Monday, November 08, 2010

Are you an accidental broadcaster? How not to get caught making unintentional news

Many interviewees and speakers blame the questioner when they get caught hook, line and sinker by saying something that misfires. Had to be the fisher's fault: that darn reporter, the persistent member of Congress, or a seemingly innocent audience member reeled them in.  But in reality, if you share without first thinking through the impact of your words or where they might wind up, you're helping to set the trap.  Even ordinary conversations can make unintentional announcements out of your words. Here are three of the many common ways you might be baiting the hook on which you'll get caught later--all worth preparing yourself for:
  • When the hook is shaped like a conference microphone: I can't count high enough to tell you how many times I've attended a conference session and heard the speaker share with the room something that's not public, shouldn't be public or wasn't planned to be made public.  Too many speakers mistake the intimacy of a conference room and a live audience for privacy and confidentiality. Last week, in an unusual twist, I watched a reporter do it in a room that included lots of other reporters among the listeners. But any speaker can get caught if she's too relaxed and chummy and wants to show what she knows in front of a jury of her peers. Think through what's off your list to share before you step to the mic.
  • When someone casts a wide net and you jump into it: Casting a wide net's a great way to catch many fish, and reporters do it all the time.  But are you helping to cast a net and then jumping right into it?  That's what happens if you speculate when you know you shouldn't.  In this very good postmortem about last week's coverage of a new option for lung cancer screening, the American Cancer Society's David Sampson looks at whether news organizations included several strong caveats about the coverage--caveats that were among the announcement's goals. One doctor gave a carefully nuanced interview, but eventually said,“There is a possibility that the American Cancer Society will recommend this as a screening test in the near future."  A measured, repeated "It's far too early to speculate" or "I don't know enough right now to say that" (if that's indeed the case) would have yielded perhaps less coverage, but fewer regrets.  The speculation helps that elusive approved test becomes the story now and in the future.  This happens routinely in the gap between research and policymaking, so put it on your prep list for those situations in particular.
  • When you forget about the other fish in the sea:  Having spent some time on trains this weekend, I was chatting with a security expert with a nice big booming voice who was getting into some of the finer points of his work--and only after 15 minutes said, "I should probably look around and see who's on this train."  It reminded me about a couple of health policy researchers I know who chatted away about as-yet-undisclosed findings on the train north to New York. They didn't realize that a health economist they knew was seated just ahead, taking notes; later that day, he shared the news with the New York Times editorial board and stole their thunder.  Your one-on-one conversations are rarely completely private: Think hallways, stairwells, while you're moving from one meeting room to another or waiting for a program to start.  Looking around you isn't foolproof, either. I've sat next to people on trains and planes who shared all sorts of useful information because they assumed it wasn't useful to me, based on appearance and a lack of knowledge of my background and connections.
Where else have you heard people become accidental broadcasters? Share your stories in the comments, and if you or your experts need training on this kind of interview skill, email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz.

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