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Four tips for talking to journalists

Here's what you need to know before talking to reporters about your farm situation

As a reporter, a big part of my job is getting farmers to talk to me.

In this column, I’m going to tell you why you might want to think twice about being interviewed. Or, if you decide to talk to a journalist, what you need to know.

Before tapping out this column, I spoke to Tom Button, editor at Country Guide, about the idea. He said he’s always been amazed at how forthcoming farmers are when they’re talking about their situations. That’s been my experience too, and I don’t want to abuse that trust.

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But there are risks to stepping into the spotlight. Here are four things you need to know about the media.

1. A reporter is not there to be your friend

Beware any reporter who claims to be acting in your interest. We serve our readers first, not our interview subjects. Deep down even the kindest reporter is a wolf trying to sniff out a story.

This might seem a little heartless, but bad things happen when reporters forget who they serve. For example, in 2014 Rolling Stone published a dramatic account of a campus rape that didn’t hold up to scrutiny. Part of the problem was that the reporter and editors didn’t want to harm the alleged victim by carefully verifying her account. It backfired badly.

Even a good news story on your farm isn’t going to be entirely your story. It’s going to be the story the reporter thinks her readers want. If the story is on a controversial or complex topic, the reporter will be nosing out other sources, who may disagree with you. If you’re discussing an agronomic problem on your farm, your agronomic practices may be laid bare for everyone to see and judge.

Before you agree to an interview, find out who the reporter works for. Don’t be afraid to ask him what type of story he’s working on before you spill the beans.

2. We can’t keep a secret

Don’t say anything to us that you don’t want published. That applies whether you’re doing an interview or speaking at a farm show. It includes jokes and offhand comments. It also includes questionable farming practices, such as using a chemical off-label.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve had farmers ask me not to publish a comment after they’ve said it. Don’t do that. If it’s not related to the story, we aren’t likely to include it, but there are no guarantees.

If you absolutely have to tell a journalist something as background information, but you don’t want to see it in print, ask about the reporter’s policy first. Same rule applies if you’re okay with the comment being published, but you don’t want your name attached to it. It’s better to discuss it first then argue about it after you’ve let the cat out of the bag.

3. We make mistakes

There. I’ve said it. We misspell names, misunderstand what you’ve said, and even occasionally misquote you. We don’t like doing it, and we try not to do it, but we’re only human.

It’s worth noting how the reporter records the interview. Are they recording audio, taking notes, doing both, or doing neither?

Most publications print corrections once they’re alerted. If it’s a web story, the original story can be corrected. It’s not a perfect solution, though. If people have already read the incorrect story, they might not see the correction.

If you can’t live with even a slim possibility of these mistakes, you may want to skip the interview.

4. A story lives online forever

Once upon a time, a story was likely forgotten by most people as soon as it hit the recycle bin.

Not the case today. Even many “print” stories are published online once the print magazine is out. They’re forever available with a quick Internet search.

The same goes for photos. And you also need to know that if a freelance photographer takes your photo, they can sell those photos under some circumstances.

I asked Lorne McClinton about this. McClinton is a photographer and the Canadian editor at John Deere’s Furrow and Homestead magazines.

McClinton told me it depends on some extent to the photographer’s contract with the publication and what country we’re talking about.

But in Canada, subjects do have some control over how their photos are used. For example, if McClinton takes a picture of a man leaning on a rail fence for a cowboy profile, he can’t use that same photo for a news story on rural domestic violence, unless the man signed a release. Nor can McClinton sell that photo to a company running an ad campaign without a release.

You should also know that if you’re in public, a photographer can shoot your photo and sell it to illustrate a related news story. The caption can’t misrepresent what the person is doing, or take them out of context, McClinton says.

Tom Button of Country Guide told me how he works with freelance photographers. He echoed McClinton’s caveat that photographers cannot sell the photos for commercial purposes without the subjects’ permission. Photographers also sign over copyright to any photos published in Country Guide.

But, Button told me, if a freelance photographer wants to sell out-takes to other news media, they can. This rarely comes up because the people we profile aren’t usually big newsmakers.

But it is a possibility with Iain Stables. He and his wife were on the cover of Country Guide last March. This February, police laid several charges against him related to theft of farm machinery.

I wrote that Country Guide story. I feel a little sad looking back at it, given the allegations that loomed in his future. I feel particularly awful for Iain’s wife, who hasn’t been charged with anything.

But once a story or photo is in the wild, there’s no recapturing it.

I hope I haven’t scared away all of you from future interviews. There are many good reasons to talk to media, which I’m sure you’ve heard if you’ve ever had a journalist trying to talk you into an interview.

If you have questions about the media, feel free to shoot me an email. I’ll answer as best I can, and may even turn it into another column.

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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