Daily news reporting is a tough and thankless task. A reporter can write a well thought out, hard-hitting story on a Thursday and, when they wake up Friday morning, the page is blank again and the editor is asking “What have you done for me lately?”

Because TV stations and newspapers are in need of new and relevant content every day, a lot of what we do in the VUMC Department of News and Communications consists of finding sources and stories very quickly. Our researchers are frequently asked to comment on health-related topics even if they are not directly involved.

When Michael Jackson died, cardiologist Dr. Keith Churchwell was on CNN International within minutes to discuss Mr. Jackson’s reported cardiac arrest and what that could mean for a person of his age.

When a nationwide fungal meningitis outbreak was first discovered, and then tied to a dirty drug compounding pharmacy by a Vanderbilt physician, Dr. April Pettit was on the phone being interviewed by both the New York Times and the Tennessean in a very short timeframe.

Researchers and physicians can communicate effectively with their audience, even on short notice, if they are able to follow a few simple tips when being interviewed by the media.

Remember, reporters are looking for short, concise, easy-to-understand quotes and a 30-minute conversation may only produce one or two 10- to-15 second clips that will be used in the story.

  • Speak to your audience like you would speak to your patients, or your next-door neighbor at the mailbox. Keep it simple and easy to follow.
  • Put the information in context for the audience – What did your study find? Why is this important? How many people are affected? Where do we go from here?
  • Maintain good eye contact with the reporter while answering questions (don’t look directly into the camera unless it is a live interview and you are asked to do so)
  • Don’t give numbered lists such as “three reasons this is important” because the quote typically will not be long enough to include all three.
  • Don’t say “as I said before” because each quote needs to stand on its own.
  • Do not bring a cheat sheet to the interview with answers you have memorized.
  • Don’t guess. If you don’t know the answer, or if the question doesn’t relate to what you do or know about, then go back to your main message or tell them you will get back to them with the answer.
  • There is no such thing as “off the record.” Anything you say can be quoted whether or not the reporter uses the magical phrase “off the record.”

With these tips in mind, the first question is almost always to say and spell your name and give your title. The last question is usually an opportunity to say something you wanted to say that wasn’t asked or an opportunity to reiterate your main point.

The reporters are working hard to generate content every day, so the easier you can make it for them and their audience to understand, the better it will be for all involved.

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