Urban Wire How to be a better source: Lessons from criminal justice reporters
Nicole Levins
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From prison reform to policing, criminal justice issues just about dominated the media landscape this year. “This is a very unique moment,” said Nancy La Vigne, director of Urban’s Justice Policy Center. “But where do researchers fit into the conversation?”

At last month’s annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology, La Vigne, writer Ellis Cose, NPR’s Carrie Johnson, and The Marshall Project’s Bill Keller discussed how researchers can be better resources for journalists and more effectively share their work with the public.

While criminal justice was at the core of the conversation, the panelists offered lessons that apply to researchers in all fields.

Do: Build relationships.

“One of the best ways to make sure your research doesn’t necessarily get ignored is build[ing] relationships,” Cose said. The first step can be as simple as sending a short note about how your work fits with what the reporter covers.

On the researcher side, “that kind of upfront work is hard for us, but it seems to pay off handsomely,” La Vigne said.

Don’t: Expect reporters to think or talk like researchers.

Like most pieces of research, “most stories start with a question,” Keller said. But stories rarely begin with a reporter cracking open an academic journal or scanning a PDF.

“Journalists aren’t sitting around wondering how they’re going to fit your research into what they’re writing,” Cose explained. They’re going to find research that supports what they’re writing. “Journalists have their own way of doing things, and you have to conform to that.”

So what kind of research makes reporters take notice? “For the most part, it’s got to be something that can be accessible to a general audience,” Keller said. If you can’t describe your work in layman’s terms, a reporter isn’t going to do it for you. And it should go without saying, but avoid jargon and acronyms.

“You are guides” to these complicated, nuanced topics, added Johnson.

Do: Give journalists what they need—and fast.

Reporters are often working on tight deadlines and don’t always have time to dig through your research and figure out why it’s important. “You tell us why this research is relevant to something,” Cose said.

When you hear from a journalist, call him or her back as fast as you can, ask if they’re on deadline, and regroup from there, Keller recommended. For breaking news, a reporter could be working off a list of 20 to 30 potential sources—whoever answers the phone first is the one getting in the story.

Once you’ve connected with a reporter, make your points swiftly and succinctly. “Unless you’re the president of the United States, we’re not going to run a tape of you that’s longer than 28 to 30 seconds,” Johnson said.

Do: Be social.

Twitter is “my first and last news source of the day,” Johnson said. Social media helps her identify potential sources and keep up with breaking news.

The panel expressed less enthusiasm for blogs as a media relations tool. “It’s pretty unusual that a blog by a researcher will spark a story,” Keller said.

While Cose agreed with Keller—“I don’t think that’s a solution for how you get coverage in the general media,” he said—blogs can help reporters stay informed.

“I start my day, when I can, reading blogs,” Johnson said. “I don’t go there looking for something specific. I’m just seeking an overview of what’s happening.”

Don’t: Try to be an expert on everything.

“There’s nothing more annoying than a researcher or professor who positions themselves as an expert on everything,” Johnson said. “Real experts” have concrete knowledge and insight on a subject—and don’t email reporters every time something tangentially related appears in the news.  

“It’s not enough to have just the sound bite,” Cose said. Good reporters are going to dig deeper.

Do: Think about the story your research tells.

“Our agenda as journalists is very different than the agenda of a researcher,” Cose said. No one is going to write a story about your report, he explained—even when a piece starts with research, reporters are going to find a way to “own” it.

And a report itself is not a story, Johnson said, though it could serve as a data point within a story at some point.

“Is [your research] going to connect with the reader in some way?” Cose asked. The sweet spot for reporters: human stories backed by solid data. “The bottom line: we’re storytellers,” Cose said.

Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety