I’ll let you in on a little secret: reporters are human beings.
They have thoughts and feelings, they just aren’t supposed to express them publicly.
I recently left the news business and now feel liberated to spill my guts. Because many of my dear friends are members of the press and I don’t want to put their integrity at risk by somehow implicating them, I’m choosing to share two stories that happened to me more than a decade ago. Coincidentally, these two people (one from each side of the aisle, I might add) ran against each other for Vice President in 2008.
Before I take this walk down memory lane, one very important note: reporters are often treated like dirt. Usually, it’s simply because people get nervous around them or are suspicious of their intentions. When people get nervous or suspicious, they become distant and/or rude.
Imagine spending your days on the receiving end of such treatment. It isn’t fun. So when someone is nice to you… well, read on:
Case Study 1: Joe Biden
My first job out of college was as a reporter at WBOC-TV in Salisbury, Maryland in 2001. Our viewing area included southern Delaware, which, at that time, was represented by U.S. Senator Joe Biden.
On September 11, 2001, the world was thrown into chaos. Days later, I was assigned to do a live interview with Biden outside of a town hall meeting.
I’d never done a live interview before. My photographer, Chrissy, had never run the live truck before. We were both terrified. And for good reason – it was a disaster.
We were supposed to hit at the top of the 6 p.m. show, but we couldn’t get the live truck to work. We missed slot.
In TV news, it is better to commit first-degree murder in order to make your deadline than to miss it. Just the thought of missing slot gives me a panic attack. I still have nightmares.
At this point, Senator Biden could have just walked away. That is what most other people in his position of power would have done, and they would not have been pleasant about it.
They would have voiced their displeasure loudly and rudely, and likely reduced Chrissy and me to tears. I’ve seen it happen. Many times.
Not Joe Biden. For the next 30 minutes, while we scrambled to get the live truck to work and got chewed out by our boss back in the newsroom, the senior U.S. Senator from Delaware stood next to us. Calmly. Patiently. Graciously.
Finally, at 6:25 p.m., we got the live truck to work. Our producer squeezed us into the final block of the show. When I got the cue to go live, I was so nervous I was shaking. I thought I was going to throw up.
I asked Senator Biden one question and he talked for two minutes, filling the entire news slot. All I had to say after that was, “back to you” and it was over. He shook my hand and told me I’d done a good job.
The kindness and courtesy he showed two young, green TV news women still brings tears to my eyes, all these years later. I will always be grateful to him for helping me through such a significant moment in my career. My first live interview. Trust me – it’s a big deal.
Throughout the rest of my news career, whenever I had editorial power over what stories went into a newscast, I’ll admit it: I gave him a break. Obviously, if there was a glaring issue that the public needed to know about, I reported on it. But if there was a choice between “Joe Biden Does Something Silly” or “Generic Politics Story”, I was more likely to go with the second option.
Does that make me a horrible journalist? I hope not. I think it just makes me a human being, like every other journalist out there covering the news today.
Case Study #2: Sarah Palin
Before Sarah Palin landed on the national stage, she was the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. At the time, I was a reporter at KTUU-TV in Anchorage. My beat was the Mat-Su Valley, which included Wasilla, so I spent a lot of time there and covered many stories there.
Whenever I got in a bind (which is a common occurrence in TV news), Sarah Palin would swoop in and save the day. As she rose through the ranks of state politics, that never changed. She was always available.
I vividly remember covering a political story that no politician wanted to touch. My deadline was breathing down my neck, and I was desperate for an interview. Sarah answered her cell phone on the first ring, met me in a gas station parking lot five minutes later, and stood out in the rain to give me an interview. She didn’t use an umbrella and didn’t bat an eyelash.
She was always friendly and cordial. Of course, she’s beautiful, so male photographers never missed a chance to interview her. She just had a way of making you feel special.
She and Bristol once left me a voicemail, telling me how much they loved my new haircut. It sounds corny, but it worked. I was so flattered.
And that, my friends, is the secret sauce. Small gestures that add up over time. A friendly phone call to offer up a compliment. Being available at the drop of a hat. Standing in the rain.
Pretty soon, reporters are putty in your hands. They like you. They feel indebted to you. And they don’t want to burn you, because they don’t want to risk losing their low-hanging fruit. So they’ll choose the soundbites that make you look good. Subconsciously or not – it just happens.
That’s how you end up all over the airwaves winning over hearts and minds.
I left Alaska in July 2005, before Sarah Palin was elected governor and things got a little messy. I’ll just leave it at that.
In summary, both of these case studies reveal a very simple truth: reporters are human beings. Treat them how you’d like to be treated. Be nice to them and they’ll be nice to you.
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