Saturday, April 09, 2011

Why Did You Do That?

I've gone on and on and on about the need for Pagans to be prepared before they speak to the media. I'm really encouraged to see a recent
trend of Pagans engaging in some self-reflective criticism of their media appearances. That can only help the rest of the community. Rather than repeat the points that I've made many times before, let me emphasize a few maybe-more-subtle points.

First, the reporter from your local paper or tv station doesn't have a contacts list full of prominent Pagans. Really. As in, they may never have heard of Starhawk. If you were listed as the contact person for last Fall's Pagan Pride Day or if your name shows up in a Google search for, say, "D.C. Pagans," then there's a chance you may get a phone call when a local cemetery is desecrated or there's a controversy over putting a pentacle on town hall grounds along with a Christian nativity scene. So it's a good idea to decide ahead of time, aka, now how you want to respond to a phone call asking you for an interview.

Second, when making that decision, here are just a few questions you can consider. Are you a good public speaker? Are you willing to do the preparation required (often on short notice) for a media appearance? What would you wear for that interview (this will be determined by your answer to the question: Which objectives of yours will an interview meet)? Where will you insist that the interview be conducted and are you prepared to set up, for example, your altar, desk, book display wherever? Are you willing to develop a basic handout with information about yourself ("Willa Witch is a member of a Celtic Reconstructionist coven in Our Town. She is a nurse practitioner and a graduate of Our Town U, where she received her MS in Nursing. Willa lives with her family in an historic home in Our Town, originally built by her great grandfather, William Witch. She can be reached at") Have you developed a short (two or three sentence) statement (for yourself) of your own objectives that you can consult when approached by the media? This can be crucial in helping you to decide whether or not to talk to this reporter on this topic. It's always OK to say, "Thank you for the request, but I'm not interested." If you can, you may always add, "Let me refer you to X, who is an expert on this topic." (This is followed up with an email to X telling hir, "I just got a call from media person Y looking for an interview on topic Z. I referred hir to you. Please let me know if you have any questions.")

Third, and this is the point I want to emphasize, it is completely OK -- and quite important -- for you to ask the reporter questions and to negotiate the terms of the interview. Really. They'll complain, but they'll respect you far more in the morning. Trust me. Most Pagans have, as have most Americans, little experience in dealing directly with members of the media. The reporter calling you, on the other hand, deals with people like you every day. The reporter knows that those people are flustered, flattered, eager to help, and already imagining themselves calling their mom to tell her to watch them on the evening news.

In other words, there's a big power differential here, something with which Witches and magic workers are, if they'll stop for a moment and think about it, familiar. We have techniques for dealing with that. In the case of dealing with the media, those techniques involve beginning to even out the disparity. Keep in mind that your ultimate power is the power to say, "No thanks," which will send the reporter back to Google and under even more time pressure. Don't imagine that if you don't talk to the reporter, no Pagan will. If they want a Pagan, they'll find one. The entire burden of representing modern Pagandom is not entirely upon your shoulders. Honest. At the very least, say you'll call back in 10 minutes. Ground and center. Consult Tarot. Find that still, quiet point within you that does not need media attention to be important. Call back acting from your power.

Ask the reporter about hir background in religion, reporting on Paganism, interest in esoteric subjects, etc. Can they send you links to other articles they've written/interviews they've done? This might, as Markarios pointed out in comments to one of my earlier posts, have been helpful to Star, when she was asked to appear before a phalanx of ultra-Christian interviewers. Most of them have done other interviews and have enough of an on-line presence to give an indication of their biases. There's no reason to walk into the arena unaware of who's asking you to go there. And there's no reason to take on insurmountable odds. (See also the excellent comments by Medusa and Teacats.)

If they're calling you because of a recent incident, get enough information about that incident to determine whether you have anything worthwhile to add. This would have been helpful to Rev. Heron, who, when she was interviewed:
was not told that the person was a Santero, or the nature of what [the police found, allegedly human remains, during a search of a home], only that there were "occult or pagan symbols" associated with an arrest, and that they were seeking someone with knowledge of the occult. The footage that you saw of me seeing the photos was my first glance at the photo evidence. I did not claim to be an expert on anything, and only agreed to be interviewed so that I could MAYBE shed some non-freakout light over the situation, whatever it was.

To emphasize, when told that she was to be interviewed about occult or Pagan symbols associated with an arrest, Rev. Heron could have said, "I'm unfamiliar with this incident. If you'll send me a few links, I'll call you back in 15 minutes and tell you whether I think I can do an interview or if I can refer you to someone who can." When she realized that the incident involved a Pagan religion with which she was unfamiliar, Rev. Heron could have said, "Sorry. Interviewing me about that would be like interviewing a Baptist about a Catholic rite. I'm not qualified to discuss that." If she had a good referral, she could have offered it. THAT'S OK. You don't have to talk to every reporter who calls you.

You can (and should) also negotiate whether you'll get a transcript of the interview, whether you'll get editing rights, etc. Even when appearing remotely, as Star was, you can negotiate over whether they'll film you in a studio or your home. And you should always say that you plan to tape the interview yourself on your own handheld tape recorder. If you don't have one, you're not ready to do the interview. If the reporter objects, you don't want to deal with hir. Say, "Sorry, I'd prefer not to do this interview. Thanks for calling me. Have a very nice day." Having your own record of the interview will, at the very least, allow you to post your own accurate version of the conversation and to demand corrections for blatant misquotes. I've never known a credible reporter to object to this negotiation point. All you're saying is you will make an recording of the interview. If the reporter is uncomfortable about that, you need to ask yourself why.

Even in the middle of the interview, it's ok to say, "I don't know enough about this topic to answer your question." You can add that you'll be happy to get back to the reporter after you've done some research or if you can locate a person who is an expert, but it's not the case that your only choice is to say, "No comment" or to try and answer a question that you're not ready to answer. Saying, "No comment," can sound defensive, but saying, "I don't know enough about this topic to answer your question," is always an option and can only make you look honest and sincere. When talking to the media, you need to be constantly aware that if you answer a question by saying, "I'm not really an expert on this subject, but my best guess is that . . . ." your disclaimer is likely to get cut off and all that you'll see on the evening news is your speculation. That's why it's important to say, "I don't know enough about this topic to answer your question," and to then shut up and wait for the next question. You can practice this over and over with a friend who has video on hir iPhone. And you should. Get comfortable with the practice of allowing even several minutes of silence to pass; if you can't do this, you shouldn't be doing interviews. Letting silence build up is a reporter's most basic tool for getting you to start blathering.

Finally, while there is a difference between lobbying and speaking to the media, I think that the points that Literata makes here concerning the need for preparation when lobbying can be applied, pretty easily, to talking to the media. Her experience is definitely worth a read.

I'm going to keep posting about this topic because it matters. (And because, apparently, my frequent posts on framing aren't getting through. Check the final paragraph of this article.)

Picture found here

1 comment:

Anne Johnson said...

1. There's an NFL referee who lives here in my town. He will not grant an interview to anyone unless he can simultaneously tape the interview. Here's the kicker: He is never asked to do an interview. Asking for your own independent record of an interview will scare most reporters away.

2. I'm tired of being defined by what I don't do, so I would be a target for an ill-informed interview. So thank you very much for writing all these helpful and cautionary posts, which at least one blabbermouth is taking to heart!

3. See you at Spoutwood?