dealing with – a business that wants to make money, and a bureaucracy that has to put a paper out. In Seattle, I would say that the Central America activist community has gotten more press coverage than these same issues would be getting in a lot of other cities. Why? Because the newspaper perceives that a market of people are interested in that issue. Seattle is a liberal city. It’s got a lot of activists and other people interested in Central America. So the press covers it.

Now, they will cover marches on a Saturday – but if you have a march on Friday or Wednesday you’re probably not going to get coverage. Why? Because the bureaucracy has a great big paper to fill on Sunday, and a small staff on Saturday. The weekend editor says "Well, what the heck can we do for our weekend package? We have a demonstration here, and a paper airplane contest there," and that’s what goes into the paper.

So what’s the best way to get into the Seattle Times? I don’t believe, for example, that people are very interested in newspaper stories about marches. I don’t think that a picture and 16 inches about a demonstration changes many peoples’ minds. In broadcasting, of course, it’s an entirely different thing . . .

Bill: Get out there and march, yeah!

Doug: Exactly. They want footage – "film at eleven" – but I would argue that even on television those things just pass by the glazed eyeballs of people waiting for the football scores to come on.

One of the best ways to get an intelligent examination of an issue into the newspaper is via the Op-Ed page. Editors have their ideologies, but if you write something on a particular viewpoint that’s coherent, thoughtful and intelligent, and that relates to things they perceive as going on in the world, either nationally or locally, they’ll use it.

Alan: Bill, your three minutes and thirty-five seconds was a very illuminating metaphor. Can you tell us more about what actually makes a story get covered by a TV reporter, and ultimately put on the newscast by the producer?

Bill: You know, if I could answer that question I would be making a lot of money in public relations. I got myself in trouble at KING-TV because I dispatched someone to cover the capture of a notorious murderer instead of covering Phil Donohue, who was in town to give a speech. I didn’t understand, so I don’t think I can explain it to you.

But let me give you a role model that I think works. Ground Zero [an antinuclear group], led by Jim and Shelley Douglass at the Trident base in Bangor, has been fairly effective. It’s visual, it’s well organized, it makes fairly good press, and it’s attracted some well-known and influential people like Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen. Frankly the visual part of lying down on the tracks [to block the "white trains" that bring in the nuclear weapons] is part of it. Damn it, if you mean it, you’ve got a place to be on those tracks. Don’t get run over – just make your point. [Editor’s Note: For more information, contact Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, 16195 Clear Creek Road NW, Poulsbo, WA 98370.]

Alan: How does feedback from the reading or viewing or listening public get dealt with in each of your media worlds? At what point does it actually make a difference for coverage?

Karyl: At my station, KPLU, letters and phone calls are taken very seriously. If we get a certain amount of mail reacting to a story or commentary or an interview we will often approach one or two of these writers and ask them to do a rebuttal commentary.

Alan: How many letters would it take for somebody at KPLU to say, "We’ve got to do something"?

Karyl: Well, because it’s public radio and it has a relatively small audience, not many. If we got three letters vehemently against or for something that had been aired, we would definitely take a serious look at it. [Murmers of wonder from the audience.]

Alan: I know this to be true in the alternative press as well – one good letter to IN CONTEXT can definitely influence what we cover. Doug, what’s it like at a large city newspaper like the Seattle Times?

Doug: Well, the newspapers are fortresses. They’ve built up as many barriers as they can, so they know as little about what the public is thinking as possible. When you hear them say that "the public is up in arms," odds are they’ve had ten phone calls and some editors are up in arms – because that’s where "public reaction" largely comes in at the newspapers. Editors believe that what they feel and think is what the public feels and thinks.

I think Jim and Shelley Douglass [of Ground Zero] were successful in getting coverage less because they demonstrated, and more because enough editors were also worried about living near military nuclear installations at a time when their president was calling the Soviet Union "the evil empire." But I can also guarantee you’ll have a better media reaction if you really do have a grassroots movement with a lot of real people involved. Because then you represent to them a market of readers.

Alan: As an editor in the alternative press – and "alternative" is often a euphemism for "small and underfinanced" – I can tell you that things are often very different there. At IN CONTEXT we pay much less attention to our market than we do to our sense of what’s important to communicate. Of course, that orientation has its own problems – it’s what keeps us "alternative."

But as an editor, I too picture myself as a reader and ask, "What am I interested in? What do I think is really new and different and progressive?" I also talk to a lot of other people about it too, and ultimately I’m a filter for a wide variety of sources. But I want feedback – a good letter or a conversation can often be very helpful in exposing blind spots or biases. But let’s hear about television. How does feedback get processed in your world, Bill?

Bill: Television, as everyone knows, operates on the rating system. But if the newscast has a good rating, that doesn’t tell you much about the news – it tells you more about the quality of the cosmetics. Ratings don’t affect content that much. Three or four letters wouldn’t do anything, either. You’ll get a polite answer but not much else. Television is like an 800-pound gorilla: you can shove it, but it won’t respond very well. Like the Times, it’s a bureaucracy: we’re in a fortress, we have a locked building, and we think we know what you think.

Alan: How many letters would it take to get KING-TV to send a reporter out to cover something?

Bill: Well, I don’t think letters would do it.

Alan: Not even a thousand letters?

Bill: That’s not how the assigning process is done. Let’s take a hypothetical case and look at how it works.

Alan: Let’s say a speaker is coming from Guatemala to talk about political events there – somebody who’s recognized as being very well-informed and articulate.

Bill: The fact that you all wrote letters would do nothing, because I wouldn’t get them in time. I’m on the assignment desk. I get your press release – you did write a press release, didn’t you? – I look through it, I talk it over with other people, and from that I make my decision. Now, what group is sponsoring it?

Alan: To take an example from real life, how about GUASO – the Guatemalan Solidarity Meeting.

Doug: That title is tough. "Solidarity," you know.

Bill: Sounds like one of those kooky left-wing groups. Now if it was the World Affairs Council – people we’ve worked with a lot, who have a track record with us – it might have a little more credibility. What’s this guy going to talk about?

Alan: How about something real, like the massacre of Indian populations in Guatemala.

Bill: Oh boy. Well, what else is going on today? The boat races? That’s the kind of thing you have to compete with. Is it a sexy issue? No. Does anybody here know about it? No. Is it a burning issue in Seattle? No. Is that blunt? Yes – it would be very hard to get that covered.

But how do we do it? First of all we need a contact in Seattle – somebody with credibility – that we can call back and say "Okay, what about this person? Why should I cover it? How important is it?" Remember, if you burn the assignment editor once with a bad story, the next time you call I’m probably not going to cover it. Suppose we do have a good speaker. Does he have some visuals? That’s going to help. And there are some people in Seattle that are interested in it, so we might get some viewer response – like most stations, we have a telephone log at KING, and we track feedback.

Now, do you really want to reach the 5 o’clock TV news audience, or do you want to reach the NPR and the Op-Ed audience? If we’re talking about a mass audience, you probably know that ideas are not generated there. Ideas come from the outside – the Op-Ed and NPR audiences get them first – and filter in. You’re not going to get any ideas from KING television at five.

Doug: And people don’t remember anyway. In my few appearances on television, I was a regular guest on a Friday political talk show. Over and over again people would say, "I saw you on television. Why do you push your glasses up on your face so much?" And I’d ask them, "What did you think about what I said?" "I don’t remember what you said, but that was a nice coat you were wearing." You have to ask yourself how much good that does.

Bill: Let’s sell our souls and go for the mass audience. I’m at the assignment desk, we got someone coming to talk about a massacre of Indians down in Guatemala. Tell me why I should give a damn. Convince me.

Audience Member: Well, this is eventually going to affect U.S. policy and the U.S. directly. Guatemala will probably be the next El Salvador. It may not happen next year, it may not happen ten years from now, but it could happen sooner than we think. And since it’s going to blow up eventually, it would be nice to know about it ahead of time.

Bill: That doesn’t do it.

2nd Audience Member: It affects coffee prices.

Bill: You’re getting closer. This is a selling process – you have to think not of people in this room, but people you see at the NBA basketball game. What can you do to reach them? There’s some value in trying to reach them, but I don’t think we’ve hit it yet – we still haven’t got Guatamela on the air.

If you’re talking about television, think of ways to illustrate it with visuals and real people. Now maybe this person’s going to tour the homes of some local Guatemalan refugees. Maybe he’s going to talk about how this international situation creates a local problem. Now we’re talking about a package that might sound interesting.

Karyl: That’s part of what I referred to earlier as "humanizing the story." And more than that, it’s showing how the listener or the viewer or the reader is directly affected.

Doug: And that’s not necessarily bad. Humanizing and localizing a story does, in fact, make people notice. You’re not necessarily prostituting yourself to do this.

Bill: I think you come pretty close to it.

Alan: So we’ve gotten Guatemala on TV. Have we also gotten it on the radio and in the newspapers?

Karyl: Yes, especially with the local refugee angle.

Doug: You’ve got more trouble with the Times, but maybe you could handle that through the Op-Ed page. But let me add something: you don’t see many stories in the newspaper or on broadcast that cover somebody who’s just coming to speak on a viewpoint. News organizations, by and large, are not interested in carrying on the public’s intellectual debate.

I’m a former VISTA volunteer, and I think people spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about media coverage – as if getting something in the media, by itself, will help your cause. I contend that very often it doesn’t. The more important issue is education and organizing. If a group begins to clearly represent the interests of a lot of people, then the media will pick up on it.

Also, you’re always better off convincing a reporter that there’s a story out there that they can go get. Don’t make it ready-made. Rather than holding a press conference to announce something, go up to a reporter and whisper "you know, if you check on so-and-so, you’ll find out such-and-such."

Karyl: Public radio, on the other hand, does try to foster something of an intellectual debate. And I do think media coverage can help spread the word about your cause or your point. But you shouldn’t worry about frequency. One of the things that Jim and Shelley Douglass at Ground Zero have done well is that when they’ve really had a message to get across, they’ve worked on getting the media coverage. But they pull back when they don’t have a pressing point.

Bill: But remember: once you go through the process of getting coverage, you lose control over it. We take it. That’s what we are paid to do. We’re the gatekeepers. Theoretically we’re doing the right thing for a mass audience, but you’re probably right in thinking that we don’t do it perfectly.

Doug: I’m doing an article about what’s going on in the newspaper industry because of desktop publishing. You don’t necessarily have to deal with the gatekeepers any more. Technology has its negative aspects, but one of its benefits is that it’s making direct communication cheaper and easier. Rather than spending all your time worrying about getting to people through the media, you may discover it can be cheaper – and more effective – to communicate with them directly.

Spread A Global Rumor

by Mike Nickerson

Taking money destined for war machinery and redirecting it toward securing real peace is a thought that has crossed many minds. But how would we use such money? Global Communications Access is one possibility that could contribute to finding security through co-operation rather than armaments.

Global Communciations Access would mean that any human being – rich or poor – would have the right to use our network of wires and satellites to talk with any other human being on the planet. The advantages to such a right are many: relationships could be developed between people in different countries, bonds maintained between family and friends wherever they happened to roam, and information about world events could be gathered by individuals directly. Propaganda would be subject to anyone’s verification, and international understanding would be supported by a web of relationships encircling the globe. The technology necessary to make this possible is far less complex than Star Wars, and the price would be a mere fraction of what the arms race costs.

Humanity has undergone great transformations with the development of language, writing, printing presses and telecommunications. A comprehensive open communications network – with its logical extension of a world information bank, accessible through the same facilities – could be as significant to the development of civilization as the brain was to the evolution of life.

Obviously, there are many obstacles to be overcome for Global Communications Access to come about; but a healthy rumor about it is a good place to start. Pass it on!

Mike Nickerson directs the Bakavi School of Permaculture and the Campaign for a Sustainable Future in Ontario, Canada. For information about their "Guideposts for a Sustainable Future" education kit, write to PO Box 374, Merrickville, Ont., Canada K0G 1N0.

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