The more you understand about media interviews, the more effective you'll be in handling them so that you get your points across and religion gets better news coverage.
When a journalist calls, the first thing to do is get the journalist's name, media affiliation and phone number, so you'll know the news outlet being represented and be able to reach the journalist later if you need to.
Then determine whether the information needed is within your broad area of expertise. (Having published in the general area may suffice; local newspapers, for example, may prefer a local expert over one who, though more knowledgeable, lives outside the state.) If the information needed is not within your expertise, politely decline to be interviewed. But if you know of a scholar who researches or teaches the topic, tell the journalist.
If you don't feel ready to talk, tell the journalist you are busy and arrange a time to call back. Then make sure you call back as agreed.
During the interview, make sure you get your points across and that the journalist understands them. Speak slowly, as the journalist will be writing or typing what you say. Repeat your main points often.
Avoid academic jargon. The journalist's audience is usually the general public, so be elementary.
Be concise. Avoid digressions, and stay on your main points. If a journalist is silent, do not try to fill the silence. The journalist is probably just taking notes. Be friendly, but avoid humor or flippancy, as it could appear in the story. Avoid hypothetical scenarios. If a journalist asks you to speculate, politely decline.
Be honest above all else. Your credibility as a source is at stake. If you don't know the answer to a question, say so. Journalists do not expect a source to know everything. Perhaps you can refer the journalist to a colleague who might know the answer.
If time permits toward the end of an interview, briefly discuss the information you've provided. If the journalist's comments indicate he or she doesn't understand what you've said, politely clarify. Let the journalist know you are available for additional information.
Being Quoted or Not
All good news stories quote knowledgeable sources. Quotes enliven a story, and just as data constitutes evidence for scholars, quotes constitute evidence for journalists.
However, sometimes a journalist calls a scholar simply to better understand the issues involved in a story. Your expertise helps the journalist develop background and context. Regardless of whether you're quoted, your participation can make the news more insightful.
When a journalist calls or emails, assume that anything you say can be used in a story and attributed to you; you are communicating "on-the-record." If the journalist asks a particular question you don't want to comment on, avoid saying "no comment," which can come across as if you are hiding something; rather, simply say you "don't know" or "can't speculate on that." It would be rare for a scholar to need to be unquotable (see your role as an expert source); however, if you need to (perhaps, if you are junior scholar being asked about a controversial topic) there are ways to talk to a journalist yet avoid being quoted.
You can, if the journalist agrees, speak "on background," in which case the journalist can use what you say, but not your name, in a story. In effect, you become an "anonymous source." Or you can speak "off-the-record," in which case what you say cannot appear in a story without your prior consent. Bear in mind three things: 1) either restriction applies only to what you say after the journalist expressly agrees to it—be explicit; 2) some journalists may not agree; and 3) some public relations specialists advise against attempting such agreements, noting that through a mistake your name or what you say could end up in the news anyway.
Special Tips for Broadcast Interviews
Speak in short sentences and be succinct. Have a couple of key points you want to convey, and to increase the chance of their being in the broadcast, repeat them a few times during the interview.
For television, visual presentation is important. Plan to wear solid-color clothing. Avoid wearing stripes, plaids and other designs, or large, dangling or reflective jewelry.
If the interview is being taped for airing later, as most broadcast interviews are, feel free to take your time in answering questions, even to stop in the middle of an answer and start over. The station can edit out a long pause or repetition.
Before agreeing to a live interview, make sure you are comfortable answering questions spontaneously. Ask the journalist ahead of time what kinds of questions will be asked; journalists often won't mind letting you know. If a journalist won't tell you even the topic of the interview, you can always decline. Before agreeing to be on a talk show, make sure you are comfortable with the show's customary format; some are quite confrontational.
During a television interview, look at the journalist, not the camera. Stay stationary and avoid sitting in a chair that swivels. Don't engage in nervous habits such as finger tapping. For the best effect, sit straight and lean slightly toward the journalist. Be cautious about nodding; it can convey agreement with a point rather than an understanding of the question. Keep your head up, and let your enthusiasm show in your face. Smile, unless you are discussing a very serious subject. Feel free to gesture frequently, but when not, keep hands on your lap if you are sitting or at your sides if standing.
With radio, all the listener has is your voice. Muster as much warmth, interest and liveliness into your voice as you can. Sometimes radio journalists interview over the phone; if you have call waiting, turn it off temporarily for the interview.