Instaskills, n,

one paged quick learning so you can hit the ground running while on the job

Working with the Media

Make your work newsworthy

Okay, you have been working a great project and are keen to share your results.  You believe that your findings are of immense importance to public health and it should be shared in the public domain.  However, while you think it is important, it still has to compete with all the other news happening at the time.  You will need to make your work 'newsworthy'.  

Why one event is deemed more newsworthy than another can be a little daunting to the public health professional who has an important public health message to get across but isn't sure whether or not it will get picked up. The following is just some general advice and isn't meant to take the place of the friendly communication folk within your organisation but can certainly make it easier for you and them.

Have a Story

It seems obvious but so often overlooked. Tell a story. Have something that is memorable, resonates with people and would make them want to pass it on to others. Sometimes the shock factors works - you have lots of excess winter deaths this year? Do a larger percentage of your local 5 year old population have worse teeth than the rest of the country's? You're not selling out, you're grabbing attention. Freelance journalists have perfected the art of pitching. Trying pitching your idea for a story to the in-house editor or communications person. For example, 'how about an article on back to school health?' Editor likely to say 'so?'. Try instead, 'Did you know that going back to school can be the time for children's health to fail?' and back up with evidence, like as many as 1 in 20 children can't see out of one of their eyes and 1 in 4 have some type of vision impairment. As 80% of learning is done through eyes, many children fall behind on learning which could be easily fixed with an eye test before school year starts.

The 5 Ws

The 5 Ws and a H is like the journalism school catechism. These are simply what, who, when, where, why and how. Rule of thumb is that in an article (other than feature articles) these questions should be answered in the opening sentence. The idea is that the reader only has to read the first paragraph to know the facts, the rest is detail which is given in order of diminishing importance. Readers can leave the story at any point and understand it, even if they don't have all the details. It also allows less important information at the end, where it can be removed by editors so the article can be cut from the bottom to fit space. We live in a headline world and article writing reflects that. You have probably come across the term 'inverted pyramid' which accurately describes the style of article writing. This is where you throw out the structure of introduction, background, aims, body, conclusion which so often encapsulates public health reports. Indeed, you may find that the inverted pyramid approach can work for papers to senior management at local government or CCG Boards where members have huge masses of information to consume and react very favourably to short, snappy and to the point in the opening paragraph. (I find they read the last paragraph as well so important to have your key arguments captured within that last bit as well).

What - this demonstrates that you have an understanding of what a fact or an event is

Who - this gives a sense of who are legitimate sources and subjects of news. There are two types of who: known and unknown people (ordinary folk). Knowns like celebrities make news 4 times more often than unknowns. News is primarily about people. There is even a tendency to ask who's responsible not what was the cause.

When - this incorporates a particular vision of history

Where - this inscribes a political or geographical position

Why and How- this gives the explanation

These questions are the platform for inquiry and a framework for interpreting answers. Journalism is like any other form of storytelling and operates within literary, sociological and ideological constraints. It has a formal structure.


You also need to bear some thought for the organisational routine of journalism. Journalists are putting out daily newspapers, hourly news online. What happens now is more compelling than what will happen or what has happened. It is essential to set and meet deadlines. If your editor wants the article by end of today, so be it. Yes, there is often some leniency, just don't count on it. Also, don't be too upset if your article is pulled in place of something more newsworthy. The more the immediacy is emphasized, the more likely you are to capture the media with their stopwatches!

A little Warning...

Don't forget that journalists write for each other as well as for their readership and often they get news from each other. Sometimes what is written about locally gets picked up on the wire and can turn up in broadsheets or tabloids. You may not have control over that so be careful about what you have written and how it could be quoted. By the way, a good editor will always send you a copy to proof-read before it is published. If not, insist on it, especially if it is your name attached to it.

What to do if a journalist contacts you

If a journalist calls you out of the blue, take their details and say someone will get back to them.  If they email you, forward it to your communications team. Any communications with the media should always go through your communications team in your organisation so you need to alert them to the query.  This is because anything you say will taken as being representative of your organisation and there are corporate rules around this.  It will also give you and your communications team time to put together the right information. 

Talking to the Media

If you have to talk to a journalist either on the phone or on camera, here are some simple rules to follow:

Know why you're being interviewed.

Acknowledge their question

Have three key messages

Be prepared for 'elephant traps' (i.e. awkward questions)