How To Handle A Dumb Reporter
I regularly hear clients tell me that a reporter they have to work with is stupid. But are they really dumb, or just playing “dumb” to get more information?
That’s what reader Patricia Carlson wondered after reading my article, “Three Dangerous Types of Reporters,” which omitted the “dumb” reporter as a dangerous type. She wrote:
“I’m not sure if this would fall under a ‘dangerous reporter’ or ‘dangerous tactics’ headline, but I’ve witnessed the “playing dumb” reporter on many occasions. I’m told there are several reasons why a reporter would use this routine but I’m wondering what your take is on it?”
There are three primary reasons a reporter might come across as dumb.
1. They’re Trying To Get You To Say More
A reporter might say, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand” as a device to keep you talking. As we tell our trainees, the more you say, the more you stray. If a reporter can keep you talking, they can increase the odds that you’re going to say something you’ll regret.
Don’t fall for it. Ask reporters what, specifically, they don’t understand and clear up those misunderstandings. But remember that your primary job isn’t to download a semester’s worth of education to the reporter – it’s to get the quotes and the storyline you want without saying something that strays from your message.
2. You’re Not Saying It Right
Reporters might say, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand” as a way of getting you to speak without jargon. Technical, wonky words and ideas are difficult for the reporter to quote, since the audience won’t understand what you mean.
Here’s a trick from a former ABC News colleague to help you avoid jargon. She once interviewed a jargon-filled scientist. After 20 minutes, he still hadn’t said anything we could use on air. She ended the interview, thanked him, and said, “Could I ask you a favor? My 12-year-old nephew loves science. Would you mind doing one take I could show to him?” He agreed, and delivered a terrific answer without any jargon – and that’s the take we used that evening.
If you have young people in your life, run your messages by them. If they can paraphrase them back to you in their own words, you’ve successfully eliminated the jargon.
3. The Reporter Is Actually Dumb
A reporter might say, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand” because he or she is just plain dumb. Every field has its dummies, and journalism is no different. The reporter may not be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, and their apparent stupidity may be less journalistic tactic than biological trait.
Still, don’t give up. That’s a great opportunity for you to practice making your message as clear as possible. As I wrote in an earlier post, “Don’t Dumb It Down, Just Make It Simpler,” you should remember this admonition from Albert Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
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My rule is always: There is no such thing as a dumb reporter.
I dealt with one reporter for years who had a law degree, but acted more like the detective in Columbo. He asked seemingly dumb questions and hoped interviewees would let their guard down trying to explain things in simple terms he could understand.
When the interview ended this reporter had garnered more information than anyone else I ever dealt with in my career. As they say, he was “Dumb like a fox!”
If an interviewer gives me the “I don’t understand” line once I have given the best “simple” answer I can, I say, “I’m sorry, that’s the best answer I can give you.” Then, I leave it at that.
If the reporter doesn’t understand, then you are not getting your point across. They are the conduit through which the story will flow. If you have lost them, what are the chances your message will get out successfully? You HAVE to make them understand. They represent a lot of people who also will not understand, so look at it as an opportunity to educate.
Usually what is wanted is a clear and concise answer that will work as a clip that can be included in a story. It’s a bit embarrassing to ask someone to “dumb it down”. People get nervous. They talk too fast or say too much. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting another take. So slow down, keep it simple, and don’t say too much. The reporter will ask you for more, if needed.