Helping the News Media Cover Family Planning

Helping the News Media Cover Family Planning

Bryant Robey

To make informed choices about family planning, women and men need accurate information in the media as well as in the clinic. The media are looking for news important to the millions of people they reach each day. Thus helping the news media cover family planning fully and accurately merits the efforts of every family planning program.

Family planning programs often have opportunities to make the news because they affect large numbers of people, reflect changing social attitudes and practices, involve government leaders, and deal with controversial issues. Many journalists, however, know little about family planning, and other topics compete for their time and attention. Most family planning programs, for their part, have made little effort to encourage informative, accurate news coverage.

Effective news media relations has many benefits, complementing other communication efforts. What people read, see, or hear in news coverage can lend credibility to family planning and help to make it a legitimate and familiar topic for public discussion. News coverage can inform people about family planning choices and help them ask providers appropriate questions. Skill in media relations can help avoid or dispel rumors, respond to criticism, defuse controversy, and even turn adversity to advantage. News coverage is crucial to engaging policymakers’ attention and earning opinion leaders’ support. Also, because the news media pay distribution costs, helping journalists cover family planning is a cost-effective way to communicate.

Developing Good Working Relationships

How can family planning organizations develop good working relationships with journalists in radio, television, and print? By building a news media relations program, staffed by professionals with support from senior management, that becomes an integral part of the organization’s outreach. An effective program links the family planning organization with journalists, and it represents the interests of each to the other. Providing accurate and newsworthy information builds credibility and trust, which leads to better coverage.

Like other communication efforts, working with the news media is done best when it is based on a strategy and follows a systematic process. A good strategy seeks opportunities to match the goals and objectives of the organization with the interests of journalists. As in other communication strategies, assessing the needs of the audience–journalists–is important to reaching them effectively.

The most important task of media relations is to find newsworthy information and to present it to journalists accurately and in ways that they can use. Most organizations that work well with the news media rely on proven techniques, methods, and materials. These include:

* Providing accurate, timely, and interesting information;

* Collecting and analyzing information about the news media’s interests and needs;

* Producing news releases, feature stories, opinion pieces, newsletters, and other readily usable material;

* Preparing press kits, fact sheets, experts lists, and other aids for journalists;

* Presenting story ideas to journalists, and responding to their requests for information and assistance;

* Arranging and assisting with news conferences, site visits, and other events that interest the news media;

* Helping journalists make contact with program staff, including arranging interviews; and

* Dealing with opposition and public controversies when they arise, and countering false rumors.

For each organization the mix of these activities depends on the interests of the news media, the goals of the organization, and the resources available. The need for skillful, credible news media relations remains constant, however. An organization that develops a professional approach to working with the news media, applies this approach consistently, and maintains high standards can obtain accurate, more extensive coverage of family planning in the news media and so better serve the public interest.

The News Media and Family Planning Programs

The spread of television and radio, the rise of an independent press, and increasing literacy rates in many countries offer new opportunities for family planning and other health-care organizations to inform the public and reach opinion leaders (55). Making the most of these opportunities requires skill in helping the news media cover family planning. News media relations professionals use proven processes and approaches to encourage accurate coverage of family planning and other reproductive health information and issues.

The Reach of the News Media

The news media reach more people than ever before. In developing countries the number of radio sets is estimated at over 1 billion in 1994 (11). In many developing countries, more than 9 households in every 10 have radios (11). Ownership of television sets is much less widespread but has risen dramatically. In the 1980s the number of television sets in developing countries doubled and has nearly doubled again since 1990 to an estimated 686 million in 1994 (11, 28). Where television is available, it reaches enormous audiences. For example, in Egypt 82% of women watch television every day (55); in Bangladesh about 75% of city dwellers watch television at least once a week (42).

While newspapers reach fewer people than radio and television, nonetheless newspapers attract millions of readers daily in some developing countries–for example, about 22 million in India, 3.7 million in Indonesia, and 3 million in Turkey (71). In the Philippines more than 70% of women read a newspaper at least once a week (54). In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, 90% of men and 71% of women read a newspaper at least once a week (75).

The Importance of News Media Relations

Family planning communication programs have long recognized the importance of working with the news media (30, 67, 76). In 1972 the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) urged family planning programs to pay regular attention to providing information to journalists in addition to films, radio spots, advertisements, and other communication (30).

Working with the news media is important because news coverage is often people’s first source of new information. Also, news coverage helps confirm and reinforce the information that people receive about family planning programs from other sources, such as entertainment programs, brochures, field workers, family members, and friends (28). Particularly where the news media are independent of official control, people see them as credible, important sources of information (73).

Informing people and encouraging healthy behavior. With their broad reach and powerful influence, the news media can help to improve reproductive health practices. As people are exposed to new information, ideas, and values–such as using contraception to control their fertility–many become increasingly aware and interested and, eventually, some decide to take action. At each stage in this process communication plays a key role (55, 76). News coverage can contribute at each step:

* Knowledge stage. Awareness of new information is the first step toward new behavior. News and feature stories can make people aware of the benefits of family planning and of the existence of contraceptive methods and services and can help overcome myths and false rumors.

* Persuasion stage. Frequent news coverage helps legitimize family planning, both as a practice and as a topic of conversation. Feature stories about field workers or family planning users can present role models.

* Decision stage. News coverage helps people make informed choices about using contraception based on expert opinion and others’ experiences.

* Action stage. News and feature stories can inform people about how to take action, such as how to use contraceptive methods, where and when to go for services, and how much they cost.

* Confirmation and advocacy stage. Coverage in the news media can reinforce individual decisions to adopt family planning and can serve as a forum for members of the public and opinion leaders to endorse family planning and offer testimonials from personal experience.

Influencing policymakers. Accurate news coverage often helps family planning and other reproductive health care programs earn the support of national policymakers (29). Their commitment is important on both the supply and demand sides–to assure the resources to provide services and to endorse popular interest in using them (60).

Policymakers follow the news media closely because the news both reflects and shapes popular opinion (52, 63). In many countries the news media set the agenda for public discussion and debate by deciding what issues to cover and how to report on them (65). By drawing a situation to public attention, the news media sometimes even seem to create events rather than just report them (64).

Policymakers pay attention to stories with such headlines as:

* “Poor Lands’ Success in Cutting Birth Rate Upsets Old Theories” (The New York Times, January 2, 1994);

* “Refugee Centre Sits on Population Time Bomb” (The Mail, Ghana, July 5, 1994);

* “Who’ll Have to Pay? The Cost of Dealing with AIDS in Asia Will Run into the Billions” (AsiaWeek, November 1993).

Total Family Planning Communication

Good communication is everyone’s responsibility. Not only public information professionals but also top managers and other key staff in an organization can benefit from understanding the principles of effective media relations.

Working with the news media should be part of the overall communication effort of most family planning and other health-care organizations. Many family planning communication campaigns reach audiences directly, with messages designed to enable and encourage healthful attitudes or behavior. In such campaigns, organizations ideally determine which audiences should be addressed, develop appropriate messages, and decide the channel, format, and timing of the communication (55).

In contrast, when working with the news media, organizations do not control the messages. Instead, journalists make these decisions based on criteria of newsworthiness and appeal to their audience. Nevertheless, adding a news media relations component to other communication activities is vital because it can increase their reach and credibility. Moreover, the cost to family planning programs can be modest because the news media pay the production and distribution costs (2, 21).

Building a News Media Relations Program

Almost all organizations that receive regular, accurate news coverage practice good news media relations. Developing a successful media relation’s program requires gaining the firm support of senior management, clearly defining responsibilities, and establishing strong links with journalists (16).

Support from Senior Management

Support from senior management is crucial to the success of any media relations program. Senior managers determine how much information is released, how much help the organization provides to journalists, and, in general, whether journalists are treated as allies or as adversaries. Senior managers set a tone that determines how journalists perceive the organization–how accessible and cooperative it is.

“If management thinks of the [news media relations] operation in a small way, then it will occupy a small place in the scheme of things, and its contribution will be small. If management thinks it is important, then it will occupy a prominent place, and its contribution will be significant,” explain Scott Cutlip and colleagues (16).

Only senior management can ensure that the news media relations function is integrated into the organization and that news media relations staff have the necessary access and resources to interpret the work of the organization to journalists promptly, accurately, and authoritatively (36). Chances of success are greatest if the chief news media relations officer reports directly to the head of the organization.

A Well-Defined News Media Relations Function

Most organizations assign responsibility for news media relations to a separate unit. Often, this unit is part of a department that also has responsibility for other external relations and publicity. In small organizations media relations may be the responsibility of only one or two people, who may also have other duties, such as editing a newsletter, assembling the annual report, or publishing research reports. The structure often depends on whether the unit is part of a government ministry or department, a nongovernmental organization, or a private business.

Typically, most organizations that provide public services, such as family planning programs, include the words “public information” in the title of their news media relations unit. Many private organizations use the term “public relations,” instead. Their connotations differ:

Public information: Informing the public.

Public relations: Promoting a favorable public image.

While in practice both functions involve similar activities, they have different purposes, and the news media may perceive them differently. Journalists typically view a public information unit as a legitimate part of providing public services but distrust public relations because of its air of self-interest (16). Naturally, journalists value their independence and do not want to be “used” to promote or publicize an organization if its activities are not newsworthy (45). Thus public service organizations need to distinguish news media relations from advertising and promotional activities.

Whatever the type of organization, the principles and practice of effective media relations are similar. The basic responsibilities of a news media relations unit are to:

* Develop and maintain good working relations with journalists;

* Determine the interests and needs of the news media (see pp. 10-11);

* Produce news releases, feature stories, opinion pieces, newsletter copy, and other newsworthy information for radio, television, and print media;

* Prepare press kits, fact sheets, experts lists, and other materials for journalists;

* Arrange and assist with news conferences, site visits, interviews, and other contacts with journalists.

To meet these responsibilities, public information staff need communication skills, good judgment, and knowledge of their organization. It is useful to have experience working with–or even in–the news media in order to appreciate the principles of news judgment and to convey them convincingly to the leadership of the organization. Media relations practitioners also should be personable, flexible, and able to work quickly and keep calm in a crisis (16, 19).

Links Between the Organization and the News Media

Personal contact with journalists is key to effective media relations. An important job of a news media relations unit is to represent the organization to journalists, and journalists to the organization. This linking role has been described as that of a mediator or “person in the middle” (16). Playing this role well requires that news media relations staff maintain two different perspectives at once–that of the organization and that of the news media.

Just as most family planning organizations need news coverage to achieve their communication objectives, the news media benefit from the assistance of family planning organizations. Few journalists specialize in family planning or reproductive health (7). Most face tight deadlines, constant pressure, and difficult working conditions (see box, p. 8).

Organizations can help journalists to identify newsworthy topics, obtain access to sources, and prepare interesting stories. These activities benefit both the journalists and the organizations themselves by generating more coverage and more accurate reporting. Working effectively with the news media is largely an exercise in seeking and supplying useful, factual, and timely information that journalists will consider and use as the basis for their stories. They are most likely to use information that offers a good story, is easy to understand, and arrives at the right time.

Developing effective relationships. The key to developing good working relationships with journalists is to establish credibility. Credibility begins with being accurate and honest with the news media at all times (16, 22). Over time, credibility earns the trust of journalists. Once an organization develops a reputation for trustworthiness, journalists are more likely to seek out its staff as sources of fact and opinion, to have confidence in what they say, and to cover their activities (45).

Honesty [right arrow] Credibility [right arrow] Trust [right arrow] Coverage

In contrast, attempts to “manage” the news media–for example, by withholding information, issuing self-promotional material, or trying to deny access to an unfriendly reporter–undermine the organization’s credibility. As the National Association of Science Writers in the US advises: “In acting as an intermediary between an institution and the media, the public relations person serves that institution best by aiding the flow of news and information rather than by attempting to control it”(45).

Mediating differences. In their linking role, public information specialists sometimes mediate differences between journalists and the organization. Adversarial relationships develop from time to time because the interests of journalists differ from those of the organization (16). For example, journalists often seek to reveal sensational or negative aspects of a situation (9), while most organizations seek to avoid controversy. Thus staff may hesitate to be forthcoming, fearing that they will be misquoted or have their work discussed unfavorably in public (45).

In some organizations the leadership may expect the media relations staff to prevent journalists from writing or airing negative stories. This expectation is unrealistic, of course, because journalists are beyond the organization’s control. Adverse stories may appear no matter how skilled an organization’s media relations staff is (see p. 26). Also, in some organizations the leadership sometimes asks the media relations staff to publicize events and information that have little news value. This practice, if done regularly, can damage credibility with the news media.

When tensions mount, good judgment and experience help media relations staff mediate between the interests of the organization and those of the news media. No matter how difficult the situation becomes, the best policy usually is to remain open, cooperative, and professional.

Developing A Strategy

A news media relations strategy matches the goals and activities of an organization with the interests of journalists. Much of encouraging news media coverage is spontaneous and opportunistic. Like other communication activities, however, a news media relations strategy can be carried out best when it follows a systematic process (41,55).

The P Process, which the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs applies in communication projects worldwide, is a useful approach for planning and carrying out communication activities systematically (55) (see illustration, this page). The P Process was designed for communication projects that address audiences directly, whether the general public, family planning clients, or other groups. Still, the approach also can help organizations working with journalists by making news media relations activities more systematic, focused, and responsive to feedback.


Each of the steps of the P Process can be adapted to working with the news media:

1. Analysis. An assessment of the status of the news media and their audiences provides basic information about the news media’s ability to help an organization reach its communication objectives. Analysis of coverage in the news media reveals the frequency, accuracy, and quality of reporting on family planning, reproductive health, population, and related topics. Analysis helps organizations learn how the news media, policymakers, and the public view the organization and the issues it deals with.

Needs assessment can identify the subjects that interest journalists and the barriers to effective reporting. In Bangladesh, for example, a 1992 assessment of journalists’ needs involved in-depth interviews with key editors, reporters, and family planning public information officers and focus-group discussions with rural journalists. The assessment found that journalists were interested in family planning and population issues and thought them important but had limited access to information sources and assistance in covering these topics (34).

2. Strategic Design. A family planning program should decide on the key communication objectives that it seeks to achieve in working with the news media–for example, whether to inform the country’s leaders about the importance of reproductive health for the nation, to combat false public rumors, to promote informed choice of methods, or another purpose (76). The more specific the objectives of a news media relations strategy, the better its activities can be focused (19).

Programs then should determine the message themes that can best achieve the objectives. Such planning helps ensure that the right materials go to the right people at the right place at the right time (19).

3. Development, pretesting, and production. This step involves pretesting specific messages and materials with the intended audience and revising as indicated to make them more effective. Pretesting obviously is difficult when journalists are the audience, and inappropriate with fast-breaking news stories. Nevertheless, whenever possible, people with experience as journalists should review media relations materials or activities for newsworthiness and effectiveness of proposed formats, writing style, and tone.

4. Management, implementation, and monitoring. Contacting journalists, developing newsworthy ideas and materials, creating events that interest journalists, distributing news releases, preparing useful background information, responding to requests for information, and setting up interviews are among the main activities used to carry out a news media relations strategy.

Monitoring the outcome of news media relations activities helps programs to compare accomplishments with objectives and to revise the strategy or its implementation. Setting up a systematic and continual means of studying the news media, primarily by clipping, or cutting, newspaper articles and monitoring newscasts, will help the organization follow the news and see opportunities for obtaining coverage as well as measure results.

5. Impact evaluation. In this stage organizations can review the impact of the news media relations program and apply the lessons learned to planning further activities. In addition to review of clippings, one approach is to survey journalists, policymakers, or the public formally or informally. What story ideas have been used? How accurate have stories been? While it may be difficult to attribute changes directly to news media relations, such evaluation helps to link these activities both to changes in news coverage and to the effects of that coverage on public opinion and knowledge.

Planning for continuity. News media relations, like communication in general, is a process. Building good working relationships takes time, and getting results takes persistent effort. Individual journalists come and go, programs change, and new needs arise. Throughout, the public demand for news and information persists. A professional approach, high standards, and commitment to the public interest, applied consistently over time, can help an organization meet its communication goals and advance the cause of family planning and good reproductive health.

How To Tell the Family Planning Story

In media relations the most important task is to find stories that interest journalists. Many family planning events and issues make the news when they have a big impact on people’s lives, reflect new developments or major changes, involve national and community leaders, or deal with controversial issues. Not all family planning and health stories are newsworthy, of course. As Michael Pertschuk has observed, “the first task of the media advocate–and perhaps the first task of the health educator–is to recognize a good story and know how to market it. But the greatest art of the media advocate is to recognize a nonstory–and transform it into a story” (51).

By finding and supplying journalists with information that fits their criteria for news, you meet their needs and advance your own communication goals (52). Many family planning stories–more than most people think–have potential news value. Here are some examples:

* New people. “Noted physician to head health program.”

* New services. “Ministry launches rural health initiative.”

* New policies. “Program to provide condoms for youth.”

* New contraceptives. “Injectables become available here.”

* New hours. “Clinics open weekends to meet rising demand.”

* New data. “Number of rural clients sets record.”

* New funding or resources. “Leading bank donates mobile vans.”

* New trends. “More couples postponing births, survey shows.”

* New ideas. “Community discussion groups spark interest in family planning.”

What is news? In his manual News Writing, Jawadur Rahman, an editor of the Bangladesh Observer, defines news simply and elegantly as “an account of an event that interests people” (see box, p. 10) (56). M. Lyle Spencer, former dean of the Journalism School at the University of Washington, defines news more formally as “any event, idea, or opinion that is timely, that interests or affects a large number of people in a community, and that is capable of being understood by them” (53).

While there is no single definition of news, all news stories contain at least one, and usually several, of the following elements–immediacy, proximity, consequence, and human interest–and often deal with trends, important people, and conflict or controversy (9, 13, 28, 40, 52, 56, 67).

Immediacy. To be newsworthy, an event must be new. “Old news is no news,” as the saying goes. Immediacy probably is the most important element of news (56). One way to give family planning stories immediacy is to link your organization’s activities to a prominent current event, such as the visit of a president, the opening of a clinic, the release of a report, or the achievement of a milestone.

Family planning programs can anticipate some events well in advance because they occur on a regular basis–for example, World Population Day, July 11. Others, such as the launch of a new project or service, are within the control of your organization. The release of new survey results or a publication or the introduction of a new contraceptive method also offer immediacy. You can take advantage of these opportunities by being ready–having materials prepared in advance and contacts with the news media well established.

Proximity. People tend to be more interested in events near to them than those that happen far away. “Contraceptive methods, the impact of population growth on society–these are new things,” Kenyan journalist Hilary Ng’Weno has observed. “The question is whether you can relate them to topical events within your country and hang them on a peg that makes it possible for journalists to use them” (46).

Because of the news value of proximity, reporters usually are interested in finding a “local angle” to an international story. Thus international conferences convened periodically by the United Nations on such topics as women’s status, population and development, and the environment offer opportunities for organizations to relate these far-away events to local circumstances and people. You can find clients or staff members to be interviewed or point to the local impact of a global issue. Journalists need the local angle at the same time that they are covering the international story, however, not the following week (53).

Consequence. The more consequential an event, trend, or issue is to their audience, the more likely journalists are to consider it newsworthy. For example, “if five people in a village migrate to a city, it is hardly news. But if 50 people out of a population of 500 leave their homes in search of greener pastures, it certainly makes a news story” (44). Family planning and population issues often have powerful demographic, economic, social, and environmental consequences that make them newsworthy. Highlight these consequences in a way that people can understand. For example, in the Philippines a major national daily newspaper linked population growth and Manila’s traffic congestion in this interesting way:

Why Driving in Metro Manila Is Like Wriggling Through a Sardine Can

Manila. In all the discussions of Metro Manila’s traffic problem, one thing

is often overlooked by the experts: the basic fact that there are too many

people in the metropolis–and too little space to accommodate them. (The

Manila Times, February 9, 1995)

Striking statistics can capture consequence. For example, Population Reports drew headlines by pointing to the need for condoms in this graphic way: “By rough estimate, condoms were needed in more than 13 billion acts of sexual intercourse in 1990” (39). A good technique is to reduce statistics to a manageable size, as did The Philippine Journal News:

Manila. Three hundred infants die every day in the Philippines not by

starvation, disasters, or wars. The top killers are diarrhea, pneumonia,

measles, and other easily prevented or treated diseases. (The Philippine

Journal News, February 5, 1995)

Human interest. Few things are as compelling to an audience as the personal experience of someone like them. Journalists will appreciate interviewing family planning clients, program staff, and officials because such interviews generate human interest–for example, a man who has had a vasectomy, a couple who decided to space their next birth to protect their children’s health, or a father who decided that it is just as important for his daughter to go to school as for his son.

Trends. Most family planning programs can link their activities to trends in public health, population growth, or the country’s social and economic situation. For example, you can show how condom distribution has helped slow the spread of HIV/AIDS, how spacing births has helped to improve children’s health, or how a new contraceptive has enabled more women to avoid unintended pregnancies (53).

Release of survey findings offers the opportunity to highlight family planning. The Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), for example, reveal new attitudes, knowledge, and practices about family planning when compared with earlier data. The new findings are especially newsworthy when they contradict commonly held beliefs or provide new evidence of major changes in people’s lives.

Important people. Big names make news. When a high-level government official takes a public position on family planning, it usually makes the broadcast news and newspaper headlines. When you involve a film star in a program activity, the news media are more likely to cover it.

You also can generate news media coverage by asking public figures–political leaders, traditional chiefs, entertainers, socialites, religious leaders, authors, prominent business executives, and sports stars–to endorse your program or support family planning publicly. To do so, monitor the news media to identify sympathetic public figures, contact them, either directly or through a high-level intermediary, and ask them to help you. Offer to help them prepare for their appearance on your behalf (26).

Conflict and controversy. Whether you like it or not, your organization probably will become embroiled in a public controversy at one time or another. Often, family planning organizations think that such conflict is always bad for them. In fact, sometimes it can promote informed choice by attracting journalists’ attention and providing an opportunity for you to tell your side of a story, thus informing the public and gaining a broad audience (see p. 26).

Tools for Analysis

Learning as much as possible about the interests of the news media will help you to work with them effectively. Three activities provide the basic information that you need: monitoring stories and broadcasts; developing a media list; and obtaining information about news media outlets.

Monitoring Coverage

The best way to learn about the interests of journalists is to read, watch, and listen to what they report.

Collecting and analyzing press clippings. By selectively clipping the major newspapers regularly over a period of months, you can build a file on family planning, public health, and other topics of interest. Here are the basic steps to clipping the newspapers (59):

* Select influential, widely read newspapers.

* Scan each issue as soon as it appears and cut out the articles that interest you. If you let the papers pile up, it becomes difficult to catch up.

* On each clipping, write the date, name of periodical, and page it appeared on.

* Bring all important articles immediately to the attention of senior managers, other public information staff, and others affected. Then file them for future reference.

Analyzing these clippings will tell you much about who covers family planning, what they are saying, when and where such coverage occurs, and even why it occurs. You can analyze news media coverage in several ways: by who is covering family planning, by what subjects appear most often, by how prominently stories are placed in the newspaper, and by whether the media’s coverage is accurate or uninformed (59).

Over time, this information will reveal patterns that help you to anticipate coverage and to improve it. For example, if a particular reporter is consistently inaccurate, you can present facts that provide a basis for more accurate reporting (2). If a journalist provides family planning with consistent coverage, you could help the journalist by providing more information, scheduling interviews, and arranging site visits.

Monitoring radio and television. It is more difficult to analyze radio and television coverage because you must watch or listen to the news and either take notes or obtain and review audio or video tapes. It is worth the effort, however, given the importance of radio and television. Ask stations for tapes of programs that mention your organization or that cover topics of interest. Also, to the extent possible, monitor influential programs that often comment on economic and social issues and programs that you want to air your material so that you can learn more about their formats and interests.

Developing a Media List

When you have a story to tell, you need to know whom to contact, how to contact them, and the best time to do so (19). A comprehensive, up-to-date media list provides in a single place all of the information that you need to get in touch with journalists.

A media list should be as complete as possible, including not only names, addresses, and phone numbers of key contacts, but also each news media outlet’s circulation, language, and audience; publisher, key editors, reporters, or program directors; and publication or program deadlines. Also collect as much information as possible about preferred means of contact, copy and photo specifications, and other policies. Collect this information for:

* National and local newspapers, especially those whose editors and reporters are interested in public health;

* Radio and television stations;

* News wire services; and

* Specialized newsletters and magazines–medical journals, population and health reports, youth newsletters, and the like.

A telephone book often is the best source for starting a media list. In some places the local press association may provide a basic list (19). Monitoring the news media also provides basic information. If possible, telephone or visit each news outlet to obtain and verify current names, addresses, and telephone numbers. A personal visit also makes a contact with the news media and demonstrates your interest in their work.

Keep your media list up to date, reviewing it every six months or so. Because journalists change jobs and assignments often, it is important to monitor population and family planning coverage and to be alert to these changes (14). As you come to know journalists personally, you will learn of changes as a matter of course through your contacts with them. Be sure this new information is added to the media list.

Obtaining Background Information About News Media Outlets

Journalists’ working environment shapes the kind of stories they are likely to be interested in covering or even able to report. The news media outlet’s ownership also may affect coverage (see box, p. 8). Thus it is important to study the various newspapers and radio and television stations to determine their audience, ownership, editorial policy, and other important factors (67). Key questions include:

* Is the audience one that you want to reach?

* Is the outlet independent or controlled by the government?

* How much of the news is written by local reporters, and how much comes from wire or broadcast network services?

Knowing as much as you can about the policies and practices of the major newspapers and radio and television stations helps you implement your strategy efficiently. For example, if the news media are owned by the government and the government opposes family planning, you may choose to focus on health care, housing, the environment, and other issues that can be related to family planning. Also, if much of the news comes from local sources instead of from news services, this means that more space or air time is potentially available for stories from your organization.

Matching Your Message To the Medium

If you have a choice of news media, focus on those that best meet your communication goals. Adapt your message to the needs of the particular medium–whether radio, television, or print. Radio tells the story by sound alone. Television, a visual medium, is best suited to covering action and events. Newspapers can provide details, using photographs as well as words. Your material will have the best chance of being used if you adapt it to the needs of each medium and its various departments.

Whatever the medium, all messages for the news media should reflect a key, overall communication goal, or theme, of your organization. This practice helps build a central image and helps send a consistent message–for example, that family planning is important and valued. In effect, instead of presenting many different stories, your organization presents many parts of one story (2).


Because of their reliance on sound, radio programs always need articulate, knowledgeable people to interview–such as your executive director, medical staff, and certain clients and community members. You also can approach radio journalists with suggestions of people “on the street” to interview in connection with a story.

Most radio stations have a variety of program formats appropriate for family planning coverage. These formats include:

News. When preparing a story for radio news broadcast, make it as brief as possible. The more you can concentrate your message into capsule form, the more likely it will be used on radio news. Send tapes, news releases, and other materials to the assignment editor, who decides which stories are aired.

Radio news relies on the “sound bite”–a short, memorable summary statement that captures attention (2, 53). A good sound bite, which is the equivalent of a good quotation in the print media, is difficult to achieve but is an important media relations tool that will help generate coverage. “A bite can compress a group’s position in a quick, witty manner–capturing the attention of the media,” observe Michael Pertschuk and Phillip Wilbur (52).

Features. Radio stations sometimes broadcast features that offer a longer look at an issue or profile an interesting person. You can develop or draw the radio station’s attention to a feature that reports the personal experiences of clients, a step-by-step visit to a clinic, or portions of a training seminar on family planning, for example.

Talk shows and interviews. Talk shows have become popular in many countries. These offer an opportunity to promote public discussion of family planning and other health issues. Consider approaching talk show producers with program ideas and potential guests, including staff, clients, articulate supporters of family planning, and well-known public figures who are willing to state their views on the air (26).

Editorials. The broadcast of radio management’s opinion may carry considerable authority with listeners. You can suggest editorials about family planning. Support your case with the facts and the benefits to the audience. Also, if a radio station takes a different editorial position from the one you advocate, consider responding to it. Many stations will provide air time for opposing opinions.

Special events. These are on-the-spot “live” broadcasts of events that have news value–for example, a conference, a cabinet minister’s speech, the arrival of a foreign dignitary, the opening of a clinic. Help radio journalists prepare for these events by providing background material in advance, including information on the people involved and what you expect will happen (67).


Like radio, television offers a variety of program formats. In television, however, pictures tell the story. Television news relies heavily on events with lots of action, featuring on-location reporting (20).

The family planning story lends itself to the use of pictures. Whether positive–a counselor helping her client, or a healthy child and mother–or negative–an overcrowded slum or a polluted river–images capture viewers’ attention and arouse their emotions.

Getting the family planning story reported on television requires thinking visually. As with radio, television presents information quickly, so the message must be clear, pointed, and easy to understand. Many news media relations specialists, however, make the mistake of sending only printed news releases to television stations. To improve chances of coverage, also send photographs, slides, videotapes, charts and graphs, or ideas for filming possibilities along with the printed news release. Good photographs or graphics are often the main reason that a television station will use a story (45).

Television talk shows. In some countries television talk shows may offer opportunities to promote family planning. Since television talk shows often try to provoke controversy in order to attract audiences, however, be careful that a particular show is an appropriate forum in which you can air your message clearly and objectively (20, 21).

Newspaper Departments

In addition to reporting “hard,” breaking news, newspapers contain many different departments that serve readers’ interests. Editors of these departments always are looking for timely material that will appeal to their readers. Thus most family planning organizations can encourage newspaper coverage by providing a variety of materials for departments that readers enjoy. These include:

* Feature articles,

* Editorials,

* Letters to the editor, and

* Advice columns.

Also, rural and community newspapers and special-interest publications often are good outlets for information about family planning programs. In fact, many features and news items that larger, urban newspapers do not use are welcomed by smaller, rural newspapers because they usually have fewer staff and resources to devote to gathering news.

Feature articles. Many newspapers regularly publish feature articles about family planning and other health-care topics. Possibilities for feature articles can be found everywhere. Here are some feature ideas about family planning, based on questions that many people ask:

* Who is choosing vasectomy?

* What is it like to visit a family planning clinic?

* When is the best time to begin using contraception following a birth?

* Where can young people find information about reproductive health?

* Why do many couples space their births?

* How do contraceptive methods work?

Even familiar daily activities that program staff find unremarkable can be powerful feature material. For example, in Bangladesh thousands of family planning field workers visit villages every day to provide counseling and distribute contraceptives. To editors at The Baltimore Sun, these activities provided this feature:

Dhaka. When a 38-year-old villager named Anwara picks up her bag of family

planning materials and heads down the dusty alleyways of Pirojali, a

village of fruit orchards and rice paddies just north of this capital, she

is greeted with smiles and waves from many village women.

Not long ago, many of the women would have shunned Anwara. Enveloped by a

profoundly conservative, male-dominated culture that centers on their

Muslim faith, the women of Pirojali, like 75 percent of Bangladesh’s 120

million people, are mostly illiterate. But largely due to the efforts of

family planning workers like Anwara, nearly 60 percent of the Pirojali’s

women of child-bearing age use contraceptives…. (The Baltimore Sun,

September 25, 1994)

There are three ways to place feature stories in newspapers (67):

* Suggest a feature idea. Give your idea to only one newspaper at a time, however. A newspaper expects you to give the feature to it on a exclusive basis, not to all newspapers at the same time, as with a news release (see p. 17). Offer it elsewhere only if the first newspaper decides not to use it.

* Help a reporter develop a feature idea. If a reporter comes to you with a feature idea, give all the support and assistance possible. To honor the expectation of exclusivity, keep everything about the story confidential from other news media until the feature appears.

* Write the feature yourself. Many editors will accept feature articles written by contributors who are not on their staff. If such articles are written well and are filled with substance, not self-promotion, editors may use them. Offer the story to only one newspaper at a time.

When writing a feature article yourself for submission to a newspaper, it is essential to write it as a journalist would, to increase chances of selection. Most features are less immediate than news stories, but you should make the information as timely as possible to interest readers (45). Conflicts resolved, problems overcome, and such human emotions as joy, tenderness, and hope all have a place in the feature story (67). In a feature story the facts unfold throughout the body of the story rather than through the “inverted pyramid” of facts reported in news writing (see box, p. 10).

By studying feature stories that appear in the newspapers in which you are interested, you can learn the favored style (67). Also, the following guidelines will help you write features:

Lead. A quotation, a provocative question, or a short declarative sentence can make a strong feature lead. For example:

Nairobi. Anne Switi, a 28-year-old marketing executive, is in a dilemma.

Anne has to choose between her one-month-old baby and her career. (Daily

Nation, October 28, 1992)

Drama can make a good feature lead. In another article from the Kenyan Daily Nation, the reporter began a feature about training teachers to become good counselors in this way:

Nairobi. The class is so quiet that one could hear a pin drop as the course

participants and facilitators wait expectantly. In comes a “student”

sobbing and the “teacher” takes charge in a cool but firm manner that gets

respect and obedience.

Body. The body of the feature develops, elaborates, and explains the theme. It is best to use only one central theme in a feature. In writing the body, you want to present a problem as drama, show how it can be resolved, and show how the resolution can improve people’s lives.

Conclusion. Features often conclude with a dramatic climax, a memorable message, a summary of salient facts, or a restatement of the lead for emphasis. The feature story cited above about family planning in Bangladesh ends with this quotation from a senior health ministry official:

“We are already bursting at the seams,” Mr. Azizul said. “To think of 160

million people by 2005, and 250 million people by 2030, seems horrifying.

But if we can sustain our present successes, I believe we can stay out of

the quagmire. In any case, we simply cannot admit the possibility of

failure.” (The Baltimore Sun, September 25, 1994)

Editorials. Sometimes also referred to as an opinion piece, an editorial takes a position, clarifies a point, or urges action. Editorials, which can be written by the editor or publisher of a publication, often mirror viewpoints held by many of their readers (67).

How can you generate informed editorials about family planning? Editors do not want to be told what opinions to hold or how to express them, but many do want information upon which to base their opinions. To suggest material for an editorial, gather your facts, organize your information, and then telephone the editor for an appointment or send the material by mail or messenger. You can offer information about demographic trends, the impact of population growth on the economy or environment, the benefits of family planning, and other policy-related topics. You also may offer interviews with organization staff to provide background for editorials.

Whether or not an editorial appears as a result of your efforts is up to the editor. If an editorial appears, take time to thank its writer. Even if no editorial appears, you will have informed the editorial writers about family planning, and your effort may result in future editorials.

Many newspapers also invite guest editorials, or opinion pieces written by members of the community. This department of the newspaper provides an opportunity for you to raise public awareness and inform policymakers (19, 77). Editors seek well-written guest editorials that discuss current issues, suggest new ideas, and offer fresh views. In many countries guest editorials often discuss family planning and population, both favorably and unfavorably, particularly where some groups oppose family planning. The more controversial the issue, the more likely people are to submit guest editorials to newspapers, and the more likely readers are to be interested in them.

Especially where your communication objective involves reaching policymakers and informing public opinion, guest editorials can be a powerful medium. Your purpose should be to inform readers and to provide solutions to problems that they face. Since most readers will not be familiar with your topic, the article should be clearly written, positive in tone, and focus on how your ideas affect people (77). To be effective, keep the editorial short (typically no more than 750 words), deal with a single subject, take a point of view, and support this view with examples or research results.

Letters to the editor. Letters to the editor provide a forum for people to express opinions, give reactions, and make rebuttals. Consider writing a letter to the editor to set the record straight after an inaccurate or biased article has appeared; to point out the connection between a news item and family planning issues; to respond to differing points of view; or to praise and elaborate on an article with which you agree (19, 67). Whatever the purpose of your letter, its tone should be polite and restrained, and it should conclude with a positive point of view.

Letters to the editor should be brief, clear, to the point, and, above all, accurate. An inaccurate letter not only will create a bad impression but also may lead to a negative response from someone who is correcting your letter. Official letters should be on the letterhead of the organization and should be signed by the director, even though you or someone else may have drafted them.

In a public debate you can ask opinion leaders or citizens who support you also to write letters to the editor. Editors often gauge public opinion by the number of letters they receive. Because many radio and television stations keep track of feedback from listeners, letters can be influential there, too, even if they are never mentioned on the air. You can write to radio and television station managers giving your reactions to the programs that they air or to suggest that they run more programs on family planning issues.

Advice columns. Advice columns are popular and are often one of the best-read sections of newspapers (26). Readers with questions about topics related to childbearing, reproduction, and personal relationships may know of no other place to find accurate information, or they may prefer to pose their questions anonymously. While many newspapers do not have the resources or expertise to produce a regular advice column on reproductive health, they may be willing to print regular columns prepared by family planning staff. You can suggest the idea to editors, present a list of topics that could be covered, and even provide a sample column.

Rural and community newspapers. Rural newspapers are good channels for family planning news. They are written in the local language, and the information is disseminated in cost-effective ways. Sometimes even just a large blackboard in the middle of the village serves as a newspaper (67). Coverage about family planning in the rural news media can help efforts to encourage community support for family planning.

Many countries have rural news media. For example, Kenya’s Rural Press Project published its first rural paper in 1975. Today, rural papers flourish throughout the country and are expected eventually to reach more than 70% of the rural population (72). In Nigeria in the mid-1980s the president redirected development efforts into the rural areas by establishing, with the assistance of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission (UNESCO), Africa’s first chain of community-based newspapers, which focused on social issues including family planning (1).

To suggest stories for community and rural newspapers:

* Identify the information needs of the newspapers.

* Send news releases that relate to the area or that involve a local resident. The story should contain information that is relevant to the rural community.

* Ask field workers if they know of interesting people or activities to feature.

* Help local editors understand how important family planning is to their community. Ask them to take the initiative in providing family planning information, and offer your assistance (67).

Special-interest publications. Publications that serve a special audience, such as trade publications or the business press, look for stories that relate to their area of interest. For example, an economic or business paper would be interested in how population trends affect the economy. Tailor your story to meet the interests of the particular audience. Reading back issues will suggest what kinds of stories are likely to published.

Developing Materials That Interest Journalists

To attract the attention of journalists, develop materials that meet their need for news and information. For example, journalists are used to getting news releases, and releases often help journalists find important stories (13). Most journalists also welcome such materials as fact sheets, press kits, and experts lists (2, 45). Establishing an information center also can be an effective way to make materials available to the news media. Even your organization newsletter can generate news coverage if it meets professional standards.

News Releases

The news release is the mainstay of media relations–the most accepted and cost-effective way for family planning and other health-care organizations to reach journalists. A news release is simply information that you prepare for the news media as a “ready-to-run” story. If a news release contains real news and is well written, editors may print it almost unchanged.

Editors use only a small percentage of all releases that they receive. Thus applying news judgment is vital to generating coverage. If you find truly newsworthy events and draw them to the attention of the news media in well-written news releases, you and your organization will gain credibility. If, instead, you flood newsrooms with releases about insignificant events, your credibility will suffer, and journalists will be less likely to pay attention to your material in the future.

In the US a study found that news releases that had high acceptance rates compared with others were written in a simpler style, dealt with topics that were interesting to their audience, and focused primarily on the following types of stories: topics in the news, research findings, coming events, and consumer information (43).

Because most journalists are under deadline, they favor releases that are well written and so need little work on their part. A news release should be both concise and complete, emphasizing conclusions (45). Provide a strong lead and use the “inverted pyramid” form that journalists use in their own news stories. Use simple, direct language, not jargon. Journalists and their readers are not experts in family planning, health care, or population. Most will not know the meaning of such terms as “total fertility rate,” “focus-group discussions,” and “contraceptive prevalence.” Either explain such terms or use terms that readers will understand.

Do not be surprised, however, if your release is not printed exactly as you wrote it. While editors sometimes run a story as received, more often than not they rewrite it, add to it, cut it, or use it as part of a bigger story (26).

Appearance and distribution. What you have to say in your release and how you say it are most important, but the appearance and distribution of a press release also affect acceptance. For professional appearance, follow these guidelines (67):

* Type all news releases. Use standard paper. Doublespace the lines and leave margins wide enough to allow editors space to write.

* In the upper left corner on page 1, list your organization name, address, telephone number, a name (most likely, yours) as a contact for further information, and the date that the material may be released. Write “For Immediate Release” if the information may be used immediately, but also note the date of the release.

* While you should not expect to write a headline for the newspaper–since editors write headlines to fit the space available–you can write a headline to attract the editor’s attention.

* Keep the copy clean. Do not send news releases filled with erasures, words crossed out, or other signs of sloppiness.

* If your article takes more than one page, write “more” at the bottom of the page. On each succeeding page, write your organization name and the page number in the upper left corner. Indicate the end of the story by typing the symbol “#” or the word “end” after the last line.

* Include a short paragraph that describes your organization at the end of the release. Journalists often insert this information into the story.

How, where, and when you distribute your news release can affect its chances of gaining attention. In Ecuador, for example, the Centro de Estudios de Poblacion y Paternidad Responsable (CEPAR) sent news releases by fax rather than by mail. This approach caught journalists’ attention because it used a new technology as well as being quick. As a result, use of the releases increased. In fact, within the first three months of using the “fax informativo,” CEPAR received 31 letters from the news media applauding the faxed stories (49).

Here are some tips on distributing news releases (10, 19, 45):

* Send the news release to all news media outlets at the same time. This gives all interested journalists an equal chance to cover the story.

* Send the release to reporters who cover your area and to assignment editors and other “gatekeepers” who decide on or help determine what will be covered.

* If you send the news release to more than one person per news outlet, either write all of their names on the front of the release or attach a short cover note.

* If possible and appropriate, also include black-and-white glossy photographs for newspapers, audio tapes for radio stations, and video tapes for television. Identify the people and the situation portrayed. Because these materials can be expensive, it may be best to telephone first and ask whether the newspaper or station is interested.

* After you send your news release, it is a good idea to make a brief follow-up phone call to be sure that the journalist has received it and to answer questions about it.

* Consider hand-delivering the news release so that you can meet the journalist in person. Call in advance to set up an appointment. If the reporter is on deadline, offer to call back later.

* Keep copies of every news release or feature story that you write. Compare your news release with the printed version to learn how to write better news releases.

* Send copies to the news desks of wire services and other news services for regional, national, or international use–unless the story is of local interest only.

* Also send copies directly to policymakers and your colleagues. This will keep them informed of news and aware of your efforts even if stories do not appear in the news.

Fact Sheets

Every family planning organization should have a fact sheet that provides background on the organization’s mission and current activities. A fact sheet both helps to generate coverage and helps portray the organization accurately. A fact sheet usually is a 1- or 2-page publication that includes:

* The organization’s name, address, telephone numbers, and the names and telephone numbers of key contact people;

* Descriptions of the organization’s mission, clientele, and types of services;

* Names of officers and top staff; and,

* Sources of financial support and professional affiliations.

The fact sheet may also provide background information such as a history of the organization, accomplishments, projections of work to be accomplished, and key service statistics. Present the information clearly, simply, and as briefly as possible.

Press Kits

A press kit is a packet of materials that help journalists understand and cover your organization and its work and/or family planning and related health issues. Press kits can contain a variety of materials. The following often are included (19):

* Cover memo or letter,

* News release,

* Fact sheet on a newsworthy issue or event,

* Supportive comments from leaders,

* Press clippings from previous coverage of your organization,

* Reprints of relevant speeches or articles,

* Photographs of important people or program activities,

* Background information on population or family planning,

* Diagrams showing how contraceptives are used,

* Biographical sketches of key organization personnel,

* Annual report of the organization,

* Your business card.

A press kit has many uses. It can introduce your organization to journalists, provide technical information about family planning topics, and promote your organization at conferences and meetings. Press kits are essential at news conferences to provide background materials for journalists (see pp. 21-22).

Use press kits to tell the family planning story to journalists in a way that they will read and use in telling the story to their audiences. For example, in Nigeria the Family Health Services Project prepared and distributed press kits on family planning and population to more than 1,000 journalists throughout the country. These kits generated more than 300 articles over a 2-year period (37).

Experts Lists and Media Resources

Journalists work under tight deadlines. They need convenient access to facts and expert opinion. Journalists are more likely to check with credible, reliable sources if you have put experts’ names and telephone numbers at their fingertips. Also, in some countries organizations have established information centers or clearinghouses to improve journalists’ access to family planning stories.

Experts lists. What family planning and reproductive health activities and issues are most likely to make the news? New contraceptive technologies, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, demographic trends, population growth, economic progress, health care, and similar subjects often make the news. When they do, journalists want to talk to experts on these topics for background information, reaction, a local angle, statistics, or advice on how to cover the topic (2).

Are members of your staff knowledgeable about such topics? Are they willing to talk with journalists? Identify your organization’s experts on potentially newsworthy topics. If you think that they would be articulate in talking with the news media, obtain their permission to be included in an experts list for the news media.

For use as a reference, the list should be in booklet form that journalists can keep on their desks. The list should be organized by topic, with an alphabetical index by expert’s name as well. Give each expert’s affiliation and include a paragraph on his or her area of expertise. Provide both daytime and evening telephone numbers if the experts permit. At the beginning of the booklet, describe the purpose of the experts list and include your own name and phone numbers as a general reference. Keep the list up to date because journalists may call you if they cannot reach one of the sources. Issue revised lists periodically, both to update the listings and to reach new journalists.

Media resources. Many journalists and family planning organizations alike express a need for journalists to have better access to statistics, background information, and expert opinions on family planning and other reproductive health topics (19, 34). For example, in Brazil a 1995 symposium of journalists and reproductive health experts agreed that journalists are unprepared to cover reproductive health issues, while health professionals do not know how to work with the news media. Participants agreed that, to improve the situation, a better information network should establish links with the press and encourage accurate reporting (3).

It need not be costly or difficult to set up a media resource center, a clearinghouse, or a consortium of organizations that journalists can call on for information. The public information officers of these organizations may welcome such opportunities. Develop and distribute to the news media and all health organizations a list of public information contacts in family planning and reproductive health. Regularly update this list. If a journalist calls you for information and your organization is not the best source, refer the journalist to the best source (26).

Establishing a repository for population or reproductive health information, whether in an existing information center or within a population-related organization, can encourage informed coverage in the news media. In Peru, for example, an information clearinghouse was established in 1988 as part of an AIDS prevention campaign by the Ministry of Health. The clearinghouse collected and distributed news and research findings about the social, economic, and medical aspects of AIDS. Clearinghouse staff issued news releases, analyzed newspaper coverage of AIDS, and conducted seminars on AIDS for the news media. From August 1988 to April 1989 the clearinghouse sent out 32 news releases, of which the news media used 25 (50).

Journalists need to be assured that the information they receive is independent and unbiased. Thus in setting up a center, it may be best to work with a committee of journalists to insure that it meets journalists’ needs.


You already may be publishing a good potential news media relations tool–the organization newsletter. The primary audience for organization newsletters typically is internal, including headquarters staff, field workers, and clients. Newsletters also can serve external goals, however, informing journalists of such matters as upcoming events, program activities, policy changes, and numbers of clients served.

A newsletter is a cost-effective way to release information that is relevant to both external and internal audiences, and it provides regular contact with interested journalists (19). The key to reaching journalists through newsletters is the same as reaching them with other materials–be timely, accurate, and interesting. In writing and editing an organization newsletter, follow the same criteria that a journalist would use. Journalists sometimes even reprint articles from organization newsletters if they are written well, contain news, and have popular appeal.

Many newsletters do not meet journalistic criteria. Often they are prepared–or reviewed and rewritten–outside the public information office on the grounds that they are for internal, not external distribution. Like general audiences, however, internal audiences look for information that is objective, well-written, and of broad appeal. If a newsletter meets professional journalistic standards, it will be more interesting to the internal audience and also may attract attention from journalists. Organization newsletters tend to be most successful when their writers and editors think of themselves as professional journalists and the senior staff of the organization see them this way, too.

Making News

Many organizations inspire coverage by creating newsworthy events–often called “media events.” Such events can help provide the crucial news element of immediacy and a good reason for reporters to cover family planning, offering a news “peg,” or “hook” (16). For example, the launching of the “Day of the Five Billion” Campaign on July 11, 1987, generated extensive news coverage in many countries, including the Central African Republic, Ecuador, Ghana, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Senegal (6). This event, planned by the United Nations Population Fund, marked the birth of the five billionth living person in the world–and created an effective news peg.

Interviews, site visits, major publications, news conferences, and briefings also help make news. In addition, providing journalists with opportunities for training or involvement in program activities generates coverage, promotes accurate reporting on family planning, and builds ties between journalists and your organization.

Creating Media Events

Such events as the opening of a new clinic or service, the launch of a new campaign, or even the release of a new study can generate news coverage. For example, in Nigeria a music project to promote family planning was featured in more than 80 newspaper and magazine articles as the result of launch ceremonies and a press conference that featured the star performers, King Sunny Ade and Onyeka Onwenu (33).

To plan a successful media event, start by seeing it from a journalist’s point of view. Decide on the news angle–the aspect that will make the event newsworthy and not just self-promotion. “The more you look like you are trying to get publicity, the more reluctant most journalists will be to give it to you and the less credible your message will be,” Pertschuk and Wilbur point out (52). Here are some tips on planning a successful media event:

* Make it short, simple, scheduled in time for deadlines and, if intended for television, visual (52).

* Prepare and send a news release about the event that makes clear Why it is worth covering.

* Obtain an advance text (or at least a summary) from speakers. These help you to write the news release and to brief reporters. Use your judgement about whether or not to distribute texts before the event itself, however. While you want journalists to cover the event in person, you may get coverage from your news release and advance text even if reporters cannot attend.

* Offer to arrange private interviews between journalists and the key participants. Such interviews help give an exclusive focus to a story, which journalists like.

* Provide such hand-outs as T-shirts, caps, or key chains, if available. They add interest to the event and give journalists a reminder of your organization (21).

* Do not overlook providing journalists with refreshments such as coffee, tea, soft drinks, and snacks (26, 45).


Interviews with family planning program managers, service providers, and clients can make interesting and credible stories. Interviews are particularly important for radio and television, to provide sound and pictures, but print reporters also gather information primarily by talking with people.

Reporters usually want to interview people who are directly involved with program activities. The more that you can cooperate with journalists, helping them to meet with program staff and encouraging program staff to make themselves available, the more likely that the resulting stories will be accurate (45).

In most cases the public information office is the first place that journalists telephone for information. Many journalists will ask for something in writing (53). As public information officer, you should provide as much information as you can yourself, but do not stretch your own expertise (52). It is best to link journalists directly with experts in your organization–or in other organizations if appropriate–setting up the interviews, providing advance information to the journalist, and preparing the interviewee to answer questions, as necessary.

Setting up an interview. Many interviewees, particularly if inexperienced, are fearful and nervous. This is natural because what they say may appear in public in ways that they do not control. Help them prepare. What is the journalist likely to ask? It is acceptable to ask journalists for this information in advance.

Most important, interviewees should have two or three “key message points” ready to make–clear, concise summaries of what they want readers or listeners to remember (23). One approach is to follow the “PEW” formula–for “Point, Example, and What it means” (70). That is, in the response briefly summarize the issue raised by the reporter, state how a typical person might be affected, and conclude with an assessment of the impact, a recommendation, or other key message. Since reporters may not ask the questions that elicit precisely the points you want to make, it is a good idea to practice making your points as part of a response to any question. If an interviewee has a few points well prepared and rehearsed, there usually will be an opportunity to make them, whatever questions the reporter asks (23).

Some interviewees prepare by holding mock interviews, in which a public information officer poses as the journalist and sometimes tapes and plays back the session for the interviewee. Are the answers complete? Are the points made clearly? Does the interviewee feel comfortable and ready?

For on-the-air interviews, interviewees should know who the interviewer will be, what the program is, who is its audience, and whether it will be live or recorded. Will there be questions from a studio audience or over the telephone? For print interviews, the interviewee should be familiar with the publication and its readership and with the journalist’s previous work (22).

During the interview. Interviews with the news media are an excellent opportunity to establish credibility with reporters and become a trusted source who will be called upon again. At the same time, interviews can be stressful, particularly if the interviewer is trying to lead the discussion into unfamiliar territory or is probing to elicit controversial statements. In a news interview it is important to avoid being pressured or confused by rapid or tough questioning and to make the points that you want to make.

Radio and television interviews pose particular challenges. In a radio or television interview, it is vital to keep your responses short and to the point (see p. 12). When an interview is taped, it also is important to stick to the points you want to make. Some interviewers keep repeating questions in different ways to elicit a certain response, or your comments may be spliced together later and the interviewer’s questions added (23). The more you provide short, precise answers, the more certain that what you intended to say will be used.

When being interviewed by a print reporter, you can provide longer answers than on radio or television, and you can go into supporting details and background information. It is wise to be careful about your answers, however, and avoid saying anything that you do not want to appear in the newspaper. Anything that you say could appear in the story, even if you tell the journalist that it is “off the record”–that is, not to be used (see box, p. 21).

Here are some tips on how to give a constructive interview:

* Be truthful. Never mislead a reporter. If you do not know the answer to a question, simply say so. Never make up an answer.

* Be complete. Avoid giving “yes” and “no” answers. Instead, answer questions in complete sentences and support your answers with key facts and relevant details.

* Be prepared. You should be able to support each of your statements with facts. Journalists often follow comments with the question, “why?”

* Be interesting. Journalists like new ideas, unusual observations, and striking statistics.

* Be clear. Use language and give explanations that the journalists’ audience will understand.

* Be positive. Do not criticize or complain about other people, other organizations, or the news media. Stand up for your own actions and point of view (19, 23, 70).

Site Visits

Site visits to family planning clinics, community discussions, or the homes of family planning clients can tell much about your program. If you want your stories to appear on television and stations have cameras available, site visits are mandatory because visuals are essential. Radio reporters, too, appreciate the opportunity to record on location, particularly if the story features music, dialogue, drama, or similar events.

As public information officer, you play the role of stage manager, or producer, for a site visit. Television crews need space to set up the camera and get a clear shot of the action. The journalists probably want to interview staff and clients during the site visit. You should anticipate such needs and requests and make arrangements in advance. Here are some points to consider in organizing site visits (17):

* Identify several sites that could be used to tell the story.

* Always arrange the site visit in advance with the clinic or program staff.

* Make sure that the site you choose conveys the intended message.

* Discuss with reporters in advance what they might want to feature.

* Take the same tour yourself that you will offer to the journalists.

Releasing a Major Publication

Many news stories in public health, science, and technology arise from publication of study results or from papers delivered at professional meetings (45). Also, service statistics, annual reports, or special studies often contain potentially newsworthy material (26).

Since most journalists do not have the time to read long technical reports, you can increase the chances of making news by drawing the major findings, conclusions, and implications to the attention of the news media. A news release accompanying the report should start with a simple statement of its most impressive conclusion (26). The release also should include quotations from the authors, organization directors, or outside authorities to lend credence to its findings.

If they want to encourage news coverage of their work, the authors of a study or report themselves should highlight information with potential news value, to the extent possible, as they prepare the report. For example, Population Reports received widespread coverage in the international press with its report, The Reproductive Revolution: New Survey Findings (25, 58, 62). In examining findings of recent surveys and comparing them with earlier data, the authors of the report emphasized the potentially newsworthy aspects of the data implied by the use of the words “revolution” and “new” in the title.

Recognizing the potential newsworthiness of the report, the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs public information specialist and the principal author of the report telephoned journalists, including the Associated Press world service reporter, who wrote the initial news story about the report. The Center distributed over 1,000 copies of a news release and the report itself to journalists around the world. The combination of a good story and effective media relations resulted in many articles in leading newspapers as well as radio reports and interviews broadcast around the world. Later, the authors adapted the report as an article that appeared in Scientific American magazine (61), which resulted in another round of news stories and interviews.

News Conferences

A news conference, at which an organization makes a newsworthy announcement to invited journalists, is another way of creating news. Call news conferences infrequently, however–only when an announcement is so newsworthy that issuing a news release will not do it justice. Calling a news conference is a calculated risk. If your topic is timely, relevant, and interesting, the news conference probably will be successful and generate coverage; if not, you will have wasted time and lost credibility with the news media (69).

Unlike news releases, news conferences offer opportunities for interaction between journalists and representatives of your organization. If you have prominent, articulate, and charismatic spokespeople, they will help attract the interest of the news media (69). In Indonesia, for example, the Equatorial Trilogy, a series of three televised social dramas, was announced at a news conference rather than through a news release because the country’s top film directors were involved. The news conference at which they appeared generated more than 100 stories (32).

To hold a successful news conference usually requires planning, with particular attention to assuring that journalists attend and that the event itself is newsworthy. Of course, it is not always possible to plan a news conference well in advance, particularly if it is called in response to a controversy (see p. 26).

Planning. The three most important elements to consider in planning a news conference are who the presenters will be, where the conference will be held, and its timing (19, 26, 69).

* Presenters. Only articulate, poised experts or leaders who know the topic well and who can respond to questions clearly and accurately should appear as spokespersons. A general guideline is that each speaker should make no more than five key points and speak for no more than five minutes. Ideally, presenters should not read from scripts but instead can use notes or an outline to appear more spontaneous and natural. A news conference also requires a moderator who is knowledgeable about the issues and experienced in working with reporters. The moderator convenes the conference, introduces the participants, defines the issues, directs journalists’ questions to the speakers, and keeps the event on track.

* Location. Select a convenient site, close to where most reporters work. Make sure that the room can accommodate lighting and sound equipment, that microphones are available, and that the room is the right size and adequately furnished.

* Timing. Timing is everything to a reporter. Typically, morning hours are best for a news conference because most deadlines for television and radio news and for morning daily newspapers are in late afternoon. If you hold a news conference in the afternoon, you may miss the evening television and radio news.

Inviting journalists. When you have scheduled the news conference, prepare a “news alert” that states the topic you will cover and announces the speakers, date, time, and place of the conference. Send the alert to the news media about one week before the news conference, preferably by messenger. Send the announcement to the same journalists who usually receive your news releases. The day before the news conference, telephone your media contacts. Try to interest them in attending and find out if they have special requirements for lighting, sound, or background information.

Check with government offices, security officials, and others who control access to the conference site to make sure that all reporters can enter the building. If journalists are excluded, it may result in negative publicity, and your efforts will have backfired. In Bangladesh, for example, when security officials refused to admit a reporter to a news conference, the offended newspaper carried a story headlined “Star Reporter Barred,” criticizing the organizers for “obstacles to the performance of professional duties by journalists” (Bangladesh Daily Star, May 29, 1994). Journalists usually have the last word.

Conducting the news conference. On the morning of the news conference, have enough copies of press kits, news releases, and other materials on hand. Make sure the room is ready for use, that all microphones and electric outlets work. When journalists arrive, greet them and ask them to sign in so that you have a record of who attends. You will use this list later to follow up. If possible, talk with the journalists before they leave and offer your further assistance. Immediately after the news conference, determine who did not attend. There may still be time to interest them in the story (14).

How will you know if the news conference was a success? The results will appear almost immediately on the air or in print. If the press conference was poorly attended and few stories resulted, determine the reasons. Do not blame the news media if your news conference does not result in coverage. Perhaps your arrangements were inadequate or your story simply was not newsworthy enough. Another, more important event may have bumped your story. Whatever the reasons, evaluation will help you to do better in the future (14).


A briefing brings together selected journalists and key staff members for discussion. Briefings are less formal than news conferences but allow more interaction between reporters and sources than a news release. As with any other media relations activity, a briefing is best when it offers a newsworthy story to journalists. Anything said in a briefing should be for attribution and immediate use by the news media. Do not expect every briefing to result in a news story, however. Instead, consider the briefing a way to inform key journalists of your work and to build good relationships.

A briefing is a good way to inform journalists who are interested in family planning of projects that are being planned or research that is underway. Also, use a news briefing to present your organization’s goals and strategies, highlight accomplishments, and discuss policy issues or upcoming events that may not be news yet but that are important for journalists to understand (53).

Plan your briefing carefully:

* Invite several journalists whom you think would be interested in the briefing.

* Select the family planning experts who will talk with the journalists.

* Develop talking points for the experts. Outline the key points and provide the evidence to support these points.

* Brief the experts on the interests of the participating journalists.

* Write background material about the speakers and their topics for distribution at the briefing.

* Shortly before the briefing telephone the invited journalists and find out whether they will attend.

* During the briefing act as a facilitator and make sure that everyone has a chance to participate.

* After the briefing follow up to see if the journalists would like additional information.

Training Opportunities

Another way to involve journalists is to provide training or other professional seminars and workshops. Such events can be conducted as part of the organization’s communication activities.

One approach is to offer training that improves journalists’ understanding of family planning and reproductive health. Such sessions can vary in length from a single day to two weeks and can vary in audience from top-level editors to news reporters. In Kenya, for example, the African Council on Communication Education, with assistance from Family Health International (FHI), conducted a 2-week training workshop for 24 journalists from East and Southern Africa in 1990. The workshop followed the training curriculum for journalists developed by FHI, later published as Developing Health Journalists: A Training Manual for Improving News Coverage of Reproductive Health (7).

Another approach is to bring journalists together with family planning program staff to learn from each other and to explore how the two sides can cooperate to improve coverage of family planning and reproductive health. Ideally, planning for such workshops should involve journalists themselves to insure that the workshop not only reflects program interests but also meets journalists’ needs.

In Bangladesh, for example, the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, the Press Institute of Bangladesh, and FHI collaborated in 1994 on concurrent workshops for journalists and for family planning news media relations staff. The journalists’ workshop followed the standard FHI curriculum, while the curriculum for the news media relations workshop was based on the findings of two needs assessments, one among journalists and the other among family planning and other health-care organizations (34, 66).

Then, in several joint sessions the participants from the two workshops reviewed common rumors about family planning, practiced holding interviews, and discussed how to work together better in the future. Since then the journalists and news media relations specialists have continued to meet regularly (31).

Such workshops usually yield immediate stories. Even more important, they yield long-term benefits by establishing better communication between journalists and family planning programs.

Reaching the Gatekeepers

News media “gatekeepers” are particularly important because these senior editors and producers determine what goes into print or on the air, assign reporters to stories, and set editorial policy (12, 74). It is crucial, therefore, for these editorial gatekeepers to understand both that family planning issues are important and that they can yield many news stories (12).

At the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) two projects, Global Edition-and Women’s Edition, have involved editors from such key publications as Al-Ahram in Egypt, Femina in India, Parents in Kenya, Newsline in Pakistan, and Newswatch in Nigeria in a collaborative project to study and discuss the story possibilities and problems inherent in family planning issues. These editors meet periodically with representatives of international organizations to discuss potentially newsworthy story ideas. PRB also contributes finished pieces, background information, and photographs for the editors to use in their publications. While these projects have focused on the print media, the same approach could apply to gatekeepers in the electronic media (12).

Organizations in developing countries can apply this approach to working with senior journalists, keeping in mind that editorial gatekeepers, not family planning programs, decide what issues receive news coverage. Family planning organizations have much to gain by inviting senior editors and broadcasters to a luncheon or other informal venue for an exchange of ideas. “Your overture to a gatekeeper might turn family planning into an excellent, on-going story for all concerned,” advises Winthrop P. Carty, associate director for media at PRB (12). Ask the editors how they see family planning stories, what kind of information they could use, and in what form. Such exchanges help interest news media gatekeepers in your activities and establish your organization as a reliable source of accurate information, good interviews, site visits, and other possibilities for stories.

Dealing with Controversy

In some countries opposition to family planning programs and to contraception, often from influential sources, provokes controversy that spills into the news media. Sometimes it seems that the more a program advocates informed choice about family planning, the more it is attacked (29).

Controversy attracts journalists. Their training teaches that conflict has news value (9). To a journalist, bad news is just as topical and interesting as good news–and often more so (30). In a world where things are expected to go right, journalists look for things that go wrong–the unusual, abnormal, unexpected, and dramatic. Investigative reporting, in which journalists make news by uncovering problems or exposing wrongdoing, can go to lengths that–justly or unjustly–damage the people, organizations, and issues being reported on (35).

Many family planning program managers think that the news media should give them unquestioned coverage, support, and endorsement because they are providing good services and not doing anything wrong. Thus they are troubled that journalists so often focus on negative coverage that generates unwanted publicity (68). Although you cannot change what journalists consider news, you sometimes can affect how journalists cover a controversy.

Effective media relations can help to head off controversies before they start (21). For example, if reporters trust you, they may ask you to comment on stories generated by the opposition at the time they are being run (19, 26, 30). If the story is baseless, they may decide not to run it. Even journalists who are prejudiced or unfriendly, however, deserve courtesy, respect, and offers of assistance. Your goal is to encourage accurate, objective, fair coverage, not to control access to information or to play favorites.

One family planning communication specialist advises that, to deal with persistent attacks, you should step up your efforts to invite journalists to visit clinics and meet clients, send them information about the work of the program and about family planning issues, and telephone them with offers of your assistance in covering medical issues (27). In contrast, warns the US National Association of Science Writers, if you try to obstruct reporters, they may be even more likely to pursue negative stories, since the distrust that you sow may convince them that you are trying to hide something (45).

Planning for Controversy

Rarely does controversy appear from nowhere. Usually, early warning signs appear in news stories generated by opponents of family planning. You can anticipate the opposition and be ready to meet it by taking three steps (55):

(1) Study the position of the opposition. Learn the arguments of family planning opponents. What do they object to? What is their motivation? Answering such questions will help you to anticipate their arguments and be ready to respond with arguments of your own or else to seize the initiative by releasing accurate information even before the opposition can release its position (29).

(2) Know your own organization’s position. Developing clear positions, based on careful research, on major and controversial issues will help to provide responses to hostile questions and criticisms when the need arises.

(3) Prepare to act. When a public controversy erupts or a crisis occurs, you must act quickly. Before your organization becomes embroiled in a controversy, have a plan for developing your response, including who should be consulted and who should make the final decision about what is said to the news media (22).

In a controversy designate a single spokesperson for your organization who should be available to journalists at all times. No one else in your organization should comment on the controversy. Be ready with a supply of press kits and updated press contact lists. Also, have a list of your constituents whom you will inform when a controversy occurs, including program managers and government officials. If they know about the controversy and understand your position, they will be better able to offer support.

Responding to Adverse Coverage

No matter what you do or how well you do it, your organization probably will face negative publicity at some point (2, 55). After a negative story is aired or published, the damage may already be done. If you are prepared to respond, however, you may be able to minimize the damage or even turn it to your advantage (19, 22, 26, 67).

When a negative story appears, the first step is quickly to assess it and its likely impact (26, 67):

* How widely was the story circulated?

* Did it come from a credible source?

* Were the facts and statistics accurate?

* Was it based on personal opinion, emotion, or bias?

* Was it an isolated event or the start of an organized campaign?

* What damage can the story cause?

Your assessment is key to choosing a course of action. You can choose one or several possible responses (26):

* Do nothing. This could be the wisest course of action if a response would only magnify and prolong the problem.

* Ask for a correction. If the story is inaccurate and reaches conclusions on the basis of obvious errors, consider discussing it with the reporter and asking for correction. Editors and broadcasters usually are willing to correct factual errors, particularly if they can do so in a follow-up story that reports new developments. It does not help, however, to question the judgment or challenge the integrity of a journalist, even if you have been treated unjustly.

* Ask for comparable space or air time. An attack on your organization or on family planning provides an opportunity for you to state your own position, without necessarily responding directly to the attack. Editors and broadcasters often welcome contrasting views.

* Respond indirectly, over time. To counter negative publicity without directly responding, you can encourage a series of accurate stories in various news media over the next few months.

* Reply directly and immediately. Defend the position of your organization by responding directly and immediately. Three avenues for such response are writing a letter to the editor, issuing a news release, and calling a news conference.

When to call a news conference. Hold a news conference to counter an attack in the news media only when the attack represents a direct and substantial threat to the well-being of your organization. Otherwise, you may only worsen the situation by overreacting to it. In extreme cases, however, when accusations and misinformation are being widely circulated and could damage your reputation, deter clients, or affect your funding, a news conference may be necessary to counter the opposition. If you decide to hold such a news conference, do so as soon as possible, preferably on the same day that the original news story appears. Bring all available resources to your defense, including support by influential community leaders, medical experts, and client groups. Be sure to invite all interested journalists. Competitors of the news organization that issued the original attack will welcome a new angle when they run the story themselves.

Turning Adversity to Advantage

Becoming embroiled in a public controversy need not damage your organization. Adverse publicity can even be an opportunity to make news and get your message out.

How can you turn adversity to advantage? Because controversy makes for good news stories, journalists often are eager to print or broadcast responses to attacks (2). Attacks on your work provide opportunities to refute the opposition, to show the value of your activities, and to demonstrate the widespread support that your organization enjoys. Controversy helps you clarify issues, become known as a source of expert opinion, and reach more people with the facts about family planning. By helping journalists report your side of the story, you not only counterbalance the views of the opposing side but also provide the public with information at a time when many people are likely to be interested.

Many people have learned about family planning through news coverage of controversies (29). For example, without controversy the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), held in Cairo in September 1994, might have been of little interest as news. Instead, the news media covered the conference intensively, primarily because the Vatican launched a public attack on positions advocated in the draft document prepared for debate at the conference. The fact that the Vatican strongly advocated an opposing point of view was newsworthy.

Journalists around the world began covering the debate almost daily, months before the ICPD itself convened. While many stories focused on the negative views of the opposition, they also included the case for family planning. The controversy attracted thousands of journalists to the conference itself, who otherwise probably would not have covered the event. In Cairo, with the official debate taking place behind closed doors, reporters searched for other stories to tell. Thus topics that usually seem to have little interest as news–for example, women’s empowerment, reproductive health, and the need for more family planning information and services–made headlines.

Coverage by the news media of the Vatican’s attack and the responses to it brought family planning issues to the attention of millions of people. After the conference, for example, a poll by Louis Harris and Associates found that over one-third of adults in the US had heard news about the ICPD (78).

Attacks on family planning organizations have had the effect of strengthening support for them and even increased clinic attendance (26). For example, in Colombia the Asociacion Pro-Bienstar de la Familia (Profamilia) turned religious opposition to its advantage by engaging in public debate on the benefits of family planning. In “going public,” Profamilia demonstrated overwhelming popular support for family planning and ended up stronger than before the controversy (55). Also, in Ghana, when the government withdrew public service announcements promoting condoms, the major daily newspapers reported the controversy, and many people wrote in support of providing family planning (24).

Competition among news media outlets often keeps a controversial story going and can generate more coverage of family planning. For example, in Kenya, when health officials estimated that some 10,000 girls are forced to drop out of school each year because they become pregnant, some journalists wrote about moral decay, while others called for better policies toward youth, and still others criticized the schools (47). Each outlet hopes to attract a bigger audience by reporting unique aspects of a controversy, and reporters look for new angles that allow them to continue covering it.

Whatever the situation, the best approach is to remain objective. Resist the urge simply to react emotionally to what your opponents are saying. Instead, take the opportunity to state your own case. Often, for example, framing a family planning issue in terms of its health impact helps to counter attacks made on grounds of emotion or tradition. Focus on providing the facts about how family planning and reproductive health services improve people’s well-being.

No matter how you decide to present your side of the story, be sure that your statements reflect your organization’s basic values, such as everyone’s right to make informed choices about using family planning. Help your organization to put its best foot forward–by being positive, responsible, and concerned with promoting better reproductive health and healthier families (2).


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71. UNITED NATIONS (UN). world media handbook. 2nd ed. New York, UN, 1992. 504 p.

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RELATED ARTICLE: The Five Fs of Media Relations

In working with journalists, it is vital to develop good interpersonal relationships. How can you do so? One rule of thumb followed by experienced practitioners is to adhere to the “Five Fs”–Fast, Factual, Frank, Fair, and Friendly (16):

Fast. Respect journalists’ deadlines. If a journalist telephones for information, return the call immediately, even if it is past normal office hours. A phone message returned the next day is too late. By then, the story already may have been aired or printed.

Factual. Be factual, and make the facts interesting. Stories are based on facts. Journalists also appreciate a dramatic statement, creative slogan, or personal anecdote to help illustrate your point. Give the source of any facts and statistics provided.

Frank. Be candid. Never mislead journalists. Be as open as possible and respond frankly to their questions. As long as there is an explanation of the reason, most journalists will understand and respect a source even if he or she is not able to answer a question completely or at all.

Fair. Organizations must be fair to journalists if they expect journalists to be fair to them. Favoring one news outlet consistently, for example, will lose the confidence of the others.

Friendly. Like everyone else, journalists appreciate courtesy. Remember their names; read what they write; listen to what they say; know their interests; thank them when they cover family planning.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Journalist’s Working Environment

By Usman Jimada

Journalists in developing countries face many pressures that affect their interest in and ability to report on family planning. Understanding these pressures can help you work better with journalists.

Competition for Audience

Journalists write for audiences that increasingly have many sources of news, information, and entertainment. Journalists must compete with each other and with entertainment programs to get the best stories and attract the biggest audiences. Also, while editorial departments are separate from those dealing with advertising, sales, and circulation, they are not immune to economic pressures. Editors and producers may feel pressure to make the news reporting exciting and entertaining as well as timely and credible to attract as wide an audience as possible. For this reason the family planning story may get bumped off the front page when a more popular story about a celebrity, politician, or athlete comes up.


Journalists must meet frequent writing and production deadlines. In television, for example, there are deadlines for morning, afternoon, and evening news programs. Radio stations may broadcast news as often as every half hour. Deadlines at newspapers may occur in both morning and afternoon. If you want your story to appear, it is vital to respect these deadlines and to recognize the pressure that journalists face. Newsworthy events occur at a moment’s notice–the prime minister resigns from office, terrorists blow up a jumbo jet, a big business announces bankruptcy, a cyclone hits land. The news media must be ready to cover them all. Sometimes fast-breaking events pull journalists off one story–perhaps yours–to cover a more important one.

Government Relations

The political situation in a country shapes the relationships between the news media and the government and strongly affects how family planning organizations work with journalists. In some countries a free press exists based on the belief that the people have a “right to know” and value the news media as a watchdog. But in many countries the news media are still emerging from a tradition of government control. Some governments continue to pressure journalists to print what the government wants. Other journalists are locked in constant struggle with government officials who demand an uncritical and deferential news media. Some governments still resist independent newspapers and try to punish journalists who publicly disagree with official views.

Government control over the news media may not adversely affect coverage of family planning. It may even improve coverage if there is a national family planning program or population policy that the government wishes to promote. If family planning is not a priority for the government, however, government control over the news media may mean little or no news at all about it. Whatever the political environment, the more interesting and newsworthy the family planning story, the more likely that the news media will cover it.

Pressure from Interest Groups

Most journalists face interest groups who seek to influence what they report and how they report it. Groups opposed to family planning can be influential among journalists, particularly if their voices are not matched by those of family planning advocates providing factual information openly and regularly. To help journalists remain independent of interest groups, provide them with credible, objective sources of information so that they know the facts and can report your point of view as well as the opposition’s points of view.

Lack of Resources

In many developing countries the news media often lack the basic tools, access to good transportation, and so on. Video cameras, batteries, tapes, and films may be in short supply. Television news reporters, for example, may have to wait for a camera to return from an assignment before they are able to go on another one. These conditions make it difficult to attract good coverage except for top government functions, ministerial news conferences, celebrity appearances, major sports events, and other news priorities. With few resources, journalists cannot cover all the events to which they are invited. Thus, if an organization wants to attract more coverage, it should provide as much help as possible. For example, when planning events, make sure that they will be easy for journalists to attend and offer assistance with logistics, supplies, and materials.

Low Wages

The low salaries paid to journalists in most developing countries sap their morale and diminish their zeal in seeking and reporting news. Even more troublesome, low salaries are the breeding ground for “checkbook journalism.” In some countries some journalists at all levels have been known to accept payments in exchange for running a story. In some places the practice of checkbook journalism is so established that journalists expect payment even before covering an event or publishing a story. Because journalists’ wages are so irregular and meager, many have grown to depend on this kind of payment for their very survival.

In some countries paying members of the news media to publish stories may be accepted and even necessary to obtain coverage because “everybody does it.” The long-term disadvantages of the practice, however, outweigh any short-term benefits. Whatever the reasons for checkbook journalism, it undermines news media credibility. When the news is for sale, the public cannot view it as objective or independent and cannot trust what they hear or read in the news media. For family planning programs, the independence and credibility of the news media are vital assets in providing the public with the facts that they need to make informed choices. Checkbook journalism cheapens these assets.

Usman Jimada is Abuja bureau chief for the New Nigerian Newspapers. He wrote this box for Population Reports while he was a participant in the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program for journalists in 1995.

RELATED ARTICLE: Essentials of News Reporting

by Jawadur Rahman

Only recent and hitherto unknown events make news. Immediacy is the most important element of news. All other elements together will not make an event newsworthy if immediacy is lacking.

Other factors that impart news value to events are: proximity, consequence, prominence, conflict, drama, adventure, violence, sex, crime, novelty, oddity, humor, human interest.

Here are some of the qualities that make a good news report:

* It is brief.

* It contains small, well-arranged paragraphs, short sentences, and easy-to-understand, commonly used words.

* It gives an objective and undistorted picture of what has happened.

* It does not reflect the personal bias of the reporter.

* It tries to answer as many questions as the reader may want answered.

Writing News

The conventional structure of news stories is called the inverted pyramid. A first paragraph, or “lead,” summarizes the major facts. The rest of the story elaborates the lead and includes other important facts. The facts are arranged in order of decreasing importance. The last few paragraphs are least important and, in a lengthy story, could be omitted without depriving the reader of any vital information.

This structure has certain advantages: A busy reader can know the major facts by reading the lead and the next few paragraphs. Also, it allows the editor to chop off one or two paragraphs from the bottom of the story to solve a problem of space.

The lead is the most important part of a news story and the most difficult to write. A lead should not exceed 30 words, and it is often possible to write it in fewer words. A lead that the reader cannot read aloud at one breath is a bad lead.

There are different types of leads, but all have one common purpose: to make the readers read the story. Attracted by the headline, the busy reader glances at the lead. If the lead is effectively written, the reader wants to have a look at the paragraphs that follow.

The “summary lead” is particularly useful. This type of lead gives an outline of the event and its major facts–who, what, where, when, why, and how. A news report is not complete unless it answers these basic questions, which a reader may be expected to ask. Some of the answers may not be included in the lead, however. Sometimes we find “why” or “how,” or both, answered in the paragraphs that immediately follow.

Working with News Sources

Often, government sources are reluctant to talk to news reporters if they consider some information sensitive. And one wonders if there is any information they do not consider sensitive. If a reporter wants to know something from the secretary of a ministry but the secretary does not cooperate with him, he will go to other officials in the ministry. If none of them talks, he may be tempted to talk to the typist or some other staff or even to some friend or relation of the secretary.

The ideal relationship between a reporter and his sources is that of mutual trust. Mutual trust comes from the past behavior of both parties. If the reporter does not enjoy the trust of his sources, he will not get their willing cooperation. And if he cannot trust them, he cannot write his story on the basis of what they tell him.

Jawadur Rahman is an editor of the Bangladesh Observer. This text is adapted with permission from “News Writing,” a training manual for journalists published by the Press Institute of Bangladesh, January 1993.

RELATED ARTICLE: Going Off the Record

Going off the record in an interview means telling a reporter something in confidence with the explicit agreement that it will not be used in print or on the air (16). It is tempting to go off the record when you have information to reveal and want to be helpful but feel uncomfortable having it attributed to you.

It is rarely a good idea, however, to discuss something with a reporter off the record (22). There are several reasons:

* Mistakes can and do happen. Thus you may be embarrassed to see or hear your remarks in the news. It may not have been clear to the reporter that your comments were meant to be confidential (45).

* You may say something so newsworthy that the reporter or the editor will not honor your request for confidentiality.

* The reporter may verify your information with another source and use it anyway.

* If a reporter cannot use the information that you provide, he or she may go elsewhere to find information in the future.

Before you decide to go off the record, consider your reasons for wanting to do so. Do you feel unprepared to answer the question on the record? It is much better to tell the reporter that you are not sure of the answer but that you will check, and then to provide it as quickly as possible. Are you trying to avoid adverse publicity? If something is not intended for public consumption, what is the purpose of sharing it with a reporter at all? Do you want to provide newsworthy information without taking responsibility for it? This is not the way to establish credibility with journalists. Some reporters will not agree to take information off the record, and experienced news media relations professionals rarely provide information this way.

If the reporter is someone that you trust and who trusts you, however, you may occasionally ask to speak off the record to help clarify a difficult situation or to explain a complicated news event. Even so, be careful. Be clear about when you are going off the record and when you go back on.

RELATED ARTICLE: Health Ministry set to open up


THE Ministry of Health has pledged to be transparent to the media on coverage of health issues.

Opening a one-day “Tanzania News Media and Family Health” workshop in Dar es Salaam yesterday, Principal Secretary in the Ministry, Prof. Idrisa Mtulia said bureaucracy had led the media into distorting health information.

He said rapport between the media and the policy makers would feed people with factual information.

He said there was a lot of significant things being done by the Ministry of Health despite meagre resources which went unreported.

The journalists said apart from bureaucracy, they were also facing problems in getting access to health information.

They said even where permission had been granted, getting relevant facts was problematic.

Reporters sid, most of information was contained in bulky papers with outdated data coupled with medical terminologies which were useless to their readers.

“You will find that for example a 100 page book is given to a journalist who has only one hour to work on it,” said Anthony Ngaiza, the editor of Family Mirror newspaper.

Mr. Mkumbwa Ally of the Daily News pointed out that lack of specialisation on the part of journalists was a hindrance to effective coverage of health and other issues.

The 30 senior journalists agreed to form a Journalist for Health Club, which will chart out a mechanism for effective coverage of health issues in the mass media.

Anthony Ngaiza, Mkumbwa Ally, Nelly Kidela from Radio Tanzania, and Agness Kyaruzi from Uhuru and Mzalendo were elected committee members to work on preparations.

The workshop was organised by the Ministry of Health and sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University Population Communication Services and the USAID.

RELATED ARTICLE: Countering Rumors About Family Planning

Family planning is often the subject of unfounded rumors, which can be damaging if they spread widely (8, 55). By encouraging accurate reporting about family planning, a strong public information program helps contain rumors before they spread. Once rumors have appeared in the news media, it is difficult to counter them, but it is important to try.

Avoiding Rumors by Working with the News Media

When journalists receive credible, authoritative information about family planning, they become more aware of contraceptive technology, the advantages and disadvantages of contraceptive methods, and their correct use. Such information helps them report accurately on family planning issues. For example, the news media could balance stories about the problems that some women face from side effects if they knew that for almost all women any risks are far less than the risks of unintended pregnancies (18, 48, 57).

Family planning rumors often build to fantastic proportions. For example, a Bangladeshi woman was said to have given birth to a snake after taking oral contraceptives. When this rumor reached a newspaper reporter, he set out to find the woman to interview her but was disappointed that he could not locate her–never thinking that she did not exist. Because he was not well-informed about family planning, this reporter missed an opportunity to report that the story was nothing but a rumor (34).

In some places false rumors about reproductive health are widespread and scare some people away from contraception–for example, “the pills build up in your stomach”; or “vasectomies are castration”; or “an IUD can travel to a woman’s brain.” Family planning service providers are trained to counter such rumors by counseling clients with the facts (15, 38). Help journalists also to counter rumors by reporting the facts. Such activities as preparing fact sheets and background reports on family planning methods and programs, arranging interviews with service providers and clients, and making family planning programs more accessible to journalists will help the news media see rumors for what they are. The more people who know the facts, the more who are in a position to stop rumors from spreading (8).

Correcting False Information in the News

When rumors are widespread in society, they often appear in the news media despite the best efforts of family planning programs. When journalists spread rumors about reproductive health by reporting them as facts, they keep rumors alive and give them more credibility.

Most journalists who spread rumors about family planning do so inadvertently because, like the reporter looking for the woman rumored to have given birth to a snake, they believe the rumors themselves. Some, on the claim of impartiality, report rumors without comment on their accuracy even though they know or suspect that the rumors are false. Still others may be prejudiced and do not mind spreading rumors that damage family planning programs.

Whatever the cause, after the rumor has appeared in the news, it is important to refute it as quickly as possible. Start with the journalists responsible. Be polite and do not accuse these journalists of ill-will or incompetence. Inform other journalists as well, or else they may assume that an uncorrected story is factual and repeat the rumor in their own stories. Even if journalists do not immediately use the information that you have provided, the next time that a rumor about family planning crosses their desks, they may check with you before deciding to run the story (30, 67).

In correcting a rumor that has been printed or broadcast, you can choose one or more of several options:

* Discuss the rumor with the journalists responsible and ask for a correction.

* Issue a news release or fact sheet to all news media in the area. Mention the rumor, present the facts to counter it, and support your facts with solid evidence.

* Offer to put journalists in touch with community experts and to provide scientific evidence from international sources such as the World Health Organization.

Rumors can be overcome with objective evidence from credible sources. If your evidence against the rumor is weak or biased, however, journalists probably will not find it convincing. Look for respected, credible spokespersons among community leaders, medical associations, government agencies, university scholars, and international organizations experienced in family planning. The stronger the popular belief in a rumor, the more complete and convincing the evidence against it must be.

Often, a credible spokesperson can be found within your own organization, such as the director or a health care provider. It may be better, however, to find experts from other sources, if your organization or its work are affected by the rumor, because journalists may consider outside experts more objective.

Rumors usually reflect the real concerns of people in the community (8). For example, people’s personal experience with contraceptive side effects often lies behind rumors that exaggerate health risks of using contraceptives. When responding to an unbalanced news report based on a rumor, it is important to reflect these concerns. In countering rumors, your purpose is not to conceal the disadvantages or side effects of contraceptives but rather to ensure accurate, factual coverage that helps people make informed choices.

COPYRIGHT 1995 Department of Health

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