Engaging the Media

This page is archived material and is no longer updated. It may contain outdated information and broken links. The material presented on these pages is the product of five regional symposia held on restorative justice between June 1997 and January 1998.

The news media comprise a key element of any public safety effort. Journalists have a significant role in educating the public about crime, contributing to crime prevention and community safety efforts, and publicizing major policy initiatives that affect crime and victimization. Historically, much public safety/crime reporting has been negative, and somewhat critical of entities that are charged with protecting people who live in the United States. Some exceptions -- including poignant stories of crime victims' struggles and innovative programs that incorporate community members to fight crime -- exist. Restorative justice can be such an "exception."

There has been little new media coverage of restorative justice. Several factors account for this fact:

  • Restorative justice cannot be reduced to a "soundbite" and, as such, can be difficult to define in terms to which the news media are accustomed.
  • Many restorative practices are best defined for the news media in their program context, as opposed to the general principles upon which they are based.
  • Some restorative justice practitioners lack strong news media contacts, and/or experience in dealing with journalists.
  • The media may be suspect of new approaches to justice, particularly those that lack evidence of success that is provided by longitudinal program evaluation. Many restorative justice practices and programs are too new to be declared "successful."

The power of the news media can be intimidating. Restorative justice practitioners should not be afraid of initiating media interactions but, rather, should embrace media relations as an opportunity to educate the community about restorative justice, its principles and benefits.

This section is intended to be a "primer" on restorative justice and public relations.

Additional resources to develop and/or enhance media relations skills are included at the end of this text.

Who Are the Media?

The "media" consist of a variety of entities and individuals, and offer endless opportunities for publicity about restorative justice. Practitioners should look beyond traditional media venues, and incorporate all reasonable opportunities for community outreach into their media efforts. The major venues for community-based media outreach include the following:

  • Print media.
  • Electronic media.
  • The World Wide Web.

Print Media

Daily newspapers: There are over 2,000 daily newspapers in the United States, ranging from small town newspapers to USA Today (with a worldwide circulation and distribution). Journalists who might be interested in restorative justice approaches include:

  • Crime reporters: Can be identified by either contacting dailies and requesting specific names, and/or by reading the newspaper to cull reporters who are assigned to the crime beat.
  • Feature reporters: Assigned to report on general topics that are of interest to readers, of which public safety is a priority. Feature articles tend to be longer, and focus more on programmatic solutions to problems facing a community.
  • Editorial boards: Responsible for researching and writing opinion columns on topics relevant to a community or region. The editorial section in daily newspapers is one of the "most read" pages, and one of the most effective outreach tools if the editorial slant is positive. The best way to access editorial boards is to prepare a "press kit" (described later in this text) that describes a program in detail, mail it to the paper's editor, and request a meeting with the editorial board.
  • Weekly Newspapers: Weekly publications tend to cater to smaller communities and, as such, focus on activities that are important to a small region of neighborhoods. With smaller staff and longer deadlines, weekly newspapers are a significant venue for restorative justice practitioners.
  • Syndicates and News Services: News services (such as United Press International and Associated Press) are usually located in larger cities. Often, local news articles that are deemed "of interest" to larger audiences are distributed and published by news services. News syndicates extend public outreach from major news media (such as the Los Angeles Times and New York Times) to hundreds of other newspapers for publication.
  • Special Interest Publications: Wherever there is a "special interest," there is usually a publication that publicizes it. Myriad publications are targeted at women, persons of color, geographical jurisdictions, labor unions, faith communities, etc. Special interest publications include media venues geared toward justice professionals, crime victims, community leaders, and juvenile and criminal offenders.

Electronic Media

Network Television: Television is regarded as the source of news for two-thirds of people in live in America. Most communities, regardless of size, have at least one network affiliate. In addition to news broadcasts, other areas of interest include: talk shows; morning lead-ins to the network morning shows; television actualities/editorials; public service announcements; and documentaries and other special broadcasts that focus on topics of interest to a community.

Independent television: Many communities also have independent stations that offer the same media outreach opportunities as network television.

Cable television: Local cable stations offer myriad opportunities for public service programming, and should be contacted to determine their lineup. In addition, cable also offers "community calendar" stations that update viewers on activities scheduled in the upcoming weeks.

Radio: When one considers that virtually every home and car have a radio, this is one of the most significant venues for public outreach about restorative justice. Radio venues include: all news; talk radio; ethnic stations; and educational radio (such as Public Service Broadcasting).

The World Wide Web

Many restorative justice practitioners have created their own web sites on the Internet to provide consistent, comprehensive information about their efforts. Web sites can be electronically linked to other sites built upon mutual interests, such as criminal and juvenile justice, victim assistance, and community mobilization. In addition, the world wide web offers endless opportunities for improved communications through electronic mail.

Community Resources for Restorative Justice Public Outreach

Restorative justice practitioners can tap a variety of resources to support their public outreach and community education efforts. Some suggestions for building a strong outreach program include:

  • Offenders on community service: If any offenders under community supervision have experience in writing, journalism, communications and/or graphic design, their talents can be put to use in a very restorative manner! Community supervision officers should be asked to be alert for clients who fit any of these categories.
  • Colleges and universities: Through partnerships with various departments in higher education, internships provide immeasurable benefits for both sponsoring agencies and students. Journalism and communications departments should be contacted to determine opportunities for obtaining such student support.
  • Commercial art schools: Since 1986, commercial art schools have contributed incredible artwork to various versions of the annual National Crime Victims' Rights Week Resource Guide, which is utilized for public outreach.
  • Public relations firms: Some firms take on special projects or "adopt" non-profit organizations on a pro bono basis. Public relations firms can help with marketing plans, message development, graphic design, writing and much more.
  • Civic organizations: Many community-based civic organizations serve as clearinghouses for matching their volunteers with worthy causes. Civic volunteers can help plan and implement special educational events, or contribute to the development of public education resources.

Developing Good Media Contacts

It is important to remember that journalism is a fast-paced profession, with reporters often moving quickly to new, different assignments. As such, practitioners should remember that any roster of media contacts should be updated at least every six months.

There are ten excellent approaches to developing and maintaining good media contacts:

  1. Start with your local library. Ask a librarian to help you locate directories of news media (there are several that deal with both print and broadcast media). Directories are organized by community/zip code, so contacts for your local media should be easy to identify. Begin creating a media database, with names, addresses, telephone numbers, fax numbers, and e-mail addresses for crime beat reporters, editors, feature writers, and talk show hosts or producers.
  2. Read the news, watch television, and listen to the radio. Are there are reporters, talk show hosts, editorial writers or newscasters whose stories indicate an interest in innovative approaches to society's problems?
  3. Compliment the media! When you read, view or listen to a good story, drop a note to the reporter. Send a carbon copy to the reporter's editor, for good measure!
  4. Determine if your region has a chapter of Delta Sigma Chi, the society of professional journalists. Often, issues related to crime are on their annual conference agendas. Make a call to see if you can speak at one of their frequent training programs.
  5. Don't be afraid of the "cold call." Once you've identified journalists that cover social and justice issues, pick up the phone and explain your work in restorative justice. Offer to send an information package, and keep your resources professional and brief.
  6. Be proactive with the media. Write letters-to-the-editor. Contact radio and television stations to see if they accept actualities, which are simply editorial broadcasts that express an opinion.
  7. Get to know the editors of your community's newspaper(s). Write a letter explaining your program, its mission and goals, and how it differs from current approaches to justice. Request a brief meeting to fill them in on details. You'd be surprised how many of these contacts turn into editorial board sessions!
  8. Be a valuable resource to the media. Use your good contacts in the justice community to your advantage -- become a "human Rolodex" for journalists, providing them with referrals that can help them expand and shape stories.
  9. Non-profit agencies should consider asking a journalist to serve as a member of the Board of Directors or in some other advisory capacity. They can make consistent, valuable contributions to your media outreach and community education efforts.
  10. Find out where journalists hang out in your community. Usually, it is a restaurant or lounge close to their offices. Casual, impromptu meetings often turn into long-lasting relationships.

Building Successful Media Relationships

Veteran award-winning journalist Colleen Patrick identifies three factors that are key to successful media relationships: attitude; preparation; and persistence. Patrick offers "checklists" of ideas that might contribute to each of these factors:

Attitude

  • Am I open and sincere?
  • Am I ready to receive critical questions about my subject and not be defensive?
  • Have I dealt with my emotions adequately? Am I ready to talk to the media without losing my temper?
  • Am I prepared to present my subject briefly and enthusiastically?
  • Do I feel confident about the merits of my story and presentation?
  • Do I believe I sound like I am confident?
  • Do I feel positive about what I have to say?
  • Do I believe others will benefit from this information?
  • Am I ready to be pleasantly assertive if I am put off at first by someone who does not seem to be interested in my story?
  • Am I ready to keep calling and writing until I feel my story has a fair hearing?
  • Am I ready to ask for advice if I believe I need help?
  • Am I ready to have fun with this process?

Preparation

  • Is my press release, press letter, fact sheet, backgrounder or story announcement brief and neat?
  • Does every word count on my paperwork?
  • Are all the releases, fact sheets, letters or backgrounders easy to read?
  • Do I have copies of newspaper clippings or other additional information to include which might make my topic more credible?
  • Am I sufficiently knowledgeable about my subject to talk comfortably about any aspect of it?
  • Do I know whom to contact if I need more information?
  • Am I willing to rehearse my presentation before I speak with media contacts?
  • Am I ready to enjoy my contact with the media?

Persistence

  • Have I made a complete list of media people to call so I have someone else to call if I am turned down?
  • Am I ready to start all over again tomorrow if I am turned down today?
  • Am I ready to listen to constructive feedback about my approach and presentation?
  • Am I confident enough to understand the difference between constructive feedback and someone's incorrect opinion?
  • Am I ready to do more homework in case I need more information?
  • Do I have someone or a group of supporters to be there for me if the going gets tough?
  • Am I willing to listen to those who disagree with my side of the story?
  • Am I willing to understand that both sides of any issue deserve to be heard?

"Speaking the Language" of Journalists

Journalists need and like information that is direct, concise and to-the-point. Rambling sentences, typos, and/or inaccurate information will cause your media outreach to be ignored. While not everybody is an excellent writer, often practitioners can work in "teams," combining an "idea" person with someone who possesses strong writing skills.

Two important resources should be considered for use by restorative justice practitioners:

  1. Any "Journalism 101" textbook, which is readily available in the bookstore of most community colleges and universities. Journalism texts cover basic writing skills. In addition, if you know what journalists are taught, you will have a better idea of how to best present your information in a manner that is preferable to them.
  2. A "stylebook" for writers and editors, which is considered the "bible" for journalists. Stylebooks include tips on language use, style of presentation, and definitions of terms. An excellent stylebook is published by U.S. News and World Report, and is available. The U.S. News & World Report Stylebook for Writers and Editors is available by contacting (800) 836-6397, Extension 2500, or by writing: U.S. News Stylebook, c/o Sisk Fulfillment, Dept. 2500M, P.O. Box 470, Federalsburg, MD 21632.

Tools of the Trade

There are six essential "tools of the trade" in dealing with media professionals.

  • Press release.
  • Public service announcements.
  • Editor's advisory.
  • Opinion/editorial columns.
  • Letters-to-the-editor.
  • Press conference.

Each of these tools requires considerable planning, yet is quite simple to master with practice. An in-depth overview of each tool, developed by the National Victim Center, is included in Appendix A of this section.

Conclusion

It is essential to remember that while you and your organization need the media, the media also need you! Restorative justice practitioners have much to offer media professionals, who are constantly seeking fresh and innovative story ideas. When these ideas are presented in a timely, professional and accurate manner, the opportunities for building strong, ongoing relationships with the news media to enhance public education and community outreach efforts are endless.

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Date Created: December 5, 2007