Participating in local and regional events is a great way to build your relationship with your “core communities.” Sometimes these are events that we organize. But other times, we’re asked to be part of a panel discussion on a topic. And while these are great opportunities to interact with people who care deeply about the subject you cover, the role can be challenging for journalists.
Susan Phillips of StateImpact Pennsylvania, who gets asked to participate in many community events, offers some tips for how to navigate the role of “journalist-panelist”:
Shale drilling is a very polarizing topic in Pennsylvania. Each side throws out “facts” like confetti, hoping to plaster the streets with their view and no one else’s. So the StateImpact team here is often called upon to sit on panels as the “honest broker.”
We never sought this role. We usually say yes, although there’s never any compensation, rarely any food, and it often requires a long drive. That said, it does give you exposure and helps you meet potential sources.
So if you’re asked to be on a panel, here are some tips that I’ve picked up.
- Find out who else is on the panel, and ask the organizer how they see your role. Do they want a formal slide presentation or for you to speak off the top of your head? Ask about the audio/visual and internet set-up: Can you play stories? Can you click through your website? Know exactly what to expect. And what the other presenters will talk about.
- Find out who the audience will be. Will it be environmental advocates with one point of view? Academics? Regulators? Industry folks? A mix? I’ve had all kinds of audiences, and I gear my comments to the audience. If it’s going to be a room full of “fractivists,” I try to open their minds a bit to others’ points of view. I don’t see my job as an advocate or to change anyone’s opinion, but I can broaden someone’s understanding of the complexity of the issues. If it’s a room full of scientists, I try to explain my role as a science reporter and how they can help me. If I’m speaking to regulators, I tell stories of people who have been impacted by their decisions.
- Find out how many people organizers expect to come and if it will be broadcast anywhere, including online. You don’t want to drive 500 miles to talk to 10 people in a church basement — unless you do, but you should know that’s the case ahead of time. Also, I’ve had strangers on the street come up to me and say “I saw you on TV last night.” Really? Those video cameras are so inconspicuous these days.
- Talk to the moderator beforehand. Make sure you both have a clear understanding of what’s expected, and the agenda. Will there be a meet-and-greet session beforehand? Will you speak and take questions from the audience? Will the moderator ask all the questions? How long will the program last?
- Don’t be afraid to give guidance to the organizers. Some don’t know what to expect from the event themselves. If the audience is expected to be large, and there will be a Q&A afterward, make sure someone is there to control the microphone. Often, audience members use the Q&A to speechify (credit kneib at dresshead). One way around this is a strategy we use here at WHYY: Have people write out their questions on index cards. Then, the moderator can ask the questions and maintain control of the conversation.
- If you are ever called on to be the actual moderator, make sure you communicate clear expectations to the panelists. Be in control of who is on your panel, or at least have input. Don’t expect that the panelists know anything about being on a panel. And definitely don’t let go of the microphone during a Q&A. (I once lost control at a panel where a fractivist and the former DEP chief came to blows.)
- Often, we’re asked to speak directly to a university class. Obviously, talk to the teacher ahead of time to find out how you fit into the course. When doing your talk, it also helps to ask students some questions to get them engaged.
- Watch out for spies in the house of love. Seriously, people will try to trip you up, accuse you of not being objective, or of being too objective. They’ll ask you about the ads that air on NPR (which you obviously have no control over as a reporter but they don’t seem to know that). So, be prepared to define your role as a journalist. Also the role of beat reporting, including how you handle personal bias and how you choose your stories. There’s never need to get defensive. And no need to feel stupid. Just say “I don’t know,” when you don’t know. And be open to their ideas.
- Shake hands afterwards. You can meet a lot of interesting people with good stories, and expertise that you don’t have.