Tim Thornborough with tips for making the most of media interviews
I sat under the blazing lights of the TV studio, the presenter looking at me suspiciously.
I was the nasty, Bible-bashing evangelical, out of tune with the culture, the times and reality as he knew it. He really only had one aim. To show the world how irrelevant and bigoted I really was. I gulped nervously and tried to put on a brave smile as the red light went on and he turned to me, eyes boring into me like gimlets…
Religion is news. Big news in fact. And not just news on the national scale but on the local scene as well. Barely a day goes by without some major story in the national newspapers about church policy or a topical issue on which the Christian viewpoint is being applauded or attacked. And so it should be.
If the gospel is about the important issues of life, then Christians and churches will have views on most, if not all, of the moral and political issues that our country faces. It is a pity, therefore, that the church spokesmen who our journalists often talk with are so patchy in presenting a clear, consistent and interesting response to these questions — and, under the unflattering glare of the TV lights, are often made to look and sound like representatives of a bygone age.
Pastors and ministers of local churches may not have much opportunity to represent the biblical faith at the highest levels, but at the local level there are massive opportunities for awareness raising, outreach, evangelism and opinion formation through the local media. Local newspapers and radio are machines that gobble up information, turn it into news and spit it out again to be read and heard by thousands of people. Although our first instinct might be to fear how it could all go wrong, I want to encourage you to make the effort to get in touch with your local media for the sake of the gospel.
I worked as a journalist in various capacities for 20 years and, in this article, I want to help you understand how journalists think, and how to use the opportunities of the media to bring glory to Jesus through the printed word and over the airwaves.
What journalists really want
The story that started this piece was me on national television. It was not a pleasant experience at all, and it may be that you are reading this thinking that journalists are all like this, and that the press are to be avoided at all costs. Not so. Journalists are hard working people, who have to operate to strict deadlines. They are employed to write words to fill their columns or bulletins. Journalists are basically looking for four things.
1. A story
They are looking to report a story — an event of significance that people will find shocking, funny, interesting or important.
There will be newsworthy things happening in your church every month. It’s just a question of being able to spot what things might appeal to your local media. Your church may have a speaker visiting with an interesting history. There may be a ‘human interest story’ with a couple getting married or having a baby. There may be some church initiative or outreach event that gives the opportunity to get some positive exposure. The key is to develop the eye to spot a story that they might be interested in.
The place to start is to scan the local newspaper to see what headlines there are — not just on the front page, but buried deep inside — and then to think about how you can present that opportunity to your local journalist.
Having a story gives you the opportunity to share something of the gospel to people. Not necessarily the whole deal, but one aspect of the good news: forgiveness, a life changed through Christ, a community committed to loving action or the strength that faith in Jesus brings to life’s tough situations can all be brought out from a simple story — whether it is the opening of a church building extension or an obituary of a loved Christian.
2. Something simple
For the most part, reporters will not be Christians, and will often have no real grasp of what Christianity really is. Like most other people really. In certain hot topics like the ordination of women or the homosexual debate, Christians are often used to dealing in long complex arguments from Scripture, and reviewing long complex histories. This is not what journalists are after. They want a soundbite.
A soundbite is a short pithy quote that sums up an idea or an argument, and your greatest opportunity for getting your message across is to prepare a maximum of three key messages that you want to get across related to the news story. For the interview I was involved in on TV, I sat and wrote half a sheet of quotes, statistics and comments the night before and had them next to me on the sofa.
During the course of a short two-minute interview, I was able to use virtually everything on the sheet, whereas the other guy being interviewed came across much less strongly. Preparation pays off.
3. A source
Even if you do not have a story to share with the world, it is worth cultivating a good relationship with local journalists. They will be working on stories every day that there may be an opportunity to contribute to. Journalists are always looking for prominent local community leaders who can give them a reaction to a story.
If you are able to build a good friendship with a local journalist, they will be more likely to give you a call to comment on the closure of a local hospital, a crime or some new local event. A few tips here.
* Don’t be unremittingly negative! Christians can seem to be the ‘fun-suckers’ against change. Try to see the positive side of things and applaud them.
* If you are called by a journalist for a quote, clarify what the story is, and then offer to ring them back in ten minutes, or email your quote. This will give you the time to work at refining a clear, positive, gospel-centred message in a few words.
* Check the reporter’s deadline so that you know when you have to respond.
* Never say: ‘No comment’ — it looks like you have something to hide.
* Nothing you say to a journalist is ‘off the record’. They can legally quote anything you say to them. So don’t relax and say unguarded things after or before a formal interview.
Journalists are ordinary people. And like ordinary people they have assumptions about life, the church, the Christian faith, which are for the most part wrong.
Journalists will often revert to trying to fit anything you say into some typical ‘story types’ that they will be familiar with:
* The church is a dying institution (Church closes)
* Religious people are hypocrites (Vicar runs off with organist)
* Faith is irrelevant (Church debates arcane theology, but remains silent on major issues)
It’s important to remember this when talking to the media. They will make whatever you say into one of these three stories unless you take steps to prevent it. It’s not a conspiracy — it’s just human nature.
The key here is to research facts and statistics. The discussion I was involved with on Breakfast TV was about cohabitation — couples living together without being married. It’s seems to be a classic case of the church simply not recognising the modern reality that this is how people live. It makes church look irrelevant, and appears to be an open and shut case.
If it were just a sharing of opinions, nothing would have changed. One simple fact dropped into the conversation changed that. ‘Did you know that cohabiting women are four times more likely to suffer domestic violence than those who are married?’
By quoting a fact, I was able to throw doubt on their assumption, and make them, and the viewers, think there may be more to this issue than they first thought. Suddenly the Christian position didn’t seem quite so irrelevant.
Journalists are looking for substance — facts and ideas — not just opinions. Do the research to make sure you give it to them. There are great opportunities to promote and defend the faith. Use them to the glory of God.
There are lots of practical things you will need to understand about interview technique if you get the opportunity to speak on radio or appear on TV. You can google these quite easily.