“Sometimes you are the windshield, and sometimes you are the bug.” You may often feel that way if you run a public EMS agency because you’re scrutinized by the general public, politicians and the media. Many times, you’re the bug with the media.
Your local newspaper, television and radio reporters can really be your best friends if you have a great working relationship, which is something you cultivate over time with reporters and assignment editors.
There are plenty of books and articles about how to market your department and show it in the best possible light with the media. But what about those times you come under the scrutinizing eye of the media? But how do you deal with negative press?
Brushes with the Media
Most reporters try to present an educated and balanced view that shouldn’t overly criticize or praise the person or organization they’re covering. It’s not in the reporter’s best interest to present a false or biased article. Unfortunately, some journalists occasionally seek to create a story instead of reporting the facts.
Usually the journalist is alerted to the story. It can come from an employee, a crisis within your organization or an accident.
When I worked in St. Louis, someone tipped off the media that the St. Louis Fire Department was throwing biohazard waste in regular commercial dumpsters at our EMS administration building. While I was at fire department headquarters, I was alerted that a television crew was at the EMS administrative building filming the dumpsters’ content. Knowing that it was not our procedure to dispose of biohazard waste in such a manner, I drove back to the EMS building to speak with the reporter and his cameraman. I figured a wayward crew took the easy way out and dumped their biohazard in the nearest receptacle.
When I got to the EMS administrative building, I discovered that was not the case and that the city painters had disposed of some brownish-red colored paint rags in the dumpsters after painting the window sills of the EMS administrative building. I tried to show the reporter there was no biohazard waste and only paint rags in the dumpster, but the television station still ran the story that evening.
Although most reporters follow ethical standards, don’t be surprised if a journalist with an axe to grind omits information in their story on purpose. Technically, they aren’t lying; they’re omitting information to keep the story slanted and attract readers.
Some tips and ideas might help you work with a unscrupulous journalist and any perceived attempts to negatively slant a story for hype.
If a journalist with a known reputation for sensationalizing stories wants information from you or about your organization, don’t be afraid to ask many questions ahead of time. In some cases, the journalist will do a Freedom of Information Act request for documents or other material. Most states have Freedom of Information laws that mandate public agencies to produce information within a certain amount of time.
You can choose whether to respond to their questions. It’s your choice to answer their questions or to refuse to do an interview. Unethical journalists sometimes pick abbreviated sentences during the taped interview or mix questions with answers for their purposes. However, you should be forewarned that deciding not to do the interview doesn’t mean the story is going away. The choice to run the story belongs to the journalist and their organization.
If you decide to be interviewed, tape the interview yourself. Then, you’ll have a copy to be able to use if your statements are inappropriately edited, shortened or misused.
If you decide to be interviewed, delete the phrase “no comment” from your vocabulary. Also avoid giving “yes” and “no” answers. Saying “no comment” or answering with “yes” and “no” makes you appear defensive or that you’re trying to hide something.
Ensure you present your side of the story, even if it means not answering the reporter’s question directly. This is your time to tell your side of the story and to give good sound bites about what you have to say, not just where the reporter is trying to go.
Speak in plain language. In the EMS profession, we have a tendency to use jargon and slang that only our colleagues would understand.
Never give or provide false information. Doing so will really put you in a negative light, especially if the reporter can verify that the information is false. Or in many cases, they already have the information and want to know what you’re going to say.
If you don’t know the answer, tell the journalist that you will follow up with them. Remember, it’s better to be honest than misleading.
Remember the old media saying, “If it bleeds, it leads.” It’s not always bad to be the lead; just be sure that you’re in control of your words and demeanor. JEMS
This article originally appeared in November 2011 JEMS as “No Comment: Silence may be your worst enemy with the media.”