If you have ever watched a news conference on television or the Internet, you were probably amazed, impressed or disturbed by the often rough-and-tumble nature of them. For example, many of us recall former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s frequent news conferences during the Iraq War. More recently, you might have watched reporters’ rough handling of President Obama’s spokesman during the White House’s battle with Congress over extending the federal debt limit in the summer of 2011. Even the highest-ranking government officials can be subjected to probing, abrasive, sometimes downright rude questions by a gaggle of aggressive reporters. As a result, we sometimes see officials become defensive or even “lose their cool,” giving in to confusion, frustration or anger. At such times it looks like the reporters have the official cornered, or on the run. Why on earth, you think, would anyone subject himself to that?
It might surprise you to learn that many reporters hate news conferences. That’s probably more because of what news conferences aren’t than of what they are. When someone in the public focus calls a news conference, it usually means that individual reporters are not going to get a one-on-one interview during which the reporter could ask all his or her own questions and press the subject for responses to them. Often, in a news conference, an individual reporter might not be recognized at all. And often there is little opportunity for follow-up questions. During the Vietnam War, reporters came to call the military’s daily 5 p.m. press briefing “the five o’clock follies” because of their frustration with official evasiveness, information control, and sometimes downright lying.
Box 13.1. Why Do People Call News Conferences?
1. News conferences are a good way for an individual, company or government agency to publicize a product, issue, event or agenda.
2. News conferences allow a source to control how information is released. Even a contentious news conference gives a source better control than many interview situations do.
3. Because the subject is often a surprise, news conferences can allow sources to “spin” information to their advantage. Reporters often are not prepared to ask probing questions.
4. By putting a source in contact with several reporters at once, news conferences save the source time.
In other words, sources call news conferences because the source can better control the release of information and his or her responses to questions, while at the same time getting publicity (See Box 13.1). To take an extreme example, during the fall 2011 football season, University of South Carolina Head Football Coach Steve Spurrier called a news conference, then refused to begin it until a sportswriter he didn’t like left the room. (The reporter had written something several months earlier that had infuriated Spurrier.)
A news conference can also save a source a lot of time; instead of sitting down for a series of time-consuming individual interviews, the source can take care of all those reporters at once. So even if a televised news conference looks pretty rough on the person in front of the room, the format almost always favors him or her. And most news conferences are far more sedate than the raucous ones we remember seeing. By the way, until the advent of broadcast news, news conferences were always called press conferences. Some people still use that convention, believing that “press” can be a generic term encompassing all news media. In this text we’ll use “news conference.”
As with anything you do as a reporter, you will need to determine whether and how your participation in a news conference will serve your audience. There are a number of decision points. The first is whether to go at all. Public relations people and “handlers” pursue two strategies when announcing news conferences: They might announce in advance what the news conference will cover, especially if they know the topic will attract a lot of attention. Or they might insist on keeping the topic secret until the reporters show up. Often, that’s a good indicator that reporters will not be much interested; the only way the source can get reporters to attend the news conference is to keep them in suspense.
Another decision point for the reporter comes when, as sometimes happens, sources put conditions on the news conference, as Steve Spurrier did. While booting a reporter out of a news conference is unusual, a source will frequently will make clear in advance of a news conference that he will not discuss a certain topic or will not answer questions about that topic. This reflects the old tension between the agenda the source thinks is important and the agenda you think is most important to your audience. If a source puts conditions on a news conference, you as a reporter must decide whether it’s worth agreeing to those conditions just to get access to the source for comments on what the source does want to talk about.
A third decision point comes when you consider whether you can get your job done in the format of a news conference. You must consider the possibility that the speaker will not call on you to answer the questions you want to pose. You must also consider whether other reporters are apt to keep the speaker on point. You have little control over what other reporters want to ask the source about. And do you want to tip other reporters off about a story you’re working on by asking your questions in their presence?
For you to have any chance of reaping benefit from a news conference, and for you to deal effectively with these decision points, getting the background is essential. Again, do your homework. Find out all you can about what is apt to happen at the news conference before it happens. Find out about the source: Why is he or she in a position to call a news conference? Current popularity or notoriety? Why? The point person for a hot topic? What’s the topic? What do we already know, and can you anticipate the next development? What happened recently to precipitate the news conference? Check your clips or file tape. Talk to other people close to the source or close to the issue that precipitated the news conference. Look for documents or online resources that can fill you in.
When you get into the news conference, remember that the source’s answers to all questions are fair game to all the reporters there. You don’t have to ask the question to be able to use the response. Sometimes the source will want only to read a statement, and will say that he or she will not take questions. Try to ask some anyway. Challenge the speaker. Try to corner him or her afterwards to ask the questions you need answers to. Many sources who say they won’t answer questions find it hard to walk away when reporters start asking them. After the news conference, phone the source or his or her representatives to ask more questions. Often you can get more information that way.
If you are reporting for broadcast, it’s usually best to tape the entire news conference and pick the bites you want later. Remember, it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.
Remember also that your story might well focus only on one subject among several covered in the news conference. Just as the source’s agenda might not be your audience’s, so other reporters’ agendas might not coincide with your own news judgment.
Reporters occasionally ask questions about a topic that the source has already said he or she won’t discuss. In that case, whether to answer or not is still up to the source. If he or she chooses to answer, you may use the response, despite what the source said previously about what he or she wouldn’t answer.
Be sure to place what you get at the news conference in the appropriate context. Here again, your background becomes crucial to the story. Do your homework.
Sometimes a source or his or her representative will tell you the topic of a news conference only if you agree to an embargo: That is, you agree not to publish or broadcast a story before the news conference takes place. If you make a promise, keep it, but before you make any promises, see if you can find out from other sources what the news conference will be about. Remember that your primary obligation is to serve your audience, not a corporation or public official. If your audience will benefit from knowing the information before it is announced at a news conference, and you can share the information without breaking a promise, write the story. Finding out beforehand what the news conference will be about also helps you to decide whether it’s even worth going.
To help you turn a news conference from the source’s to your audience’s advantage, remember (See Box 13.2):
1. Get the background. Find out all you can about what is apt to happen at the news conference before it happens. What precipitated the news conference? Can you anticipate the next development?
2. Check your clips or file tape. Talk to other people close to the source or close to the issue. Look for documents or online resources that can fill you in.
3. If you decide to attend, remember that the source’s answers to all questions are fair game to all the reporters there. You don’t have to ask the question to be able to use the response.
4. For broadcast stories, tape the entire news conference if you can. You can pick the bites you want later.
5. If the speaker says he or she won’t take questions, ask some anyway. Try to follow up after the news conference as well.
6. The news conference might cover several topics, but other reporters’ agendas might be different from yours. Be alert for surprises you need to follow up on, but otherwise, stick to your agenda on behalf of your audience.
Box 13.2 Strategies for Covering News Conferences
1. Do your homework. Find out all you can about what prompted the news conference.
2. If the person calling the news conference is trying to keep the subject a secret, talk to other people who might tip you. You don’t want to waste time going to a news conference that has no news. If you do go, you want to be prepared.
3. All the answers you hear are fair game for you to share with your audience, no matter who asked the question. You don’t have to “own” the questions to use the responses.
4. Try to tape the entire news conference if you are working for broadcast. That ensures that you will have the bites you need later. You might consider archiving for later use the material you don’t put in today’s story.
5. If the speaker says he or she won’t take questions, try asking some just the same. Don’t take no for an answer – not at first, anyway.
6. If you are using the news conference to get access to a hard-to-reach source, stick to your agenda, not the source’s, with your questions.
You have already watched several one-on-one interviews in class. This time, we have scheduled a news conference so that you can practice your questioning skills. You will base your questions for Chief Honeycutt on the statement he makes and on what you know from Exercises 12a, 12b and earlier exercises. Make sure your story focuses on any new information you obtain from the news conference. Just as you will use earlier exercises to help you formulate questions for the chief, use those exercises to provide background and context for your story. Assume it is Dec. 20, five days after the accident.