DEMOCRATIZING OUR MEDIA: HOW YOUR VOICE CAN BE HEARD
by P. D. Spyropoulos, Esq.
Below is a brief practical guide on how you, the private citizen, can make a difference and have your voice heard by our media establishment.
The Zen of Media Advocacy
Media advocacy is not brain surgery, there are no magic tricks, no secret formulas. What you basically need are two things: (1) to dedicate and invest a certain amount of time each week as part of your own, personal lobbying effort; and (2) use a commonsense approach that you use everyday to communicate with others in your professional and personal life..
Most importantly, keep in mind that our media establishment is not an unassailable ivory tower. When you begin your adventure as a media advocate, you will be surprised at just how much access you can have to editors, writers and journalists, and just how open they often are to your input.
You're hiring yourself for a part-time job
* Dedicate a certain amount of time each week for media advocacy activities--it could be one hour or one day--and stick to it. Even if you don't feel like doing it or you're not burning about an issue, just go through the motions. This will help establish a routine for times when your advocacy is really needed. Think of it as a part-time job you must do.
* Take initiative on your own. You don't have to wait for AHEPA, AHI, AHMP or anyone else to tell you when and what you should be responding to. If you see a media item that deserves a response, "Just Do It"!
Each of you are ambassadors
* Don't forget that, like it or not, how you comport yourself and what you write will reflect on your entire group, both positively and negatively.
* Every contact with a journalist or other media professional is both a golden public relations opportunity as well as a potentiality for damage.
* Whether you're writing a letter or making a phone call, a courteous, friendly and professional approach is almost always the best way to conduct oneself. The journalist will likely be more receptive to your message, and even if you get nowhere on a particular issue, you have begun building (rather than burning) a bridge that will make the journalist more approachable and receptive to your message in the future.
* Don't feel intimidated by a journalist when speaking to him or her, but likewise don't feel that you need to place the other person on the defensive. Think of the person you are speaking with as a friend or colleague that you are discussing an issue with. Understand that most journalists are just regular, fair-minded people like you and me just trying to do their job.
* Exceptions to this are journalists who have crossed way beyond the line of appropriate conduct and are genuinely deserving of our reprimand or even outrage. In this case, let their superiors know about this conduct and how you feel about it, but when doing so remember that the credibility of the message is always determined by the credibility of the messenger.
* Break negative stereotypes: During the past several years some in the press have shown an increased willingness to use negative stereotypes, for example of Greeks and other groups as "ethnic hysterics", to undermine their legitimate concerns and viewpoints. This is your opportunity to help break this and other stereotypes about your group.
Educate yourself about the subject you are addressing and don't act solely on your gut reaction.
* This can not only better prepare you to write a letter or discuss an issue in a way that will make it worthwhile to a journalist, and it can also help you avoid undermining your credibility as well as that of the position you are advocating.
* Sources of information include newspapers (both mainstream as well as relating to your particular group or issues), the Internet, press releases from organizations such as AHI, books, papers, or discussions with experts or others whose knowledge and opinion you trust.
The Four Tops
There are four things that can sway the media: credibility/persuasiveness, relationships, financial pressure, and numbers:
(1) To achieve the first, you need to have the appropriate credentials, and/or be able to think, write or argue on an appropriate level. While you may not be an expert, you can quote someone who is to give added weight to your letter. This is not a zero-sum proposition: even if you are not a distinguished expert on an issue, or a writer deserving of the Pulitzer Prize, the more informed and persuasive your letter, the more weight it will be given. No matter what stage you're at, everyone can try to improve their writing and advocacy skills. Always keep your audience in mind. If you're writing to a conservative paper for example, your approach will be different than when writing for a liberal one. Always try to apply the points you're trying to make to more general issues that are relevant to your audience. For example, Turkey's invasion of Cyprus may not be relevant to an editor, but its importance of upholding the rule of law against aggression may be.
(2) To cultivate relationships with members of the media, after making the first contact you need to follow up, keeping in mind the "Each of you are ambassadors" section above. But remember, there is often a fine line between pestering and legitimate follow-up. Try to make yourself useful by offering or forwarding a limited amount of manageable information on an issue the journalist has expressed an interest in. Heck invite them out for coffee or lunch if you can. The point is, like all other relationships, cultivating and strengthening them takes a long-term investment of time and effort, but can be perhaps the most effective way that you can gain meaningful access to the press and media.
(3) We will briefly look at the use of financial pressure, mostly through advertisers, below.
(4) The beauty of the fourth method of advocacy, namely, that of playing the "numbers game", is that anyone and everyone can make an important difference with a minimum of effort, time or skill. Your contribution could be a one-sentence e-mail or a quick phone call--the point is not necessarily to get a letter to the editor published or to painstakingly draft a persuasive argument but to register your "vote" with the media source.
For example, an article in Business Week cited inaccurate numbers regarding the deportation of Muslims under the Greco-Turkish population exchange of 1923 and, incredibly, cited this as an example of the mistreatment of minorities alongside the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust without reference to the genocide of the Greeks of the Pontus or the concurrent ethnic cleansing of Turkey's 2 million Christians. After speaking to numerous people at the magazine, we were informed that the editors were aware and concerned about the issue because they had received about a hundred letters addressing it. Depending of course on the publication or media source, as a rule of thumb 100 letters is the "quantum of persuasion", the point at which editors, newsmen etc. will pay attention to a particular issue. The more letters or calls of course the better.
The Nuts and Bolts
Letters (e-mails and faxes)
* The most common and direct way for people to give feedback to the press is through letters, and usually letters to the editor. The rule of thumb here is Short and Sweet. Not only are editors more likely to read briefer, more concise letters, but most newspapers have word limits for letter submissions, usually between 200 to 300 words. Go substantially over this cut-off and your letter will likely not even be read.
* As editors prefer submissions that need the least amount of editing before publication, shorter letters have the best chances of getting published. This means that you must stick to presenting only two to three ideas, as you will need an introduction, a conclusion, and supporting facts or arguments for your ideas.
* There are exceptions to this, for example when you are writing a letter to a superior or other person that is not intended for publication, you may exceed the word limit but again, the shorter the better. If you believe that there will be genuine interest in an issue, you may want to forward a lengthier letter. What we often do is forward two versions of a letter, a long and a short version. The longer version can inform or alternatively be discarded, while the smaller version is the one that meets the above prerequisites for publication.
* It's important to remember that even if a letter is not published, you are helping to educate the editors and editorial staff that read your letter, and oftentimes letters will be forwarded to the relevant author or be circulated among the editorial staff.
* Carbon copying (cc) the superiors and colleagues of a journalist whose piece you are replying to can give you more bang for your buck. It will not only make it more likely your letter will be considered by the journalist because he knows his peers and superiors may be reading your letter, but it is also an opportunity for you to educate these other individuals as well.
Probably the single most effective way in which you can get your letter to the editor published, or get your point across to editorial staff, is by following up on your letter with one or more simple phone calls to the letters editor. While some media sources try to discourage calls, for example they may explicitly state on their phone message that they do not accept calls, they actually do accept calls from members of the public all the time. Often it just takes some detective work on your part to find the right numbers of editors or their assistants. Once you break through this silk gauntlet the first time, you're generally "in" and should have a much easier time in the future. You may also simply call "cold" without first having sent a letter to register your opinion. This works better with the networks as they are often set up with viewer feedback hotlines and expect feedback via phone moreso than newspapers.
Forward select materials
A brief letter will usually not be enough to adequately persuade and educate, so you may want to forward supporting documents, books or other materials. It's best to do so only after first calling the journalist and asking, because unless a journalist is interested in the issue, your material will likely end up in the wastebasket as the journalist is often running on borrowed time and will likely have "bigger fish to fry".
While a visit to a media source to voice your position personally is often not allowed by security in the bigger papers, and generally is poor etiquette when unannounced ahead of time, such a visit where practicable, even to simply hand-deliver a letter to the editor, will always make an impression and convey the seriousness of your commitment.
Contact advertisers or sponsors
While a TV producer, newspaper or magazine editor might blow you off, getting a phone call from an advertiser or a sponsor who is paying their bills will get your issue noticed. Free speech or opinions by a journalist we disagree with should not be interfered with in this manner. Yet where a media professional has clearly crossed the line, this can be an effective way to pressure superiors for remedial action.
Let us know what's out there
Let relevant organizations such as AHI, AHEPA and AHMP know about the media item and forward it to them if appropriate.
Network with others advocates and organizations
Organize a network of 5 or more friends or fellow advocates into a group that can respond in numbers.
All we are saying, is give truth a chance
For truly outrageous and intransigent patterns of disinformation and bias that cannot be addressed using the prior methods, there's always physical picketing and protests as a last resort.
Get on AHMP's e-mail list
Anti-Hellenic and other related bias has risen sharply over the past few years, and it seems that we've had to disseminate media alerts to our volunteers and subscribers on a more frequent basis. Please forward your e-mail address to receive our mailings in order to participate in future media alerts.
P. D. Spyropoulos is the Executive Director of the American Hellenic Media Project (AHMP), a non-profit think-tank created to address inaccuracy and bias in the media and encourage independent, ethical and responsible journalism.
PO Box 1150
New York, NY 10028-0008
Posted: April 25, 2000