Dealing With the Press
Over the last five years, I've done interviews with many different national and local television shows and publications about internet safety, cyberstalking and "regular" stalking. I've also done one Swedish TV show, one show for the BBC, and one interview with a British magazine, .Net. I've learned some things about dealing with them the hard way, and after I posted something about them to a mailing list, one of the readers asked if I'd write them up as an article to which she could link. Here it is.
My experience with the press in the US is just this: they lie. They will do whatever it takes to get the story they've decided they want, no matter what the facts are, no matter who they have to deceive, no matter how much deceptive editing they have to do. Period.
The BBC folks were the only ones who were honest, who did what they said they'd do, who actually did a reasonable amount of research on their own, and who didn't edit my words out of context. They made some minor mistakes, but nothing material. Every other show, from 20/20 Downtown to the local news, did twist things around to get the sound bites they wanted. Okay, Oprah didn't, but that show is live (actually, I'd have to say that my experience with them was the best I've had with any US media entity).
I'm very, very picky about who I'll grant interviews to now. I have very strict rules that the reporters must agree to up front, and if they push, I cut off all contact. I get nothing from these interviews - I don't NEED to do them. They benefit an organization I work with and increase visibility for an issue that's important to me, but that doesn't mean I'll let reporters violate my boundaries. I didn't have these rules in place early on, and I believe I would have avoided several bad experiences if I had already established them.
The media doesn't talk to or meet our children. It is unlikely that they will speak to my partner. They don't get my street address or come to my home or, when I was working outside the home, my place of business. They don't usually find out where I'm working, in fact, because I don't trust them not to give that information away somehow. They don't show any of our vehicles on film. They find a neutral shooting location or locations for their shots - I did make an exception in taking two film crews to the range where I did most of my target practice at the time, but I figured that was a fairly safe place that the stalker is likely to avoid anyway (and the range owner was completely happy to cooperate and get some free advertising). I don't change family plans to do an interview, and these days they have to come to Atlanta - it's too upsetting to our family life for me to fly elsewhere without lots and lots of notice and planning.
Most of the reporters/producers I've dealt with are just completely shocked that anybody would even mention, much less maintain, boundaries. They expect anyone to be so blown away by being HONORED by the fact that they want to interview us that we'll do absolutely ANYTHING to make it happen. Nope, not so. Not here, at least.
Before agreeing to any kind of media interview (especially regarding any topic that might be considered controversial), decide what you do and do not want to accomplish. What purpose is served in doing this interview? What will you gain, if anything, either for you personally or for an issue that is important to you? Is the media outlet you're dealing with a respectable one, and is it going to be a good venue to discuss the topic at hand? (Hint: Jerry Springer isn't a good venue for doing anything that you won't regret horribly for a long time. The National Enquirer is not the place to explain your home life or your religious views. And "freelance journalists" can sell whatever you give them to whoever they like, without any input from you. Don't bother.)
Find out the scope and focus of the article. Yes, they're likely to lie about that, too, but if you don't ask, you definitely won't know. If you want to talk seriously about your religious beliefs, and they're just looking for a local witch to interview on Halloween, you won't be happy with the results. If you want to encourage people to avoid being a victim of crime by thinking ahead and protecting themselves and their families, and the producer wants a scare story to encourage passage of restrictive legislation that you don't agree with, you need to tell the producer to find someone else to interview. If you want to talk about polyamory as a responsible way to bring more love into your life and show them how healthy and secure your kids are with having four parents instead of two, but the reporter can't give you an exact time because they aren't sure how long it'll take to finish shooting some film at the local swinger's club, cancel the interview. The focus is on sex, not relationships, and will not help your goals at all.
Sit down and establish your own boundaries. If you have a partner or partners, you should probably include them and think seriously about any potential impact on your family. If you're talking about, say, polyamory, and some of your SOs aren't out to their employers or families, is it going to cause trouble for those SOs? If you're doing interviews about a topic like stalking, as I have, is anything said or shown in the interview going to compromise your family's safety further? Will doing the interview cause any harassment you're experiencing to worsen (and yes, that's happened to me every time I've done an interview - I accept that fact when I agree to one) - or even cause others to target you for harassment due to non-mainstream religious beliefs or lifestyles? Is whatever you're talking about going to cause trouble with your your current employer, or make it more difficult for you to gain future employment?
Once you have your boundaries established, stick to them. Firmly. Don't be pressured. Reporters are used to getting people to talk about things they might not want to discuss. They are accustomed to manipulating people. They can come across as your very best friend, and might even promise that some particular information is "off the record." Don't believe them. Everything you say and everything they can learn from you, your associates, and your surroundings is fair game as far as they're concerned. They might claim that it was a decision made by a producer/editor/other minor deity later, and that they can't help it - but still, the damage will be done and you'll have to deal with it while they move on to the next story. I'm sure that somewhere out there, there's an ethical member of the press - I just haven't really encountered them, so I tend to believe that they're rare. You cannot regret what you do not say, and you cannot ever take back anything you do say or any information you make available. Think first!
Don't wait to "see how things go" before establishing your boundaries. Media people are charming. It's their job. They will be sympathetic and accomodating and friendly and otherwise just wonderful until they get what they want. You will not want to say no to them. You will want to be cooperative and accomodating, too, and before you know it you're doing things you wouldn't have agreed to if you'd truly thought about them before hand. The time to decide what you will and will not do and say is before the reporter or producer is in your home or office.
The bottom line is that you need to think defensively. It isn't glamorous to be interviewed. There's no acclaim. Unless you're wired utterly differently than I am (which might well be, I know), the ego-boo just isn't a big deal.
Originally published 2001
graphics created by Sam
Chupp and Cynthia Armistead
This file last modified 05/18/06