Source: The Workbook, vol. 24, Fall/WInter 1998, pp. 132-3

 

Making the News

A Guide for Nonprofits and Activists

Jason Salzman

Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998

289 pages.

 

This second edition argues that activists should "make media relations more of a priority" in their work, and shows how this can be best done. Making the News can be read in one seating or used as a reference. "For example, if you're scheduled for a talk-radio show tomorrow, you can turn to Chapter 25 for tips on how to prepare."

"Why," asks Salzman, "is so much of the news irrelevant? . . . Every citizen shares the blame with the news media. We do not offer journalists enough opportunities--in the right packaging at the right time--to cover causes and important issues. Nonprofit organizations and activists are certainly part of the problem. On tight budgets, they often argue that trying to get media attention distracts them from doing the real work. . . . so they are left struggling to save the world in the dim light of obscurity and wondering why more people don't value what they do. And worse, they never benefit from all the ways that getting media coverage can make their work easier. Similarly, the 'events' that political activists organize are often so boring that even the most sympathetic editors cannot include them in today's competitive entertainment-oriented news "shows" or in the newspaper . . . The lack of news about nonprofit organizations explains, in part, why so many social problems remain unsolved."

This readable how-to book (ah, if only the manufactures of my laptop wrote so clearly!) would surely be of interest to activists who share this book's philosophical outlook. The author relies on his hands-on experiences as community organizer and media watcher to outline the nuts and bolts of handling the media. Making the News knowledgeably covers such strategies as developing a simple message (e.g., "stop hunting whales"), conducting fun media campaigns (e.g., wearing pig costumes to draw the media's attention to pork-barrel spending), finding a celebrity to endorse one's cause, creating a good photo opportunity, choosing the right time for news releases (e.g., "for best coverage, Monday through Thursday"), becoming a master interviewee, holding a news conference, lobbying editorial writers, learning how to increase reporting from the Associated Press ("the gateway to national media attention"), generating news coverage abroad, dealing with damaging media frenzy (e.g., "stay calm," "don't try to be humorous"), cultivating relationships with journalists (e.g., "seek out journalists at meetings"), and organizing to demand better journalism (while being "cautious about criticizing the media too much for fear of alienating journalists").

Making the News ends with a useful compendium of media how-to book, scholarly books, directories, watchdogs, observers, critics, and consultants; ownership, staffing, and institutional structure of major news outlets; as well as sources of information on community organizing and fund-raising.

Unfortunately, and as the following random examples show, Making the News acquiesce to the status quo.

TV, the book correctly observes, operates at the sixth-grade level. Salzman consequently urges activists to simplify their message. But, one wonders, is this the best they can do? Can sound bites give truth a chance? Can the facts of toxic sludge, CIA assassinations, or unwanted teenage pregnancies survive childlike oversimplifications?

In 1982, while an undergraduate at Brown University, Salzman felt that the decline of the antinuclear movement could be traced to the abstract nature of nuclear warfare. So he wrote a petition which urged the university to "stockpile suicide pills for optional student use exclusively in the event of a nuclear war." The media amply covered the subsequent petition drive and 60% of Salzman's fellow students endorsed it. But, did this ingenious media stunt make a difference? After all, Brown never stocked the pills and the peace movement continued to falter. Even now, long after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the U.S.'s nuclear stockpile stands tall.

Writers like Bagdikian, Parenti, and Cohen have conclusively documented the pro-corporate bias of the corporate-owned media. Let me illustrate this bias from my own field. Students of the greenhouse threat know that it can be eliminated at a profit. Yet, one can read, watch, listen to, touch, and smell the corporate media from now to eternity without ever suspecting this simple, crucially important (though scandalously unprofitable for Exxon and Ford) fact. For a quarter of a century, scientists like Amory Lovins have tried to close this curious gap between the real world and the world according to the New York Times and CNN, between the greenhouse views of independent experts, the National Academy of Sciences, and the U.S. Department of Energy on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the picture that emerges from a lifetime of assiduously reading the Christian Science Monitor. Still stung by our abysmal failure to close this gap, I was particularly interested in chapter 29 ("Publicize a Report or Academic Paper"). Before reading that chapter, I asked myself two questions: "Would it acknowledge the media's pro-corporate bias?" "Would it help me convince the media in my town to tell the truth about the greenhouse threat?" Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is NO. Instead, this chapter tells concerned scientists like myself to simplify their message, follow deadlines, use visuals, determine their goals, choose their audience, make numbers more meaningful by using comparisons . . .

"Study my book of tips," Salzman seems to be saying, "and all shall be well again." But Salzman's well-meaning tips try to cure brain cancer with aspirin. They fail to ask why reformers--unlike GE's PR pros--must wear pig costumes to get a fair hearing. The key problem, as each of Salzman's own examples suggests, is bias, not the failure of reformers to work hard enough, or skillfully enough, to get their message across. To bring about the needed changes, we need to ask an altogether different question than Salzman's: How can the power to mold public opinion be wrested from its self-appointed corporate guardians?

In sum, if you buy Salzman's argument that a better future hinges on dedicated and competent media work, his handbook will serve you well. If you reject his argument, you might wish to look up instead the best book ever written on the U.S. media: Upton Sinclair's forgotten The Brass Check (1919).

________________

A Representative Book Quote

 

Tips for Print Media Interviews

- Avoid wild rhetoric that's more suited for TV.

- Don't ignore questions. Newspaper reporters usually want more precise answers to their questions than do TV interviewers.

- Ask a reporter to read back a quote of yours only if absolutely necessary. Reserve this for extremely critical quotes.

- Print reporters are more likely to appreciate irony.

- Most print journalists will interview by phone, but you should dress conservatively for personal interviews.

- Sometimes a print journalist simply wants a response to some event over the phone. This type of story is called a "reaction piece." You can often predict when you will get such calls and have a statement ready to read, allowing you to deliver a precise quote.

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