Getting Public Policy Issues Into the News Media: It’s Not Easy

Media outlets are businesses just like any other. As a result, the media must provide stories that are important, detailed and interesting in order to maintain customers. For this reason, an important but potentially dull public policy story must take an arduous journey to get some form of media coverage. At a recent panel discussion at the Community Media Workshop’s annual Making Media Connections conference, Cornelia Grumman of the Chicago Tribune and David Schaper of radio station WBEZ explained the best ways to get generally unexciting yet important stories into the media.

As a reporter for the Tribune, Cornelia Grumman understands the inherent problems with a newspaper. Familiarization with the quirks and shortcomings of the print media may very well be the first step to getting an article published. The more you know about your disadvantages, the more you can do to combat them.

The time frame reporters work under is extremely short. A few minutes could spell the difference between getting a story published or not.

Tribune readership has been decreasing. Editors feel that the Tribune needs to expand its horizons, which means that dry, local public policy issues may get less coverage.
The Tribune’s staff has a fair number of young, inexperienced reporters who tend to over-sensationalize, leaving public policy issues out of the picture.

As always, a newspaper’s funds only extend so far. In light of the Tribune’s need to “sell” stories, public policy matters often are excluded if financial resources limit the number of stories that are printable.

Story ideas require frequent and involved follow-ups. Stories are touched upon, and never mentioned again while the issue may rage on in other forms.
Boring stories simply don’t sell, no matter how important they may be. For example, the deregulation of electrical utilities received little attention despite its impact on the population of Illinois.

To mitigate these shortcomings of the print media, Grumman offers a few suggestions:
Develop relationships with reporters. Keep in constant contact with them and be completely honest. Building trust is one of the most important factors.

Be available. Reporters work on tight schedules, and availability can significantly increase the chances of publishing a story.

Don’t use jargon in press releases. Words like “multifaceted” are useless; be as straight forward as possible.

Familiarize yourself with all aspects and problems with the print media. Tactfully presenting stories can be achieved by a constantly updated sense of what’s going on inside the news paper.

WBEZ’s David Schaper pointed out, the media have enormous power over public policy, despite the occasional reluctance to air an unexciting public policy issue. Because public policy and the media are such essential pieces of each other, it is usually necessary to make the stories more appealing than they might appear at first Like Grumman, Schaper offered some insight to what prompts broadcasting decisions at WBEZ.

The media are a”sales” business. News coverage requires money, money requires listeners, and listeners want to hear something interesting.

Sexy sells. TV is especially receptive to stories with a tittilating, risque element.

Crime sells. “If it bleeds it leads” is the mentality at most news agencies. But reporting of crime has increased, making it seem common. The abundance of crime-related stories covered on the news desensitizes the audience. Crime should be used wisely as a luring attribute to a story.

The light under which a public policy story is reported can have a large impact on the media’s willingness to broadcast it. Since the key to getting a public policy issue acted upon is through the media, understanding the internal workings and interests of news outlets can help launch important public policy issues into public debate.

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