Handling the Media

by Jennifer Stenhouse

How does the media work?

It helps to understand how the media works before you engage with it. To this end, there are a few general points it’s as well to remember:

  • Media outlets are businesses – it’s all about ratings, clicks and sales
  • Viewers/readers/listeners are effectively consumers
  • Each media outlet has a target market, or audience, that it serves.

Stories will be handled and presented differently across the media, depending on the outlet. Different areas of the media work in different ways, but they all love and respect one thing above all – a good and authentic communicator. And all journalists, producers and even bloggers are after the same thing – a good story.

News is the first rough draft of history.

Ben Bradlee, former editor Washington Post

Yes, a story, which means a tale that’s at the very least interesting, and hopefully totally gripping. Only gripping stories sell, and only running gripping stories have the stickiness that’s the Holy Grail in the ratings war.

Do I have news...?

Most people will engage with the area of the media that concerns news provision; that’s if they get involved with the media at all. Many of you will be asked for a reaction to a story; others will want to proactively place a story. There must be a reason for doing a news story. News is usually something that has just happened. If you are pitching a story and this is not the case, a reason or peg has to be manufactured. A commonly-used peg is an anniversary. Or you may be able to relate the story to something else that is current.

Many stories are in the media because organisations and individuals want to let the public know what they are doing. They are, in effect, advertising.

You may be wondering whether what you have to say is newsworthy or not, whether the media would be interested. You might often have asked: ‘But what makes news?’ or ‘Who says something is news?’

As to who decides, that’s usually down to the editorial policy of the individual publication or programme, which is something that may have just evolved or may have been a conscious policy decision.

News is people.

Harold Evans, former editor of The Sunday Times

There are many different definitions of news, but generally it boils down to people – people doing things or having things done to them. The celebrated former Sunday Times editor, Harold Evans, is often quoted as saying ‘News is people.’ It’s a fact that news organisations will always judge a story by what it means to ‘the ordinary person in the street’.

Some of the top stories will include a combination of recognised elements, but within a basic structure. It’s a bit like a pizza: there’s an infinite combination of toppings.

Ingredients of news

Each story must be relevant to the media outlet’s target audience and have what’s known in the trade as a ‘peg’. This is a reason for doing the story. It may be that the story is about something that has just happened, but if it isn’t immediate or current, it might be hooked onto an anniversary or another current event.

  • People will generally figure prominently, whether celebrities, politicians, heroes, children, underdogs or villains.
  • Someone’s position will always be important: for example, people in business, politics or society and religious leaders all carry weight in a journalist’s assessment of a news story.
  • Scandals rate highly, whether they are to do with sex, money or the abuse of power.
  • Then there’s conflict. Wars make big news of course, but so do business and environmental battles and disagreements.
  • Death or murder often follows conflict. Also newsworthy are disasters, such as floods, famine and earthquakes.
  • Less negative elements might include the unusual, such as rare weather events. Extremes – the first, last, biggest or smallest – are often reported.
  • The British especially love animals, but they’ll also feature prominently in any country where animal rights are an issue and pets are commonplace. Stories about cruelty, bravery or campaigns are all fair game.
  • And finally, the new is newsworthy – innovation, initiatives or discoveries.

Even with a number of these ingredients, some stories will fail to make it into the media. Be aware of what else is going on in your immediate circle and the wider world. By the afternoon of September 11, 2001, there was only one story the world was interested in...