By Julie Murphree, Communication Director for Arizona Farm Bureau: I recently sat in a seminar listening to Kathleen Purvis, editor, columnist and reporter for The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer. She’s covered the food section of the paper since 1989 and been a professional journalist since 1978. She knows food and she knows how to get a story.

Her "I'll Bite" column is obviously all about food. Just checking out some of her articles makes my mouth water. 

She spoke to 60+plus Farm Bureau communication and public relations professionals from across the United States last month about telling agriculture’s story. Of course, this was a priority session since I’m so focused on getting Arizona agriculture’s story told.

American Farm Bureau's Kari Barbic preps the media panel during the SPARC Conference last month that included Kathleen Purvis (seated left) and the SciBabe, Yvette d'Entremont (seated right).

“Look, farmers often complain, with reason, that people treat them like they’re stupid,” said Purvis, a longtime member and past officer of the Association of Food Journalists, a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance and also serves on the awards committee for the James Beard Foundation. “But it’s also true that sometimes, people treat newspaper writers like we’re stupid too. And that doesn’t help anyone.”

She went on to say, “Sometimes, it is my job to be stupid. But being stupid is actually hard work. It takes preparation, and background research, to ask a good stupid question. Try not to jump to conclusions about me, though; I may ask what sound like very simple questions. What I’m trying for, though is to be simple, not simple-minded.”

With that, Purvis gave the audience a list of her top 13 tips on how to be interviewed:

  1. Make sure I get your name right. Seriously, do you know how hard it is to write someone’s name down when they’re spelling it out to you?
  2. Ask me a few questions. It’s OK to ask about the focus of my story and the format. Don’t assume that I’m Mike Wallace and the “60 Minutes” van is pulling up with me. But you can help me better if you understand what I’m doing, and you do have the right to say “no” when I ask to talk. If you want, Google me and see what kind of stories I do. I assume that you have.
  3. If you’ve got background material you can send, or a source you can recommend to help me understand, please share it. Believe me, we all appreciate it.
  4. Think about the 2 or 3 points you really want to tell me. Usually, most reporters will wrap up an interview by asking if there’s something we haven’t asked. That’s your cue, to make sure I understand what’s important to you. I may not have room to use it, or it may be way off topic for what I’m doing right now, but there’s always another story and another deadline. Sometimes the points you raise with me will help me interview someone else.
  5. Don’t get uncomfortable when we’re silent. One of the things old reporters learn is not to talk too much. Leave the silence unfilled. I tell young writers this all the time: God gave you two ears and one mouth so you’ll listen more than you talk. If I’m silent, I’m listening. Or, maybe I’m thinking. That’s a good thing.
  6. Don’t talk too fast. Hollywood shows farmers and Southerners talking slow, but anyone who knows us know we talk fast. I can’t use your quotes if I don’t write them down exactly as you say them. Cut me a break occasionally and let me catch up. Take a breath, or pause when you say something that’s really important to you. When you say a number, give me a minute to make sure I have that right.
  7. Be prepared for video. We all do them now; many of us are required to make videos or we’re working with photographers who are doing them. What we’re looking for, often, is 30 seconds, usually no more than 1 minute. So you don’t have time to ramble.
  8. Don’t be impatient with a follow-up call. That’s a good thing – it means I’m really making sure I understood and I got your information right.
  9. Notice the time. We love to hear story ideas and get story tips. But don’t pitch writers or editors in the middle of the week. Most of us are socked by deadlines. Mondays are good, Fridays are better. Friday mornings are GREAT!
  10. Remember who we write stories for: I’m not writing a story for you. I’m not writing it for me. I’m writing for people who want to know you. People who want to understand where their food comes from, and how, and why. People who want to be your customers, or who want to make sure you stay in business. People who want to understand why the price of eggs just went up, or why they haven’t seen as many peaches this year.
  11. Don’t be a Chicken Little: If your sky is always falling, the world will stop paying attention. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t speak honestly about problems, but it does mean you should mix it up a little.
  12. Learn who tells your story: We’d all like to be National Geographic, with lots of space and pages full of glossy pictures. But that kind of media is going, going, gone. Your local paper is probably embattled, and your TV news team only want 3 minutes of eye-catching video.
  13. Always remember, it’s OK to say, “I don’t know.” We’re all afraid of sounding stupid. I’m not the only one. But don’t make it up or try to talk on and on to cover up that you don’t know something. If you don’t know, or you’ve never experienced something, it’s OK to tell me that. I’d rather that you did.

Purvis’ 13 tips give insider information on what we need to do to help reporters tell Arizona agriculture’s story. Read carefully and reference periodically as a reminder. In the meantime, don’t forget to take that reporter’s call.

Editor’s Note: Purvis is a previous nominee for the James Beard Foundation journalism awards, she has won awards from AFJ and the N.C. Press Association and is a winner of the Missouri Lifestyles Journalism Award for news feature reporting. She authored “Pecans” and “Bourbon” in the Savor the South cookbook series from UNC Press.  

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