Knowing who you're talking to and what you'll be talking about can help you avoid unpleasant situations.
The majority of journalists who call you are above board, and some of the defensive measures below sound a bit dramatic. Nevertheless, it’s important to know (as best you can) who you are talking to, what they want to talk about, and the terms of the agreement. If anything makes you uncomfortable, don’t do the interview.
Do not say anything you don’t want made public.
Unless you are explicitly off the record, you are on the record, and anything you say or email to a journalist or do in their presence is usable. Even if they are friendly and acting informally, do not confide anything you wouldn’t want to see in print.
Also, do not say, “Off the record I will say XYZ…” The journalist has not agreed to go off the record. Saying those words does not make it an agreement.
Know who you are talking to.
If the Communications Office refers a journalist to you, we will make an effort to vet the journalist/outlet and ensure they are legitimate, and that any political lens through which it may filter information has been identified.
If a journalist contacts you directly, please feel free to forward us the email, and we can do this work. If you respond directly, and it’s not someone you’ve talked to before, we suggest doing some research.
Questions you might ask yourself:
- Does the writer have a profile on their publication’s website, or their own website?
- Have they written reputable-seeming stories in the past for reputable outlets?
- Is the journalist on Twitter?
- Do they have a good number of followers?
- Are they tweeting reputable information?
- Is there a political slant to their tweets?
- Are they tweeting anything you find inappropriate?
- Does a Google search of their name come up with stories they have written, or does it return something unexpected?
- Does anything about your encounter with the journalist feel “off”?
- Are they emailing from their organization’s domain? (If freelance, they may not be, and that’s not a red flag.)
If it is an outlet you aren’t familiar with, Google it and try and find out more information about it.
- Who owns or is funding it?
- Does it appear to have a political slant?
- Does it have a Twitter account?
- How many followers does that Twitter account have?
- Is there a Wikipedia page about the outlet?
- Does the website and the content on it appear reputable?
There is no guarantee that anyone seeking to interview you is being honest and forthright, but a little bit of research can mitigate much of the risk and help you understand what you’re getting into.
If the subject matter the journalist wishes to discuss sounds vague, ask them to clarify specifically what they want to discuss so that you can be best prepared.
Rarely will a print journalist share their exact questions in advance, but for TV/radio, having some advance notice of what is going to be asked can help you sound smarter, which is exactly what the news outlet wants. Ask them if they might be able to supply the questions in advance, or give you a more specific sense of what you’ll discuss - the worst that can happen is they say no. If a producer pre-interviews you, it’s likely the host/anchor will ask some subset of those questions.
An interview for print should happen over the telephone. There is no need for that person to see you (or have the ability to record your image).
If you’re going to be interviewed over Zoom for broadcast, ask whether the interview will be broadcast live or edited for later use. If it’s live, know that everything you say is being seen. If it’s recorded, and you don’t like how you answered a question, you can ask to do it again.
Whether or not your interview can be legally recorded is very tricky, and depends upon the state in which both parties are located.
Pennsylvania is a two-party consent state in terms of recording an interview. No one can be legally recorded without the consent of both parties. New Jersey is a one-party consent state, and a journalist does not need your consent to record, assuming they are also in a one-party consent state. You may not know where they are, of course.
This can get terribly complicated. If you are at all concerned, ask: “Is this interview being recorded?” You are under no obligation to consent to a recording. You also should not make a recording without the journalist’s consent.