Tips for Talking to the Press

Tips for Talking to the Press


In large part because of tenacious reporting by the media (starting with investigative stories last year in The Boston Globe), the Catholic Church hierarchy is finally facing intense scrutiny and pressure for the widespread and systemic sexual abuse of children. All this is ultimately due to victims who are willing to speak publicly about their abuse.

You may wish to speak with the reporters for several reasons:

… To encourage other victims to come forward and obtain the counseling, support, and compensation they deserve;

… To help continue to pressure the Church to initiate and sustain reforms that will protect children;

… To encourage prosecutors and other law enforcement officials to vigorously go after clerical sexual offenders even though the crimes may have been committed many years ago.

I believe each of you can help other victims by speaking with the press. However, given the sensitive and intense nature of the suffering you have faced, it is of course understandable if you choose not to do so.

For those of you who do speak with the press, below are some points to keep in mind.

… Consider and specify how you will speak with the reporter. There are three ways to speak with a reporter: on the record, not for attribution, and off the record. Unless otherwise specified, everything said is assumed to be on the record, meaning whatever you say can be quoted with you as the source. Not for attribution means the comments may appear but you will not be cited as the source, e.g., the article may say, "a victim said." Off the record means what you are saying is not to appear in print in any form.

It is important to be conservative in what you say to the press, and not keep switching back and forth between the three modes. Reporters, after all, can get confused, and could attribute something on the record that you want off the record. My advice before any interview: Choose one interview mode and stick with it throughout 98 percent of the discussion.

… Think about two to three points to stress in the interviews. Rather than simply responding to reporters' questions and being taken in the direction they determine, it is advisable to think of two to three messages you want to get across in any interview. Reporters will probably want to cover these points anyway. One way to determine these messages is to ask yourself a few questions such as, What should people know about abuse? What message is key to get out to other survivors? What have you learned from this experience?

… Watch your off-hand remarks. Many times, people let down their guard before or after the "formal" part of an interview assuming that these comments will not be part of the story. For example, if you should say at the "end" of an interview, "Yeah, there are times I'd like to kill my perpetrator," that could become the focal point of the story. It might be true, but do you really want the perpetrator's attorney to then send you threatening letters or law enforcement officials stopping by your house to see what you really meant?

Similarly, I'd stay away from any offhand negative comments about your boss, your job, or in-laws.

… If you don't want it in print or broadcast, don't say it. Keep in mind that you are in control of the interview. While reporters will try to charm and cajole you into speaking with them or covering certain subjects (that after all is an inherent part of their job) you do not have to respond. On certain questions, you might want to say, "I just don't want to discuss that" or "I'm really not ready to address that" or "I'd like to keep that private." And remember, if you want to be absolutely sure it does not appear in print, just don't say it.

Paul Steidler

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  • published this page 2011-08-25 19:26:09 -0500