Politics and activism

How to get interviewed

Obviously this relates primarily to Australian media, and from my point of view as spokesman for a community lobby organisation in my copious spare time. This isn’t a Media Watch-style exposé, but hopefully it’s of interest to somebody out there.

In general

TV feeds radio feeds newspapers feeds everyone else. They all watch each other like hawks. A story that is in a the morning papers may well get picked up by the radio stations that morning, then by the TV stations in the afternoon. Likewise a morning caller to 3AW or 3LO may prompt a newspaper article in MX or in the dailies next day.

Many journalists seem to know each other. Obviously they try and score exclusives from each other, but they also co-operate sometimes. It’s a small industry I suppose.

Journalists cover a lot of stories, sometimes many in a single day. Even those who are on particular rounds (print journalists mostly) will ask for expertise on details as they try to figure out what their story is going to say. It’s generally clear which part of the conversation is the interview (and therefore quotable) and which isn’t.

If you meet a journo in person, give them a card if you have one. Even if you do, they may spell your name or the name of your organisation wrong. That’s life.

Sometimes they’ll ask you at the end if there’s anything else you’d like to mention. Stick to any points not made that are relevant to the story – it’s pointless trying to turn it into another story. Save that for another day.

If they say “Can we keep this between ourselves” they mean they are pretty sure nobody else knows about it, and they’ve scooped an exclusive story. If you have any interest in ever talking to anybody in the media ever again, it’s important that you don’t betray that confidence, even if someone later in the day talks to you about the same issue. You could tip them off after the exclusive story has gone out though.

Wire services feed most of the other outlets with supplementary material, and are active on local stories even when lots of other outlets are chasing them.

Media monitoring organisations such as Rehame as such they don’t do interviews, but they do monitor other outlets’ interviews and stories.

So far there are few Drudge-style Internet-only outlets in the mainstream media, at least in Australia. Most of them are existing players, feeding their web sites from their TV, radio and newspaper resources. (This must be easiest for newspapers, who already have their material in written form. No wonder a lot of TV news sites just show wire service stuff and a little video.)

Most journalists are very friendly and easy to get along with, and have little interest in making you look or sound like a weirdo, unless you really are one. (Mind you they do of course sometimes do hatchet jobs on high-flyers and the occasional politician.)

The quote

You have a sentence, maybe two, to get your point across.

With TV you’ll have some warning and get to think about what you say before you meet them. (But they could still ask curly questions). Radio and newspapers can suffer that delay, but it’s often you’ll be making it up on the spot. This tests your knowledge on the issues: you have to know what you’re talking about, and come up with a nice turn of phrase. Both get easier with practice.

Some journalists know shorthand, others don’t. This will become apparent if you talk too fast for them. You can talk fast (but not too fast) for TV or radio (I think it makes you sound a little more intelligent, and helps prevent them chopping up your quote where you don’t want them to). But take your time with print journalists, especially those who work for local newspapers.

A journalist may have a good idea of how the story will flow beforehand. This being the case, they may ask you to say the same thing again, but putting a slightly different spin on it or use slightly different words. They often emphasise that they don’t want to put words into your mouth, and it’s important that you don’t say anything you don’t mean.

If you’re interviewed, you will always say more than is quoted. For radio and TV, if they interview you there’s a good chance it’ll get used, because electronic media journalists do much of the editing themselves, and so are a lot less subject to the vagaries of subeditors. Print articles sometimes get severely cropped to meet space requirements.

Inevitably, you can’t get bogged down in too much detail. You’ve got to be able to summarise your view into a couple of sentences at the most, because apart from feature articles in print, that’s all that will get used.

Further, don’t be afraid to say the same thing more than once, a slightly different way. Because they’ll probably only use a single quote/sound-bite, it’s important that each thing you say is relatively self-contained.

If you make a mistake in a TV or pre-recorded radio interview, just say so, pause a second and start your answer again. They won’t mind, they do it themselves all the time. If you make a mistake on a live radio interview, tough luck mate, the world heard it.

Sometimes, you’ll get taken out of context, hopefully not too badly. I don’t think this is generally deliberate, but it just emphasises then need to say what you mean, and make it self-contained.


Contrary to what you might think, newspapers often have quite long lead times. This is obvious for in-depth feature articles, but also happens with short articles. Sometimes parts of Monday’s paper are put together on the Friday beforehand.

The dailies have staff who work at various times of the week, covering the Monday to Saturday editions. They have separate staff for the Sunday editions. To me it would make more sense to have the Sunday staff do Saturday as well, but it’s probably this way due to historical accident, from the ancient times before there were 7-day-a-week papers.

It’s easiest to reach newspaper journalists in the mornings. By mid-afternoon they’re already mostly winding down, the next morning’s newspaper is already taking shape. Some late news can be gathered later into the evening, but it has to be important to make it in. Otherwise it may be a matter of “the paper’s already full” and only World War III is going to affect it.

Melbourne’s MX is a bit different, being an evening commuter paper. They have everything filed by about midday, so it can go to print and start to hit the streets by about 2:30pm. Consequently their reporters are at work appallingly early, and sometimes prepare stories the day before. They don’t actually have many reporters — about three I think, with most of their material coming from the wire services, with someone to edit and write snappy headlines.


TV, of course, relies on pictures. Within reason, if there aren’t pictures, or at least a talking head, the story never happened, and is of little interest.

They generally need their footage by early afternoon, for editing for their evening bulletins. They might allude to stories in early afternoon bulletins or newsbreaks, but if they have exclusive footage will not run it until the flagship bulletin, to avoid their competitors getting wind of it.

If you have shot great footage, TV stations might be interested if it’s newsworthy. If you’re intending it to be shared around to every channel, you have to specify this before you hand over the tape. If it’s hot, they’ll avoid sharing it around, even if you ask later.

If you’re an interviewee, they’ll generally shoot you outdoors, preferably with a suitable background behind you. Naturally they do have to take care with issues of light and sound.

They’ll turn up as a reporter and a camera operator, with a whacking great tripod. Sometimes a separate sound technician as well, but if not the reporter will end up holding the microphone. They really do use those big furry mics. Unless you’re facing a huge mob of them, shake hands with all of them, not just the reporter. They’re all people.

TV crews pretty much all drive white stationwagons. It must be an regulation.

They’ll often ask for a “walking shot” involving you walking past the camera (without looking at it), so they can intercut other things in the story when they edit. If they need to that is — often these don’t get used. That footage probably all sits in a vault somewhere.

There’s some things to keep in mind about TV appearances… don’t wear clothes that have fine stripes (strobing) or make you look fat. It probably pays to leave your “smash the state” t-shirt at home if you’re trying to look authoritative. Don’t eat stuff that leaves food between your teeth.

If you’re being interviewed by more than one person at once, they will line up the cameras and microphones in a row in front of you, and ask you questions, even if they’re covering completely different stories and are asking you different questions. I once had a Channel 7 bloke ask me about what became the lead exclusive story for that night (and hit the papers and the other TV channels the next day), while a Channel 10 bloke asked me about something else completely, oblivious to what he was missing out on.

Never look at the camera. Look at the reporter. If you’re being interviewed by two or more reporters at once, try to look at just one of them, even if a bunch of them are asking questions. If you look around too much and this it happens to be when you’re saying something they want to use, it looks odd.

Channels sometimes share footage. They’ll generally mention this. 2, 7 and 10 seem to share, but I get the feeling they all hate 9 for it being the ratings leader.

If you’re on telly, you’re unlikely to get recognised by anybody, but you’ll get told by numerous people you know already that they saw you.


Radio can be incredibly fast. They can do live coverage, and they can record an interview on the phone and have it to air five minutes later. Some of the radio people do attend press conferences, but most of their stuff is gathered by phone. The mobile phone must have revolutionised their quote-gathering.

They often prefer land-lines for sound quality reasons, particularly live-to-air, but will resort to mobiles if they have to. I memorably did one interview with Virginia Trioli on 3LO ABC Radio Melbourne, live-to-air from a train bound for Sandringham.

Much of the agenda for morning radio comes straight out of that day’s daily newspapers. Some of the material on the very early morning radio bulletins is recorded the night before. They also do a LOT of interviewing in the morning… 6 or 7am, in time for the morning drive time bulletins.

On radio they may use 2-3 quotes from whatever you say, so that they can have something slightly different for the news bulletins over a few hours.

Some of the radio stations (particularly those that don’t specialise in news/talk) really do seem to use skeleton staff, in some cases there might only be two people running it, and the newsreader is also the producer/journalist. And some affiliated stations such as Fox and Triple M share newsrooms.

In conclusion

Doing media seems scary at first, but if you get regular practice, it’s actually pretty easy, and can be a powerful tool for not only getting your message across, but achieving change for your desired cause.

Writing and submitting press releases and otherwise badgering journos to get your story up is another matter entirely, and perhaps a subject for another day.

Also of interest in the world of media this week: David Marr and Peter McEvoy review Media Watch.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

4 replies on “How to get interviewed”

I’ve often found it amusing how high-ranking, important people willingly waste their time by pretending to shuffle papers around their desk, etc. just for some filler footage.

Dave O’Neil came up to me with a camera crew on Brunswick St one night, he didn’t even tell me what show it was for or get a release form (like John Safran did for his show.) I eventually found out what show it was on, but I missed it. Several people I know have told me they saw me since then.

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