It’s a perfectly lovely Wednesday afternoon until your phone rings. It’s a reporter from The Daily Blabber, wanting to know why the assessments your company designed didn’t work online last week.
Maybe your brain is saying: Damn. Why do I have to deal with calls like this? And talking to this reporter won’t help at all; These guys don’t know anything about assessment. It’s frustrating and pointless.
Or maybe you work for a nonprofit or technical-assistance organization that supports testing systems. You might have the same reaction: these folks don’t get it! Do I really have to take this call?
If you’ve had any of these reactions, you wouldn’t be alone. But I’m here to tell you that while it might be frustrating, it certainly isn’t pointless to talk to reporters about tests. And I’ll go one step further: if you’re a test-maker, you owe it to the public to discuss and explain your test. The taxpayers paid for it.
Test-makers and those who support them have an opportunity to elevate the field—and the public’s understanding of assessment—by taking those calls. Annoying or not –and yes, we can be annoying! –it’s a chance you shouldn’t turn down.
Here are a few tips to help you as you grudgingly agree (thank you!) to talk to us.
WHEN THE REPORTER CALLS:
The first thing to ask: When’s your deadline?
The second thing to ask: What information do you need from us? Discussion and analysis? Or will you also need certain data points? These things help you prepare for the interview.
It’s okay to think, prepare and call back–as long as it’s compatible with the reporter’s deadline. In some cases, the reporter might want to conduct the interview right there, on the spot. You can ask for a little more time... and see what happens. The ultimate goal here is for two intelligent people to have a reasoned, enlightening conversation; not to make an interviewee feel trapped. But it’s also true that deadlines are deadlines. See what you can do to make this workable.
On the record? Off the record? In any conversation, it’s okay to ask if you can talk “off the record” or “on background” to get a sense of the story they’re doing. (They might not allow this, but you can always ask.) A common practice of mine is to be off the record or on background in that first reach-out, so my source and I can talk comfortably, explore ideas together, get a clear sense of what we’re going to talk about. Then, for the actual interview, we’re on the record.
Make sure you know which conditions you’re talking under. The distinctions are crucial: “On the record” means they can quote you. “On background” means the reporter can print what you say, but not attribute the comments to you. “Off the record” means your comments are only for his/her background and information; they can never see the light of day.
WHEN YOU DO THE INTERVIEW:
Explain and translate. Remember who you’re dealing with: Most of us were English or poli sci majors. Assessment is scary. It requires science. And numbers. So talk to us like we’re sitting in a bar together, and we’re on the stool next to you. We’ll need that version in order to explain things well to our readers.
Simplify. Assessment is complex. But a footnoted master’s thesis is not an option here. Distill your thoughts into a few, key pieces, and share those with us.
Please put up with our stupidity. Explain it. And explain it again. Sorry. Remember? We were poli sci majors. But also: we hope you remember that it’s your duty – and in the public interest – to help the public understand these important issues. We are that conduit to the public.
Come clean. Whatever instrument you’re discussing isn’t perfect. It’s best to discuss this thoughtfully with the reporter. The public interest is best served by an honest and complete discussion about assessment, not a sales pitch.
Spotting a pre-determined narrative. This is one of the biggest complaints about reporters. They can have the story line already set before they call you. Aaargh! Well, sometimes that’s true. But I encourage you to engage this in discussion with them. Say something like: It seems like you think X. Can I offer another interpretation of that? Or: Well, I can see that you see X, but that viewpoint, unfortunately, isn’t accurate, or is really limited. Let me add to it a bit... This is the kind of conversation that’s great to have off the record or on background, so everyone can be frank without fear of The Quote. But even on the record, it’s good to have this discussion.
Yes, it feels crummy not to be in control of the narrative. But that’s journalism. The better your relationship with us – the more you’ve helped us understand what you do and why, warts and all – the better the chances of thoughtful, balanced coverage. (See my next point for more on this!)
Cultivate relationships with us when there’s no story. The best way to see thoughtful reporting on assessment is to build understanding of it in the news media. That means having lunch or coffee with the reporter who covers testing. And calling us up sometimes to tell us about something coming up. Perhaps they want to come see scorers being trained? Perhaps they’d like an inside look at a bias and sensitivity review committee doing its work? Perhaps they’d like a preview of a new testing suite you’re developing to complement your summative stuff. Or maybe they want to join you for coffee to just chat.
Ask to get together off the record; talk about issues and trends in the business. Talk about the problems with assessment. Talk about what the public misunderstands. Talk about what went wrong with that last round of tests. Talk about the dilemmas and limitations of standardized testing (and you KNOW there are dilemmas and limitations! And a thoughtful public conversation about all of that benefits everyone in the biggest-picture sense.) But DO TALK. Help the news media understand this landscape so they can develop thoughtful, insightful stories.