March 2006 Vol. 11 Issue 1

Why you should never ‘use’ the media
Q&A with Steve Cain


Everybody wants to have the media cover their programs. But too often, the way we think of media coverage may be part of the problem, as revealed by this month’s question.

Question: We have good programs, but people don’t know enough about what we have. If the news media cover our topic at all, they don’t help teach the public. How do we use the news media to teach the public with real facts?

Answer: I’m asked variations of this question a lot. It’s worth focusing on two words here — “use” and “teach” — because they could reveal inherent problems in your approach the news media.

Ill-used

First let’s look at the word, “use.” No one likes to be used, but I often hear smart people say they need to “use” the news media. The news media are more than newspapers or television programs. The media are professionals like us who strive to avoid being manipulated. And, like us, they resent those who are trying to use them.

It may seem better to use a word like, “partner,” but that doesn’t fit either. Most journalists strive to be as independent as possible, so they can be unbiased. For individual journalists, having a “partner” would violate that principle of independence.

What’s better? You might consider asking a different question to begin with: “How can I work with the news media to (fill in the blank)?” Asking a question like this involves going through the normal news media relations processes, such as establishing your credibility, understanding news value, and being timely. As Kay Hagen points out in her story about pitching news stories, understanding these concepts are the key to getting reporters interested.

Those who can . . . are already teaching

The second questionable word in our original question is “teach.” As a journalist of 11 years, I was often asked to “teach” the public. While many journalists write their fair share of educational articles, most rightfully say, “Teaching isn’t my job.”

Due to space considerations and reader interest, a journalist’s job is to “call attention to” or “make people aware” of something, not educate them. For example, how many times have you heard someone say: “Did you hear about (fill in the blank) on the radio this morning?” That’s journalism at work. In general, people go to the news media to hear about a topic, not necessarily to learn.

So when I hear people ask, “How do I use the news media to teach the public?” as a former journalist and news and public affairs director, I encourage people to redirect their emphasis by asking, “How can I work with the news media to make people aware of (fill in the blank)?

That’s when real news media relations starts.

Steve Cain, cain@purdue.edu

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