How to Communicate with Journalists

There are 101 excuses for not writing or calling the media when you see unfair, biased or inaccurate news coverage: "I don't know enough"; "I'm too busy"; "My computer crashed."

Communicating with journalists makes a difference. It does not have to be perfect; not all letters to journalists need to be for publication. Even a one-sentence, handwritten note to a reporter can be helpful. If you take the time to type a substantive letter, send copies of it to two or three places within the media outlet-perhaps to the reporter, his or her editor, as well as to the letters-to-the-editor department.

If media outlets get letters from a dozen people raising the same issue, they will most likely publish one or two of them. So even if your letter doesn't get into print, it may help another one with a similar point of view get published. Surveys of newspaper readers show that the letters page is among the most closely read parts of the paper. It's also the page policy-makers look to as a barometer of public opinion.

When you write to journalists, be factual, not rhetorical. Do not personally attack them; that's more likely to convince them that they're in the right. Address them in the language that most journalists are trained to understand: Call on them to be responsible, professional, balanced and inclusive of diverse sources and viewpoints.

Letters that are intended for publication should usually be drafted more carefully. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

Make one point (or at most two) in your letter or fax. State the point clearly, ideally in the first sentence.

Make your letter timely. If you are not addressing a specific article, editorial or letter that recently appeared in the paper you are writing to, then try to tie the issue you want to write about to a recent event.

Familiarize yourself with the coverage and editorial position of the paper to which you are writing. Refute or support specific statements, address relevant facts that are ignored, but do avoid blanket attacks on the media in general or the newspaper in particular.

Check the letter specifications of the newspaper to which you are writing. Length and format requirements vary from paper to paper. (Generally, roughly two short paragraphs are ideal.) You also must include your name, signature, address and phone number.

Look at the letters that appear in your paper. Is a certain type of letter usually printed?

Support your facts. If the topic you address is controversial, consider sending documentation along with your letter. But don't overload the editors with too much info.

Keep your letter brief. Type it whenever possible.

Find others to write letters when possible. This will show that other individuals in the community are concerned about the issue. If your letter doesn't get published, perhaps someone else's on the same topic will.

Monitor the paper for your letter. If your letter has not appeared within a week or two, follow up with a call to the editorial department of the newspaper.

Write to different sections of the paper when appropriate. Sometimes the issue you want to address is relevant to the lifestyle, book review or other section of the paper.

An increasing number of broadcast news programs (60 Minutes, All Things Considered, etc.) also solicit and broadcast "letters to the editor." Don't forget these outlets.

Please sign your letters as an individual or representative of a community group, not as a member of FAIR.

Please send us a copy of your letters (published and unpublished) to FAIR. Address them to the attention of the activist co-ordinator.

How to Write an Op-Ed

Op-eds are longer than letters to the editor, and there is more competition for space. You may want to call the paper for length requirements (usually 600-800 words).

Try to write on a controversial issue being covered at that time. If you can use a professional title that suggests authority, do so. If you work for an organization, get permission to sign the op-ed as a representative of that organization.

Feel free to send it to papers far from where you live, but avoid sending it to two newspapers in the same "market." (Sending to the San Francisco Examiner and the Seattle Times is OK, but not to the Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle.) "National" newspapers like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and USA Today generally do not accept op-eds that are also being offered to other papers. But you can easily submit the same piece to five or ten local dailies in different regions—greatly increasing your chances of being published.

Assure the op-ed editor in your cover letter that the piece has not been submitted to any other paper in their market. If, on the other hand, you sent it to only one paper, let that paper know you are offering them an exclusive.

In writing op-eds, avoid excessive rhetoric. State the subject under controversy clearly. You are trying to persuade a middle-of-the-road readership. If you rely on facts not commonly found in mainstream media, cite your sources, hopefully as "respectable" as possible.

Try to think of a catchy title. If you don't, the paper will be more likely to run its own—which may not emphasize your central message. (Even if you do write your own headline, don't be surprised if it appears under a different one.)

Be prepared to shorten and re-submit your article as a letter to the editor in case it does not get accepted as an op-ed.

How to Meet With News Management

If the coverage you object to is part of an overall pattern of bias, you might want to go beyond communicating with individual journalists. The next step is often an attempt to set up a meeting with management at the news outlet.

Gather evidence of bias

Clip offending newspaper articles. Jot down inaccurate, misleading or offensive comments in television news coverage. Record the political perspectives presented on talkshows. (See "How to Detect Bias in News Media" above.)

Document the pattern of bias

Be prepared to explain how this is bad journalism (gives people an inaccurate or misleading impression of the issue or community, does not provide a balanced range of sources, etc.). Accuracy is of the utmost importance here.

Build a coalition

Pull together several people who represent various constituencies in your community, heads of various organizations or coalitions who can speak for the broadest possible constituency. You might want to let media representatives know how many people you represent. Media outlets are businesses; the number of media consumers you represent is part of your power. Whether you are requesting that a station air a particular program to provide balance, or demanding that a newspaper use more neutral terminology, the key is demonstrating community support for your position.

Set up the meeting

Write your local media outlet and ask for a meeting. If your complaint is about news, explain that you represent a broad constituency of people concerned with the issue and would like to meet with the editor/producer/news director. If you want a newspaper to take a particular editorial stand on an issue, contact the editorial board. A week or so later, follow up the letter with a phone call. Keep calling until you get through. Usually someone will meet with you.

Plan your presentation

You will probably want to meet or strategize ahead of time to go over who will say what, what not to say, what statistics or documentation you would like to provide, who will provide them, etc. First impressions ar
e key. What do you want to communicate in the first minute?

Present your case

Be clear about what your goals are before you go into the meeting. Be polite but firm. Be persistent but do not lose your temper. Stick to what you can prove. Conclude your meeting with specific requests for improvements in coverage, the inclusion of views that are being excluded to provide balance, providing context or history on a specific issue, terminology changes, etc.

Follow-up

Send a letter outlining agreements reached to everyone who attended the meeting. If you see good coverage that might be a response to your concerns, promptly contact the highest level media representative present at the meeting and acknowledge the effort to respond to your concerns. If you see continued poor coverage, write or call to object. Unless you make it clear you are monitoring coverage on an ongoing basis, you will not be unlikely to influence news media.