Media Training 4: They Took Me Out of Context and They Left My Best Stuff on the Cutting Room Floor

By Gerard Braud

The 2 single biggest complaints I have heard from executives over the years, after they have done an interview, is that “the reporter took me out of context” or that “the reporter left my best stuff on the cutting room floor.” (If you are young, the cutting room is where
film was edited for TV news prior to the mid 1970’s. Film that was not used in the story was thrown to the floor during editing.)

Here is the God’s Honest Truth – First, if it was your best stuff it would be in the story. What you think is your best stuff and what the reporter thinks is your best stuff may be very different. But no reporter leaves your best stuff on the cutting room floor.  Secondly, reporters never intentionally take anyone out of context. If you are taken out of context there must be a reason for it and I think I know why. Let’s break it down –

In lesson 3 I emphasized the importance of talking in well worded, professionally written quotes. Why do we all know Neil Armstrong’s quote, “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind?” The reason we know it is because it is a well written quote from a professional writer and Armstrong practiced as part of his pre-flight training. It was not a spontaneous thought or ad lib by Neil Armstrong as he became the first man to set foot on the moon.

Your best stuff should be a well written practiced quote. Hey, if it is good enough for Neil Armstrong, it should be good enough for you.

Unfortunately, spokespeople who refuse to go through media training are usually guilty of making some spontaneous, inflammatory statement that becomes the quote. Generally they say something really dumb that they regret later. The problem is once it is said, it’s said. There is no taking it back. There is no do-over.

So my big rule for you in this category is that someone is going to edit what you say; it should be and must be you. Editing starts when the quote is written.

And remember this — reporters all recognize a good quote. If you want proof, attend a news conference and watch the reporters as they take notes. It is like watching a ballet as all of the reporters raise their notebooks at the same time to write a quote or fact as the spokesperson says something important. Then all of them put their notebooks down together, then raise them all together again as they hear the next important quote or fact.

Let’s now look at the issue of, “they took me out of context.”

Being taken out of context is usually the fault of the spokesperson. It is generally caused by the spokesperson being unclear, transposing important words, speaking in jargon or trying to give too many facts. That results in the reporter misunderstanding what the spokesperson meant. In short, something gets lost in translation.

How can you keep from being taken out of context?

Don’t try to overload the reporter with facts. Reporters write in an inverted pyramid style. That means they start with a headline that is the synopsis of the story. Then they add the next broad general fact and so on. Seldom does the reporter get into great detail and an abundance of facts. So, don’t get caught in the trap of trying to give too many facts.

Also, realize that the flaw of giving lots of facts and details is often a personality trait. Accountants, engineers, doctors and lawyers live in a world of details where numbers and facts must be precise. Hence, they want to be exact in what they say and they say too much; they give details beyond the reporter’s comprehension. A print reporter is likely only writing a 12-20 sentence synopsis, a radio reporter is only writing 6-8 sentences and a TV reporter is only writing 10-12 sentences. Usually the miscommunication begins when the spokesperson may want to tell the details of “War and Peace” but the reporter is only looking for the CliffsNotes.

If you keep it simple you help the reporter write their story without miscommunications or misinterpretation and you won’t be taken out of context. That’s why in so many media training programs the trainer will ask the spokesperson to focus on just their 3 most important messages.

Next, forget the corporate and non-profit jargon, buzzwords and the government acronyms. Jargon, buzzwords and acronyms are speed bumps to comprehension. They are easily misunderstood by the reporter. The reporter then writes what they think they heard you say. However, if you were not clear, then the story will be wrong. It is your fault and not their fault.

Finally, before the interview is over, ask the reporter if they clearly understand all of the words you used. An embarrassed reporter may nod their head in agreement, yet be too embarrassed to ask you to define certain terms that you used.

In summary… Keep it simple.

In our next lesson we’ll address bias in the media.


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