On Speaking With The Media

Last week, under the sad and preventable circumstances of Glee actor Cory Monteith’s death, I had an opportunity to talk with the print news-media about a public health issue that is close to my heart: harm reduction. While I’ve spoken with media before, last week was the first time I’d been directly contacted for comment, and I was contacted three times that day by different reporters! What a debut: I wasn’t prepared, and I got a bit frazzled. Still, I think I managed to get my point across, and to learn some things as well: which is what this post is all about.

First, I piggybacked.

PersonNo, I didn’t ride the reporters’ shoulders. Piggybacking is a media advocacy strategy where you use a news story that is getting a lot of coverage, and is somewhat related to your point, to gain media coverage for your ideas and campaigns.

I’ve never been a big Glee fan (though I will admit I’ve watched a couple of episodes here and there) and I didn’t even know who Cory Monteith was until the evening before I got the phone call. I wasn’t prepared to comment on Cory’s death in particular. What I was prepared to talk about was the preventable nature of overdose, the fact that low-income people overdose rather frequently and it doesn’t become a big news story, and the need for public health-based responses to drug addiction. So, that’s where I took the conversation with the reporters. A couple of the reporters weren’t very receptive. One even put me on hold a couple of times (I didn’t get mentioned in his story). But, one reporter listened and is even planning a follow-up story based on some of the comments I made. Pretty good for a piggybacking strategy I think.

Next, I became a bit like a broken record.

broken record

The reporters seemed to have their own agendas of what I would say for their stories, but I kept repeating my main points and strategies. Testing drugs for purity and adulterants can help prevent overdose. We test drugs in people’s systems after they die, but won’t drugs before people get to that point. Naloxone is a life-saving drug which needs to be more available in Canada. People in the Downtown Eastside die all the time from overdose, and we don’t get the same level of media attention as Cory Monteith. Overdose happens frequently and is preventable, we need to address it through public health strategies: not criminalization.

Some of what I said didn’t make it into the stories. In fact, one reporter only cited me saying something I’d barely touched on. But some of my main points were reported in another story.

The last thing I learned was not to say anything I wouldn’t want to be quoted on. In one of my earlier conversations that day I felt like I’d been a bit aloof about Cory’s death. I’m not. I think it’s very sad, it’s just that it’s something I’ve seen a lot of working in harm reduction and I get a bit cranky when I see so much media attention for a celebrity while my friends and clients die from overdose in the Downtown Eastside, in Victoria and in Toronto without so much as an obituary.

After that interview I made very sure to keep repeating that his death was tragic, and relating all my other points to that. Reporters pushed me to say what they wanted me to say, but I kept making sure to control the conversation, answering the questions in the ways I wanted to, even if it meant piggybacking again.

In the end, the experience went well. Some of the key messages I was promoting made it into the papers in relation to a hot-topic story, meaning that people who might not normally read about overdose might read those reports. In the future, I would likely take a more pro-active approach, calling media when big news stories clearly relate to the work I do and the issues I care about.


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