What to know before talking with journalists about EA

Jour­nal­ists reg­u­larly con­tact in­di­vi­d­u­als, groups, and or­ga­ni­za­tions who are in­volved in the effec­tive al­tru­ism space. At first glance, op­por­tu­ni­ties to speak with jour­nal­ists may seem like a good way to spread in­for­ma­tion about im­por­tant work and ideas. How­ever, we have found that they can also be a good way to cre­ate mi­s­un­der­stand­ings or nega­tive im­pres­sions of EA or of par­tic­u­lar pro­jects. Be­cause eval­u­at­ing and en­gag­ing in suc­cess­ful me­dia en­gage­ments re­quires spe­cial­ized skills and knowl­edge, it’s im­por­tant to seek ad­vice or re­sources, pro­ceed care­fully, and be pre­pared.

Quick take­away: when you are con­tacted by the me­dia, we think it’s im­por­tant that you con­nect with re­sources and ad­vi­sors so you can make in­formed de­ci­sions. Many large or­ga­ni­za­tions have full-time staff who do me­dia ad­vis­ing, but we know most com­mu­nity mem­bers won’t have ac­cess to such re­sources. CEA staff would like to offer you in­for­ma­tion and re­sources for de­cid­ing if or how to par­ti­ci­pate in me­dia op­por­tu­ni­ties. If you re­ceive me­dia in­quiries, I en­courage you to email me or sched­ule a chat. You can also re­fer oth­ers to me, to this post, or to our full guide: Ad­vice for re­spond­ing to jour­nal­ists.

EA and jour­nal­ism

CEA reg­u­larly hears about jour­nal­ists who are in­ter­ested in in­ter­view­ing peo­ple about EA. So far this year, we’ve heard from ten groups or in­di­vi­d­u­als who were con­sid­er­ing whether or how to par­ti­ci­pate in a me­dia piece.

Here are some ex­am­ples:

  • A pro­ducer of a pop­u­lar pod­cast emails some­one with ques­tions about EA for an up­com­ing story and states that they have a press­ing dead­line. The com­mu­nity mem­ber wants to re­spond pro­fes­sion­ally and feels pres­sured to do so quickly. They’re not sure what best prac­tices to fol­low to make the de­ci­sion about par­ti­ci­pat­ing or not.

  • A jour­nal­ist at­tends a lo­cal EA group event, per­haps with­out the group know­ing in ad­vance. Now at­ten­dees need to de­cide on the spot if they want to par­ti­ci­pate in a story, when they likely ar­rived ex­pect­ing a ca­sual so­cial event.

    • Some at­ten­dees at the event may be peo­ple who work in gov­ern­ment or other sen­si­tive fields where they are ex­pected to main­tain a neu­tral pub­lic image. They may not know their em­ployer’s poli­cies around me­dia, or their em­ployer may have an ex­pec­ta­tion that em­ploy­ees not par­ti­ci­pate in me­dia en­gage­ments re­lated to their work with­out pre-ap­proval. They may won­der if they need to leave the event.

    • At­ten­dees may speak ca­su­ally with­out re­al­iz­ing they could be quoted, and may mi­s­un­der­stand what it means to speak “off the record.”

    • If the jour­nal­ist is un­fa­mil­iar with EA, they may come away with mi­s­un­der­stand­ings, de­pend­ing on the di­rec­tion the con­ver­sa­tion hap­pens to take.

  • A jour­nal­ist ap­proaches sev­eral EA or­ga­ni­za­tions, lo­cal groups, and in­di­vi­d­u­als with in­vi­ta­tions to be in­ter­viewed for a story or doc­u­men­tary they’re work­ing on. Now each of these peo­ple and groups must make a de­ci­sion about whether to par­ti­ci­pate, of­ten with­out hav­ing much time to re­search im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tions:

    • What is the jour­nal­ist’s un­der­stand­ing of EA? Have they cov­ered it be­fore? What ap­proach did they take in the past?

    • Who else is be­ing in­ter­viewed or who else might be a good re­source for this par­tic­u­lar kind of story? Is the po­ten­tial in­ter­view re­lated to one’s area of ex­per­tise or out­side of it?

    • What will hap­pen if the re­quest for an in­ter­view is de­clined? Will the piece go for­ward in a less in­formed way, or will it not be pro­duced at all?

Many large or­ga­ni­za­tions have me­dia pro­fes­sion­als who spe­cial­ize in prepar­ing and train­ing staff or re­search­ing ques­tions like the ones above. CEA thinks that kind of train­ing and prepa­ra­tion are im­por­tant, and Ju­lia Wise and I re­cently par­ti­ci­pated in such a train­ing. We rec­og­nize that group or­ga­niz­ers and com­mu­nity mem­bers have limited time to pre­pare for such situ­a­tions though, so we want to provide re­sources.

We know it’s not within CEA’s ca­pac­ity at our cur­rent staff size to hold our­selves out as the “PR firm” for EA as a whole or for other EA or­ga­ni­za­tions. And while CEA does have staff with jour­nal­ism and pub­lic com­mu­ni­ca­tions ex­pe­rience, we rec­og­nize that we are not pro­fes­sional me­dia ad­vi­sors ei­ther. We hope peo­ple will con­sider reach­ing out to re­sources from their em­ploy­ers, uni­ver­si­ties, or other pro­fes­sional as­so­ci­a­tions and net­works as well. What we can do, how­ever, is provide a con­tact per­son who can col­lect in­for­ma­tion on best prac­tices and on spe­cific me­dia in­quiries, share in­for­ma­tion with you, and con­nect you with helpful re­sources. We hope this could save time and provide more clar­ity when eval­u­at­ing me­dia op­por­tu­ni­ties.

A con­tact per­son on media

Ear­lier this year, I joined CEA as a com­mu­nity li­ai­son. To­gether with Ju­lia Wise, I work in a va­ri­ety of ways to sup­port com­mu­nity mem­bers. Ju­lia and I serve as com­mu­nity con­tact peo­ple for situ­a­tions such as con­flict be­tween com­mu­nity mem­bers, di­ver­sity and in­clu­sion ques­tions in lo­cal groups, etc.

I am now also available as a con­tact per­son in the case of me­dia in­quiries.

Here are things I am of­ten available to help with:

  • Gather­ing and cen­tral­iz­ing in­for­ma­tion about par­tic­u­lar me­dia in­quiries. (What kind of sto­ries does the jour­nal­ist typ­i­cally write — lifestyle sto­ries, think­pieces, or a va­ri­ety? Who might be a good re­source for the jour­nal­ist’s in­ter­est ar­eas? What is the jour­nal­ist’s un­der­stand­ing of EA? Who else in the com­mu­nity is in­volved in the story?)

  • Helping group or­ga­niz­ers re­spond to a jour­nal­ist’s re­quest to at­tend an event

  • Helping group or­ga­niz­ers pre­pare if they are ex­pect­ing a jour­nal­ist at their event(s)

  • Do­ing prac­tice in­ter­views and pro­vid­ing feed­back to help you pre­pare for a me­dia interview

  • Put­ting you in touch with other advisors

If you re­ceive a me­dia in­quiry about EA, please con­tact me at me­dia@ [at] cen­tre­fore­ffec­tivealtru­ism [dot] .org or sched­ule a meet­ing at efctv.org/​sky_may­hew_cal.

What you should know

There are a few points which I’d like all read­ers to know and which have been very helpful for me and oth­ers. I recom­mend read­ing through our full ad­vice for re­spond­ing to jour­nal­ists guide, but I will sum­ma­rize some high­lights here:

Know that you might en­counter a me­dia op­por­tu­nity un­ex­pect­edly, and don’t take in­ter­views un­pre­pared.

Like I did, you might be at a so­cial event and run into a jour­nal­ist or au­thor who is in­ter­ested in learn­ing more about your work or in­volve­ment in EA. Or, like many group or­ga­niz­ers did, you might re­ceive an email or Face­book mes­sage from a jour­nal­ist who is re­quest­ing an in­ter­view. In ei­ther case, it is best not to en­gage in in­ter­views on the spot. It is perfectly ac­cept­able to de­cline to have an im­promptu con­ver­sa­tion.

We want to re­spond to jour­nal­ists and me­dia pro­fes­sion­als with re­spect; by and large, they are try­ing to do the im­por­tant job of in­form­ing the pub­lic about is­sues peo­ple care about. But a so­cial event is not the best venue to speak to a jour­nal­ist, es­pe­cially if you’ve just met, and an off-the-cuff quick re­ply to a mes­sage is similarly un­wise.

In­stead, you can thank the per­son for their in­ter­est and offer to talk with them an­other time. You do want to re­spond quickly; jour­nal­ists are of­ten work­ing on tight dead­lines. You can also re­fer them to us for timely help at info@cen­tre­fore­ffec­tivealtru­ism.org. See our full guide for ad­vice about the kind of ques­tions you may want to ask in your re­sponse. After you’ve had a chance to learn more about their pro­ject, you can make a more in­formed de­ci­sion about whether or not to be in­volved with any piece they might be writ­ing.

Un­der­stand jour­nal­ism ba­sics; the defi­ni­tion of “off the record” is of­ten mi­s­un­der­stood.

It’s a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion that say­ing that some­thing is “off the record” will keep it from be­ing printed. You may be in­ter­ested to learn that it’s ac­tu­ally not so clear cut. First, speak­ing “off the record” can be un­der­stood some­what differ­ently by differ­ent jour­nal­ists or in differ­ent coun­tries, so a stan­dard defi­ni­tion may be difficult to pin down. It’s stan­dard to con­sider all con­ver­sa­tions “on the record” by de­fault though, and af­ter you’ve said some­thing, you can­not later de­cide it was off the record. Peo­ple might also think they can switch be­tween “on the record” and “off the record” state­ments in the same con­ver­sa­tion. Ad­vi­sors recom­mend that this can eas­ily cause con­fu­sion for you or for the jour­nal­ist and lead to mis­takes.

For most peo­ple, it’s bet­ter ad­vice to just as­sume that what you say be­fore, dur­ing, and af­ter an in­ter­view may be quoted or men­tioned in the piece. If you don’t think some­thing should be said pub­li­cly (for ex­am­ple, you’re look­ing for a new ca­reer and your boss doesn’t know that yet), or you think some­thing might be eas­ily mi­s­un­der­stood be­cause you haven’t prac­ticed clear ways of ex­plain­ing it (for ex­am­ple, you’re asked about a com­plex new re­search area), it’s usu­ally bet­ter sim­ply not to dis­cuss it. A jour­nal­ist’s eth­i­cal obli­ga­tion is to fol­low the story and share in­for­ma­tion with the pub­lic; if they fol­low up on any leads or re­port the gen­eral na­ture of your “off the record” com­ments, they may just be do­ing their job.

If you find your­self con­sid­er­ing a me­dia op­por­tu­nity re­lated to EA, please get in touch so I can try to give you more back­ground.

An early step in de­cid­ing whether to ac­cept a me­dia in­vi­ta­tion is to learn more about the jour­nal­ist, the me­dia out­let, and the story. I may be able to provide you with more in­for­ma­tion about the jour­nal­ist’s past work and the par­tic­u­lar story they are work­ing on, and let you know about any oth­ers in the com­mu­nity who have also been con­tacted. We all have limited time, and it’s more effi­cient to share in­for­ma­tion with each other than for each of us to do this re­search sep­a­rately.

If you’re a group or­ga­nizer, help your group pre­pare.

If there is a jour­nal­ist at your event or con­sid­er­ing at­tend­ing your event, it’s es­sen­tial that you pre­pare and let group mem­bers know, so that they can make their own in­formed de­ci­sions about how they want to par­ti­ci­pate.

If you de­cide to talk to the me­dia, come well-pre­pared.

Most ex­perts I’ve spo­ken to over the past sev­eral months (in­clud­ing jour­nal­ists and former jour­nal­ists) con­verge on this ad­vice:

For any in­di­vi­d­ual com­mu­nity mem­ber or pro­fes­sional (in any field, com­mu­nity, or­ga­ni­za­tion, etc), it is very risky to ac­cept me­dia en­gage­ments un­less you’ve had me­dia train­ing and prac­tice. Me­dia anal­y­sis skills and in­ter­view skills are skills like any other, mean­ing they need to be learned and honed with prac­tice. Some of us may find them eas­ier to pick up or more en­joy­able than oth­ers, but very few of us should ex­pect to be good at in­ter­views with­out prepa­ra­tion. I recom­mend think­ing of an in­ter­view as a pro­fes­sional pre­sen­ta­tion. A one-on-one con­ver­sa­tion with a jour­nal­ist can feel ca­sual and in­ti­mate, but it’s ac­tu­ally more like be­ing on a stage in front of an au­di­ence of hun­dreds, thou­sands, or mil­lions of peo­ple, giv­ing a talk that will be recorded and archived in­definitely. Most of us wouldn’t do that with­out prac­tice, and even ex­pe­rienced pro­fes­sional speak­ers will re­hearse their speeches. Re­hears­ing helps peo­ple con­vey ideas suc­cinctly and clearly, skills that jour­nal­ists ap­pre­ci­ate as they try to write clear sto­ries.

Train­ing, prac­tice, and feed­back can help some­one figure out their skills and com­fort level, and then make in­formed de­ci­sions if and when me­dia in­quiries come up. Here is a brief sum­mary of the recom­mended knowl­edge and skills re­quired for me­dia en­gage­ments:

  • Gen­eral un­der­stand­ing of a jour­nal­ist’s role, an in­ter­vie­wee’s role, and jour­nal­is­tic ethics (what they typ­i­cally will and will not do; what you can and can­not ask or ex­pect when par­ti­ci­pat­ing in a story, etc). One key thing to un­der­stand is that a jour­nal­ist’s in­cen­tive is of­ten to quickly pro­duce an in­ter­est­ing story. Good jour­nal­ists don’t in­tend to mis­rep­re­sent any­thing. At the same time, the tight timelines they have to work un­der may re­sult in a less ac­cu­rate or bal­anced pic­ture of EA, of your pro­ject, or of you than you ex­pect.

  • An un­der­stand­ing of the story’s par­tic­u­lar an­gle and where you do or don’t fit.

  • An un­der­stand­ing of the piece and the jour­nal­ist’s work, so that you can…

    • eval­u­ate and choose op­por­tu­ni­ties where your ideas are more likely to be un­der­stood or rep­re­sented ac­cu­rately ver­sus op­por­tu­ni­ties where you’re more likely to be mis­rep­re­sented; and

    • pre­dict the kinds of ques­tions you’re likely to be asked so you can prac­tice mean­ingful re­sponses.

      • Even sim­ple ques­tions like “What is effec­tive al­tru­ism?” can be sur­pris­ingly hard to an­swer briefly and well! If you con­vey key ideas in a clear, suc­cinct way, the most im­por­tant things you want to say are more likely to be what is re­ported.

      • It’s im­por­tant to an­a­lyze and de­cide on 1-3 points about your pro­ject that you want the au­di­ence to come away with, and to be com­fortable ex­plain­ing these points in a clear, quotable way through­out the in­ter­view.

    • pre­dict the ways in which cer­tain ideas might be mi­s­un­der­stood by a va­ri­ety of au­di­ences and prac­tice how to con­vey points in a way that avoids such mi­s­un­der­stand­ings. (This is a fairly difficult skill).

  • A clear un­der­stand­ing of the scope of your own ex­per­tise, so you can be con­fi­dent speak­ing only about re­lated is­sues, while refer­ring ques­tions out­side your ex­per­tise to oth­ers.

  • A clear un­der­stand­ing of the 1-3 points about your pro­ject that you want the au­di­ence to come with, and the abil­ity to con­vey them.

  • Abil­ity to be per­son­able alongside will­ing­ness to feel awk­ward when nec­es­sary. You want to have per­son­able con­ver­sa­tion with a jour­nal­ist as they’re ask­ing you ques­tions, but your ac­tual con­ver­sa­tional part­ner is ul­ti­mately the reader or viewer. In an effort to speak effec­tively to your ac­tual au­di­ence, you may some­times find your­self talk­ing past the jour­nal­ist in a way that would be awk­ward in reg­u­lar con­ver­sa­tion. Do­ing this well usu­ally re­quires prac­tice.

If you are con­sid­er­ing tak­ing an in­ter­view, feel free to con­tact me. Ju­lia and I may be able to help you prac­tice or provide some feed­back to help you de­cide about or pre­pare for the in­ter­view. (Early user testers re­port that feed­back and prac­tice ses­sions have been helpful and even fun!)

I look for­ward to be­ing in touch to help when I can. I think that hav­ing more com­mu­nity mem­bers with sig­nifi­cant me­dia ex­pe­rience could be use­ful, but I also think that only some peo­ple will find it worth their time to do the sig­nifi­cant amount of prepa­ra­tion re­quired. For now, we’d like to help peo­ple make the most in­formed de­ci­sions pos­si­ble.

Please see Ad­vice for re­spond­ing to jour­nal­ists for more in­for­ma­tion about the recom­men­da­tions we’ve re­ceived from me­dia pro­fes­sion­als. We hope com­mu­nity mem­bers will read it, leave a com­ment here, and/​or con­tact us with any feed­back, ques­tions, or ad­di­tional recom­men­da­tions.

Note: Thanks to Ju­lia Wise, Aaron Gertler, and Sam Deere for in­put on this post, and to Jonas Vol­lmer!