How To Talk to the Media, If You Must

from it’s going down

For better or for worse, anarchists are finding themselves in the spotlight of the mainstream news. Not since the anti-globalization movement, when thousands shut down the World Trade Organization (WTO) summit in Seattle, Washington in late 1999, has the media been so heavily focused on autonomous social movements. While the intensity of this coverage has waned since the Unite the Right rally in 2017, as the recent reporting of whether or not antifascist groups were going to engage with the massive pro-gun demonstration in Richmond, Virginia shows, we can still find ourselves front and center of a media storm.

The question then becomes, is it a good idea to speak with the media? Should we take a hard line against it, swearing off engaging with anyone but ourselves? Do we instead welcome speaking to the media, believing that the more our voices our heard, the more people will come into our movement as our ideas become normalized? Or, do we take the middle road, and attempt to be critical and strategic about who we talk to and why?

At the end of the day, however you decide to engage with the mass media, anarchists need to understand both the possible downsides of engagement, the potential benefits, the tricks of the trade, and moreover, the need to create our own media platforms and networks of distributing information. We hope that this guide will help those that are forced to face these difficult decisions and give you some tools in the process.

The Nature of the Agenda Setting Media

“Those that own the country ought to govern it.” – John Jay, Founding Father

“This paper’s been on its knees to a bank since the day it opened. And like most every other newspaper on Earth, it’s financed by its advertising. And without advertising…there’s no paper…so, thus, there are one or two things that we don’t write about. You’re not…in some far-flung foreign land, this is America.” – The Rum Diary

Before we get into why (or not) and how you should approach the media, first we should lay out a critique of the mass media itself. If you haven’t already, you should really read Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman or at least watch the great documentary, Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. The argument that Herman and Chomsky put forward is pretty elementary but worth going over.

They argue that the mass media is made up of fundamentally elite institutions which operate as mechanisms that promote elite interests. Far from acting as a way in which power and capital are challenged, the function of mass media is instead to manufacture the consent of the governed and to create buy-in from the wider society. It’s why most newspapers have a “business” section and not a “labor” section, Chomsky has often pointed out. Herman and Chomsky discuss how both the corporate advertisers and owners of the media help shape the worldview created for viewers, how government, corporate and military sources act as gatekeepers to information, and how a drive to keep audiences watching is tied into the use of fear mongering, often around perceived common enemies and threats. They argue that the end result of such an arrangement produces coverage which echoes the key myths of our society and upholds power dynamics as fundamental to human existence.

What this means in the context of our conversation, is that generally, if the mass media covers social movements and struggles at all, it is generally to discourage them, demonize them, or divorce movements from their potential base of support by associating them with “violence,” “extremism,” or some foreign influence. We see this in both Right leaning media which has made an entire industry off of attacking everything from Black Lives Matter to ‘ANTIFA,’ to more Centrist publications which seeks to valorize existing institutions and play up fears of the “extreme” Left.

The clearest way this reality comes across is simply in the refusal of mass media to cover certain things while focusing ad nauseam on others. For instance, it took months for CNN to cover the Standing Rock demonstrations and it wasn’t until after the 2016 prison strike was even completed that it decided to even mention it – yet it is very clear as to what stories and issues that the media wants to put front and center for public consumption: elections, Trump’s tweet, and celebrity news.

Thus, “politics” becomes a never ending stream of commentary with the same 5 experts and specialists on a political, economic, and social spectacle of which we have no control or say in other than during an electoral cycle in which we are encouraged to pull a lever for one of two political parties.

Why Talk to Media?

So if the media itself is so bad, or simply an appendage of the system we oppose, then why should we engage with it? Is some media worse than others? Can we be strategic about interacting with the media? Does the size and scale of the media we engage with matter? The answer to all of these questions can be nuanced.

There are certainly many reasons to not speak to some journalists. No one at Breitbart has your interest at heart and thus there’s no reason to speak to them, but what about the Wall Street Journal? The New York Times? How about progressive publications like The Nation? What about the local alternative weekly, the nightly news, or your town’s daily rag? There’s also the question about how do we engage with the media if we are trying to get a story out and not just respond to a request for comment from a journalist?

In short, there are certainly some journalists and media outlets that you don’t want to talk to, namely those on the far-Right. Others require research before you engage with them. Hopefully this guide will give you some tips and ideas for how to go about doing that in the best way possible.

The reason to talk (if at all) to the media is thus:

  • It is possible to shape coverage of a story. We’ll go over tips on how to make this possible.
  • If you don’t speak to a journalist writing an article, its possible someone else might. Why not give them a good quote?
  • You can, sometimes, break stories in the mainstream press. This coverage might help your organizing efforts.
  • Speaking to the media also can potentially normalize our ideas to the general public. Just think about how many people know that the Alt-Right wants an all-white ethno-state as opposed to what kind of world anarchists want to see – and who made that possible: largely journalists.

How a Newsroom Works

Before we get into tips on how to speak with the media, let’s go over some basics.

When people think of journalism they often simply just think of journalists, but in reality the way that news is produced often involves a lot of other people beyond reporters.

Sitting at the top is the Publisher of the publication. This can either be simply an owner, a board, or a corporation that has financial control over the publication itself. Their goal is to make money through the venture, through advertising. They are also interested in maintaining both a good public image as well as a good relationship with gatekeepers who give them access to information, be they local police brass, restaurant and business owners, and politicians.

Below the Publisher is the Editor, who has the final say over the title, the content, and even if the piece will be published or not. Often times if a piece has been drastically changed or you see certain quotes removed from your interview, its because an editor made that call.

Journalists write stories for the publication. They “pitch” their story ideas to their editors, who then either green light them or turn them down. While some journalists do actual reporting and investigation, more and more, many journalists simply “report” on something happening online, (“Trump just Tweeted this Meme and Twitter is Angry!”), or simply surmise other articles which have already been published. Some journalists are freelance, which means they pitch story ideas to different publications.

Fact checkers, largely at bigger publications, go through a piece and make sure all the facts are correct. They will often confirm facts and events with sources before a piece is published. Their goal is to make sure that the publication won’t get in legal trouble for anything that they publish.

Finally, lawyers at the publication exist to fight off potential law suits that the outlet may receive from their reporting.

The Importance of the Angle

The “angle” of an article is what differentiates it from other articles on the same subject. “You think you know Juggalos? What about gluten-free Juggalos?” It’s also the “it” factor that the journalist will pitch to their editor and also how it will be marketed for clicks on the internet. Remember, this is a business, so thus the more “wow” or “out there” it is, the better in the eyes of the publisher.

Why this matters to you, is that if you can understand where the journalist is trying to take their piece, you can better speak to that point. This is why people often ask journalists who are working on an article, “What’s your angle?,” meaning simply, what is the thrust of your piece? On the other hand, you can also argue to a journalist that another angle is more interesting and give them access to information and resources to cover that perspective. This understanding of the way that journalism ‘works’ can also help organizers who are looking for journalists to cover a subject.

Dealing with Media Requests

Journalists attempting to reach out to you (or a group) will do so generally over email or social media. These requests, both from journalists attempting to speak to you in good-faith and from malicious actors can take several forms:

  • The “Request for comment…” email. This is the most common type of request. Generally a journalist or reporter is looking to speak to you either on “background” (information that gives context to the story) for “for a quote,” meaning, they want to quote you in their article about what they are writing about. A few things to keep in mind:

A.) Make sure that the journalist is a real person. If someone emails you from [email protected] and they claim to work at the New York Times and they aren’t using their work account, then that’s a red flag. Most established journalists are also on Twitter or have a website which hosts their work. Generally most good journalists have this information linked in their email at the bottom. If this information does not corroborate with their email, then you might be speaking to a troll or potentially, a member of law enforcement.

B.) Make sure that you research the journalist who has contacted you. Look at their Twitter account, read their articles, and analyze their work. If their last piece was, “Are Impossible Burgers Turning You Into a Feminist?,” it might be time to hit the delete button.

C.) Trust your instincts. If a journalist comes across as a total asshole or writes antifascist as ‘ANTIFA,’ it may be that they do not have your best interests at heart. It could also be that they were put on this assignment by an editor and aren’t thrilled. Either way, might be a sign to pass.

D.) Journalists will sometimes give you a window in terms of when they need to hear back from you. If they say, “I need a quote by 5pm on Tuesday,” this means that they are (possibly) going to publish the article with our without you by that time.

  • The “Request to Come On…” email. Sometimes you’ll get a request to come on a radio or TV show. Be sure to research and look up what kind of show this is and who is requesting that you come on the program before answering. If for instance, its a program on Fox News, its generally not worth it and you’ll receive about a week’s worth of death threats following your appearance or even being mentioned on the program.
  • Sometimes journalists and documentarians will reach out about participating in a larger project: namely documentary films. Keep in mind that these projects often take years to finish.
  • After you’ve looked into the journalist and the publication and you want more information, feel free to respond in the email asking for more.
  • Remember, you aren’t obligated to respond to a journalist. Sometimes saying nothing means that the piece simply doesn’t get written.

Making Contact With Journalists

Let’s say a respected journalist who has covered environmental protests for years has reached out over email or social media and wants to interview your group about an upcoming demonstration against a pipeline that is being contested in the local area. You’ve looked up the reporter, know what to expect, and have a feel for their style. In a situation like this, things are pretty cut and dry. The journalist is writing an article that either partially involves anti-pipeline groups and is at least looking for some insight from you – if not also a quote, or is wanting to write a profile directly about your group. Here’s some advice for what happens next:

  • The first move will probably be a phone conversation. Most journalists use Signal, but if they don’t, you can request that they download the app. If you feel the need, be sure to also ask that they not give out your number to other journalists unless they ask. If you end up doing a lot of media interviews and want to do that through a separate phone, you may also consider getting a cheap burner phone which can be bought with cash at a Wall-Mart or at most corner stores.
  • When you speak to a journalist, understand the difference between “off the record” and “on the record.” To go “off the record” means that you do not consent to yourself being quoted and journalists are supposed to respect this. To be “on the record” means that everything you do and say could end up in the piece. Remember, if you are speaking to a journalist and you are going to say something you don’t want on the record and you don’t remember if you are “on” or “off,” simply state, “and the following isn’t on the record.”
  • If you want to get a feel for a journalist and especially find out what their angle is, you can also ask to speak with them “on background” and “off the record.” This can be a space where you can ask journalists what type of article they are looking to write and who else they are speaking to. It can also be a space for you to explain a broader context and offer more interesting angles that you think the journalist could cover.
  • When you’re ready to go on the record, try to record your conversation in case you are misquoted. If you are misquoted, you will have the ability to call the journalist on this and hopefully get them to fix the quote.

Protecting Your Anonymity

Before you talk to a journalist, know what your needs are in terms of how anonymous you want to be. Some newsrooms have rules about not quoting people who are anonymous, however most will publish something along the lines of, “We spoke with an organizer from Build the Bloc, who chose to remain anonymous…” You of course can also give them a name to publish.

If you are worried about remaining anonymous, you can also write out your needs on paper and have the journalist and producer of the piece sign onto it. If you are also meeting up with a journalist in person, you can also ask that they not describe your physical appearance in their article, where you live, etc.

While these requests may at times seem awkward, it’s best to get them out of the way and solidified in order to not run into a problem when something is published. And remember, after something is published, it is often very hard to get a journalist to change something.

Conducting Good Interviews

Speaking with a journalist can be really exciting – someone from a big name publication, news show, or outlet is excited about speaking to you! This reality quickly comes crashing down after your two hour conversation ends up turning into two sentences of luke-warm, boiler plate responses, mixed in with background, context, and quotes from other people.

So, before you speak to a journalist, keep these things in mind:

  • You need to know what you want to talk about. Before you go into the interview, have in your mind, or on paper, what the key points are that you want to hit. Your goal is to connect these talking points to the questions that will be asked of you by the journalist.
  • Remember that the journalist will also be speaking to other people, often opposed to you, so think about their talking points as well and how to counter them.
  • Anticipate potential, difficult questions that the journalist may ask you and be prepared to answer them. Read up on other articles on the same subject to get a better idea of what may be asked.

Pitching Ideas to Journalists

While many of us have very strong opinions about the mass media, most of us realize that in many situations, having a media spotlight on certain things can change the dynamic of a story or a broader struggle. Towards this end, it may be in our interest at times to leak stories, video, or information to journalists. Here are some tips for how to go about that.

  • Let’s say you have information that guards at the local prison are members of a neo-Nazi group. It would be best to find journalists then who cover the “beat” of the far-Right and pitch them this story.
  • In order to contact them, look up their emails by visiting the outlets where they work or by looking at their Twitter account.
  • Write up a press release and see if anyone responds.
  • You can also generally call publications and outlets and speak to someone and see if they are interested in the story and then go from there.
  • Once you have established some sort of relationship with a journalist, you can go to them in the future if you have other potential stories.

The Importance and Role of Independent Media

So far we’ve spoken about how to respond to media requests and how to get information out to journalists, however we want to cover a third point: the importance and role of independent media in getting a story out into the world.

Often, it will help in a story getting picked up by larger outlets if it is already published on another platform. This can be something like It’s Going Down or Unicorn Riot, or simply your local group’s website or blog.

Being the first to report on something will not only bring recognition to your original work, but it will also make it easier for other journalists to report on it, as they will not be the ones breaking the story. Moreover, in today’s age, if something can go viral or bring enough attention, it will be written about by journalists regardless.

The point of all of this is that as anarchists and participants in social movements, we often find ourselves in some pretty crazy situations with interesting stories to tell. Let’s not sell ourselves short. Let’s own our own stories and be the ones who get to tell them, even if mass media outlets end up coming along for the ride. This is why It’s Going Down exists, so we don’t lose these stories to the ages and also set the record straight for the rest of the world to see and learn from.

In the end, no matter how good we get at writing press releases and articulating great talking points, we’ll still be pushing our narratives inside a mass media machine that wasn’t made for us. Likewise, even good journalists can be held back by bad editors or drowned out by far-Right trolls. Ultimately, our greatest power lies in building up our own infrastructure and being able to spread information through our own networks.

As the old indymedia saying goes: make media, make trouble!

Glossary

Angle: The thrust, or “hook” of a piece. “My angle is that antifa is indeed winning.”

Background: General information and context for a story. “Could I speak to you on background about the rise of tenant associations and rent strikes?”

On the Record: Giving consent to a journalist to record an interaction or conversation. “Can we go on the record about the anti-pipeline protests?”

Off the Record: Withdrawing consent to a journalist to record an interaction or conversation. “Let’s go off the record for a bit.”

Piece: A written article or story. “I’m working on a piece about the growing wobbly presence in the fast food industry.”

Pitch: A proposal for a story made by a journalist to an editor. “I’m going to pitch my editor about doing a story on the disaster relief effort, but we’ll see if they decide to green light it.”

Quote: A direct quotation that will be placed into a story. “Can I get a quote from your local Anarchist Black Cross chapter about the recent controversy at the local prison?”

Cover photo: Donald Tong, Free Use
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