Learning the Culture and Language of the Media.
by Yee, Jennifer A.
Community college professionals and mass media specialists have the
potential to establish symbiotic relationships that allow both to fulfill
their missions to serve the public good. In an era of increased accountability
for resource expenditures, educators may stretch their budgets by engaging
the mass media as willing and helpful partners in promoting the institutions'
identity, programs and services in the media's regular news coverage. Following
are some helpful insights on understanding the culture and language driving
the news media, with an emphasis on newspaper organizations.
CHARACTERISTICS OF COLLEGES WITH SUCCESSFUL MEDIA RELATIONSHIPS
Marketing smarts. Colleges that have successfully worked with mass media
understand that the media may help them not only to promote their programs
and services, but also to convey their college "identity" within the community
(Hastings, p. 8). Their board directors, chief executive officers, administrators
and public relations professionals work together to present information
consistent with the institutions' identity. It is important to note that
the relationships between higher education and media professionals generate
actual news stories that differ from advertising (paid air- or print-space)
and cost the college only the expense of their on-going public relations
efforts (Wallace, p. 42). College leaders are most successful when they
nurture their relationships with mass media whose audiences are similar
to the institutions' target markets (Daniel & Hastings, p. 1). The
size of the local news audience will also affect coverage, as colleges
are more likely to be covered in smaller markets.
Media-savvy professionals. Working with editors and reporters who always
need ideas for news stories, higher education practitioners may provide
media specialists with timely, accurate information about campus programs
or immediate access to faculty or administrators, especially when the reporters
need expert opinions about issues or campus controversies (Daniel, p. 16;
Raisman, p. 22).
WHAT MEDIA PROFESSIONALS VALUE
Helpfulness in doing their job. Journalists are "public servants [who]
provide the public with the truth" (Raisman, p. 23). The constitution protects
journalists' roles in investigating and publishing what they perceive to
be the truth (Raisman, p. 21). Providing access to key sources such as
college presidents, faculty and students allows them to do their job. Campuses
employing full-time public relations professionals may facilitate access
to these sources. The appearance of hiding or restricting the flow of information
through one spokesperson may prevent a journalist from obtaining the information
necessary to present a balanced story (Daniel, p. 16, 19; Thornton, p.
Honesty, accuracy and reliability. Journalists rely on their ability
to trust their information sources. The higher education professionals
who have consistently maintained open communication with the reporters
who cover their campus are more likely to receive balanced, fair coverage
in both good and bad times (Daniel, p. 19; Thornton, p. 29; Marquez, p.
35). By acknowledging the truth and consistently offering accurate information,
higher education professionals may build solid relationships with their
local news media.
Timeliness. Deadline pressures on journalists compel them to write stories
based on the information they gather by the daily deadline. Generally,
for a daily newspaper, the deadline for a current events story may be sometime
in mid-afternoon. Reporters who call college offices and leave messages
in the morning would benefit from being called back immediately if they
work for a daily paper (Thornton, p. 30). With the growing number of news
web sites, the competition to report stories first increases the pressure
on the reporter to gather information as quickly as possible.
Respect and ethics. While media professionals are often portrayed as
being "out to get" a person or organization, journalists work best with
those who are friends, in mutually beneficial relationships (Daniel, p.
19; Raisman, p. 21; Thornton, p. 29; Marquez, p. 35). These relationships
are governed by strict ethical standards and do not involve expectations
for returned favors (Daniel, p. 19). Ethics require journalists to seek
out and report balanced news stories, with confidentiality promised to
sources who may not otherwise speak because of feared repercussions. If
a story is not published, reporters and editors should not be blamed. The
college's story may be pushed aside in favor of a late-breaking incident
and perhaps published at another time (Daniel, p. 17).
NORMS THAT DRIVE MEDIA WORK
Business v. Editorial. Most news organizations are businesses. They
rely on advertising and subscriptions to generate the revenues that not
only pay for the operating expenses, but also make a profit for the organizations'
owners. Advertising and readership subscriptions are interdependent; that
is, the amount of readers determines how much the organization may charge
for its advertising. And so, the business side of the news organization
concerns itself with producing a news product that retains current readers
and attracts new ones. This same revenue-generating formula does not necessarily
apply to Internet news sites.
The editorial side of a news organization is usually what most people
envision when they think of the media. Editors and reporters keep abreast
of local, state, national and world news for late-breaking stories that
usually appear on the front page or as late-breaking news broadcasts. For
articles that do not need to be timely and are featured in local or life-style
sections, the editorial staff brainstorm stories that they believe will
be of interest to their audience. It is in this realm of news stories that
higher education may glean the most from successful relationships with
the mass media. Knowing the news media's audience and how their college
programs or services may benefit this audience, higher education professionals
may propose ideas for news stories to reporters and editors or producers.
If their relationship is good, a simple phone pitch or fax from the college
public relations professional to an editor may result in a story being
Newshole. A newshole is the amount of print-space or air-time available
to report the news. The size of the newshole is affected by the amount
of advertising, which not only takes up print-space, but also determines
the number of pages in the paper (how much the news organization can afford).
At a daily newspaper, the newshole changes each day, and editors and their
reporters are given a certain number of column inches to fill. The articles
that are printed are prioritized according to newsworthiness. Thus, reporters
not only attempt to complete a story by the press deadline, but they also
compete with other reporters to have their stories printed.
Readership. Journalists are responsible for reporting the truth, as
well as providing information and reading material of interest to the readership.
The demographics and size of the readership, or the newspaper's circulation,
greatly affects editorial priorities when filling the newshole. It is very
important to know the demographics of the news organization's readership
to see if it corresponds with the demographics of the audience you're trying
to reach (Hastings, p. 55).
UNDERSTANDING THE LANGUAGE THAT MEDIA PROFESSIONALS SPEAK
Understanding the journalistic jargon may help higher education professionals
to establish more effective working relationships. There are several types
of articles: the news story and the feature or human interest story. The
news story reports facts, particularly the 5 Ws: Who, What, When, Where,
Why (and How much). They begin with a lead paragraph that includes the
5 Ws, so that if the newshole is small, the entire story can be edited
to the first paragraph. When a news story is reported as the event unfolds,
it is considered breaking news. A news organization that reports a news
story before any other organization has scooped the story. A feature story
does not necessarily begin with a 5 Ws lead; rather it begins with a lead
that hooks you into the story, and it is a longer piece that provides insight
into a person, situation, program or event. Usually, the story will have
an angle that makes it of interest to the readership. A feature story on
a community college welfare-to-work program may be more interesting to
readers if the reporter focuses on a person with similar demographics to
Reporters and news editors spend years honing their ability to identify
a topic's newsworthiness, its timely relevance and appeal to readers. Well-written,
newsworthy news or feature articles make good copy, text that is interesting
and pleasurable to read. Higher education professionals who submit good
copy to editors in the form of press releases should be sure to write them
in the style that the news organization prefers. This ensures that the
punctuation, usage of numbers, abbreviations, etc. are consistent with
what the news organization already prints. Likewise, the higher education
professional who understands that a reporter needs enough lead time--time
to cover a story before the deadline--will win fans in the newsroom.
In essence, establishing positive collegial relationships with news
media specialists requires not only the ability to maintain open communication,
but also an understanding of the culture, norms and language that the media
uses. When viewed this way, the mutually beneficial relationships between
higher education and the mass media occur as a result of cross-cultural
exchanges, and if all goes well, friendships.
This digest is drawn from "Building Successful Relationships Between
Community Colleges and the Media." New Directions for Community Colleges,
Number 110, Clifton Truman Daniel and Janel Henriksen Hastings, Eds., Jossey-Bass:
San Francisco, Summer, 2000.
Daniel, C.T. The Importance of Being Honest: Building Relationships
Between Media and College Personnel. (pp. 13-19).