When journalists come to local groups or events, how can group members and organizers prepare?
Risks and benefits
Media coverage can provide an opportunity to spread EA ideas to wider audiences. However, given that you are rarely in control of a media story’s angle or the editorial decisions that will contribute to the story’s message, a story can just perpetuate misinformation, or a quote you give may be taken out of context to sensationalize EA. The adage ‘all publicity is good publicity’ is probably not the one to follow.
There is also a problem of being associated with media outlets that are controversial, and of the media outlet’s brand polluting or seeping into the EA brand. This means that it’s often best to avoid media opportunities with a very strong political bent or that deal in controversial topics outside the scope of EA.
We’re happy to have journalists contact CEA with questions. Please refer them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If a journalist wants to talk with you or your EA group, it’s a good idea to talk to us (at the above address) for any pointers and for help deciding about whether to meet with them.
You don’t have to talk to journalists, and it’s often a better idea not to. You can always say, “Sorry, I’m really not the best person to talk to about that.”
You can close events to the press. Having media there creates extra work for organizers, and you will not always have time for that. For example, here’s the message we send to journalists who apply to EA Global:
“I wanted to let you know that we’re happy to have you there as a community member who’s interested in effective altruism, but the event is closed to the press and we won’t be allowing interviews, etc. at the event.”
Of course, people can always notes and write about their experience, but you can decide whether they record people at your event.
During a visit:
Make sure everyone present knows the person is here as a journalist, so group members can avoid saying anything they wouldn’t want to see in print. For example, someone who discusses a career change they’re considering might not want their current employer to hear about this via an article.
Assign the journalist a friendly guide to introduce them to interesting people, help explain jargon, and check about whether they have questions. You may be able to clear up misunderstandings. This guide can also be sure that anyone joining the conversation understands that the person is a journalist (in a friendly way: “Adam, have you met Diane? She writes for the Post, she’s thinking of doing a piece about our group.”)
Find out what they already know about EA so you can correct misperceptions. For example, many journalists have heard about EA’s connection with effective charitable giving and earning to give, but may not know about the focus on careers that do good directly. They may also be familiar with one or two cause areas but not realize that there is a broader spread.
Very few journalists will do an in-depth piece on the fundamentals of EA, so be sure they get some main ideas summed up concisely.
A few journalists want to make us look strange or unreasonable, but many of them come away impressed by the deep moral commitment that many EAs have. Help them find the human interest story. Give them the opportunity to see not just what we do, but why. Two examples:
I feel I got lucky in a lot of ways — to be healthy, to have an education, to live in a developed country. I find it really unfair that so many people don’t have even the basics, and I want to make the world more fair by sharing some of what I have.
I grew up after the Cold War, but it’s frightening to look back and see how close the world came to nuclear war many times. I’m really grateful to the people who worked hard to prevent that. I think we have an important responsibility to think about the technologies being developed now and how to use them safely so that our grandchildren look back and feel relieved that things worked out all right.
Write and offer to answer any questions that come up as they’re putting the piece together.
You can always ask to fact-check a piece, though they may refuse. In some countries fact-checking by the person interviewed is considered standard, while in others it’s considered a compromise of journalistic ethics.
(For example, someone once published a piece on me saying I was so frugal I don’t even use public transportation but walk everywhere to save money! They seem to have completely made this up or misunderstood something, and I wish I had asked to check the piece for major inaccuracies. You may also want to ask for tone changes, like the piece that called my husband by his name but referred to me as “Mom.”)
Thoughts on tone and substance
Take a positive tone about EA, but don’t oversell it.
Recognize the difference between speaking about EA (the core ideas), the EA community (a diverse group of people), and the actions that people associated with EA take.
It’s rarely a good idea to make sweeping statements about all of EA — instead, explain that “some people within the community feel/do/hold the view/ …” or “we’re a group with a range of views, but we’re united by the core idea that we should do as much good as we can” etc.
Be gracious about people with differing viewpoints or approaches to doing good. Acknowledge their good points, and then make clear where you think they’ve missed something or where you disagree. This is just generally good epistemic humility, and also keeps the discussion reasonable.
Don’t get drawn into argument, especially where there’s a strong emotive component or a potential for things to get acrimonious. Be calm and even-handed.
Be realistic about how people will interpret — or misinterpret — your comments, and caveat/adjust accordingly.