Tips for working with the media

As your Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month plans unfold, there will be many opportunities to create positive media
coverage concerning people who have developmental disabilities. Your contacts with assignment editors and public affairs directors for television and radio stations and newspapers can promote coverage of events, in—depth feature or news stories of people/issues, and appearances on public affairs programs. In this section you’ll find some technical guidelines for presenting your information and tips for getting that special feature, color photo, or top program.


Develop a media list. Include daily and weekly newspapers with news, features, and editorial contacts as well as special columnists and community calendar publishing schedules. Note publication dates and deadlines. Radio and television station listings should include news assignment editors (weekday and weekend) , talk show hosts, and public affairs directors. Contact your local chapter of International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), United Way, or a public affairs/community relations coordinator at a local television station to see if a published media listing is available from a local source. Usually such lists are free or inexpensive.

Prepare for a talk show guest spot by developing a list of potential interview questions. Provide these to the show host in advance of the program. Every host will not want a prepared question list, and most won’t adhere to it entirely, but it can reduce the host’s preparation time for the program. If he she prefers to receive such a list, it may help you to get across your most important points in the limited time you’ll have on the air.

If you’re going to be on an interview program, watch it or listen to it in advance to be familiar with the interviewer’s style and the program format. During the program, if you are asked a question you can’t answer, don’t guess. Simply state that you don’t know an answer, and offer to provide that information at a later date, or in writing, if you’re attempting to respond to a caller in a live call—in program. On television, keep your eyes directed toward the interviewer, not the camera. Do not swivel in your chair or use quick gestures.


Reporters for the print media follow guidelines developed by the Associated Press when writing for publications. If you follow a few of those guidelines for writing you will display a polish that will put you ahead in the daily competition for news coverage.

Here are a few guidelines to follow:

  • Be exact — with dates, names, and places. Say “November 1” rather than “recently.”
  • Say “Mrs. Jane Smith” rather that “Mrs. Smith” or “Mrs. John Smith.” Don’t use nicknames.
  • Use exact places, with full addresses for locations of events and meetings.


There is a format that should be followed for news releases. News releases should always be typewritten.

In the upper left—hand corner of the first page, type your organization’s name, address, and the name of the person to be contacted for more details. Include the organization’s phone number as well as the home phone number of the contact person. In the upper right—hand corner, indicate when the release may be used. If at all possible, indicate “For IMMEDIATE RELEASE.” This means the editor can use the material at any time, which greatly simplifies his/her task.

Begin typing one third of the way down the first page. This leaves room for an editor to write in a deadline. Double or triple space the copy. Type only on one side of the page. Hold the length to 1 1/2 pages. Type the symbol, —30— (newspaper tern for “the end”) centered below the last paragraph. News releases should be sent 10 days in advance of events you want to publicize. Keep a copy of the release for your files.


Photographs used in newspapers are judged on their news and their human interest value. Major daily newspapers seldom use photos made by anyone other than staff photographers or wire service. However, small daily and weekly newspapers can use photos submitted by outside sources if they meet the following criteria:

Focus must be sharp, with good contrast. Action shots are best. The hug after an award presentation makes a better shot than people lined up against a wall holding their awards.

If a reporter is planning to cover a story you’ve suggested for  DD Month, ask if a staff photographer will be sent too. You should be ready with signed photo clearances and with identification of the person(s) to be photographed.


Before submitting news releases and photos via e-mail to the following:

  • Ask if the media outlets wants news releases and/or photos submitted via e-mail;
  • Ask if they will accept attachments or if they want the news release included in the body of the e-mail; and
  • If they will accept photographs, ask what format they prefer.


Public Service Announcements (PSAs) are useful to publicize events and to create awareness of services for people with developmental disabilities. Although stations are no longer required to provide nonprofit organizations with public service air time, many stations will provide time as a community service.

CONTENT: Keep the copy short (either 10, 20 or 30 seconds) and the message simple. As much as possible, your PSAs should emphasize action (i.e. “Give Blood”) or be in the active voice. A narrative about an agency will not be an effective PSA. Rather, emphasize an event or ask people to participate in some way. Your PSAs should relate to the goals you develop for DD Month.

GETTING YOUR PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENTS AIREDBefore you send your PSAs, call the radio and TV stations and find out the format they prefer to use.


News conferences are an effective way to reach many reporters simultaneously. This method should be used ONLY when news is critically important or of great interest to the community. Have the news conference at a location significant to the news you are presenting. Be sure that the site is accessible. Position the participants in front of a solid, light—colored background. Provide media packets with a news release and pertinent background material.

Limit the news conference to 30 minutes. Participants should address reporters and then ask for questions.


Besides generating media coverage through the activities you plan during  DD Month, you can also approach your media with other ideas in observance of the celebration. Think ….. and think creatively! Media professionals are always looking for out-of-the ordinary suggestions to liven up their shows or publications.

What about a daily newspaper series for a week, or a daily talk show program series for a week, or a 30-minute community forum program where individuals with developmental disabilities are guests. If you have a morning or afternoon television talk show in your town, they may be willing to pay a visit with their cameras to your group home, sheltered employment program, or school. People with disabilities could prepare and eat a meal with the show’s host, or invite them to their homes, or set up a tour of local, agencies which provide services for them.

Or, perhaps the local media would do daily 5 to 10 minute segments (or several articles) covering such issues as attitudes and community acceptance, opportunities for people with disabilities to live, work, go to school, and socialize in your town, family issues, area services for people with disabilities, etc.

Another idea – ask a TV weatherperson or newscaster to mention  DD Month during a newscast. Perhaps you can supply them with a poster, or tee shirt, or whatever gimmick would fit best into their presentation style.

How many people do you know who eat breakfast on the run or not at all because of their busy schedules? Then, breakfast served at work could be a special experience. Try delivering brown bag breakfasts – a cup of coffee and bagels or doughnuts would be fine – to your morning radio and television news teams, your local human services newspaper reporter, or a special columnist. Take along an  DD Month poster, or a special coffee mug.

Use  DD Month as an opportunity to write a letter to the residents of your community to acknowledge their support in making housing, jobs, schools, worship, and recreation accessible to their fellow citizens who have developmental disabilities. Send it to “Letters to the Editor” at your newspaper. The signature on the letter could be that of your Honorary Chairperson of the  DD Month celebration.


It doesn’t happen all the time. Fortunately. But when it does, it stands out like the proverbial sore thumb to people in the field of developmental disabilities. What are we talking about? Inaccurate, misleading media coverage of issues and events involving people with developmental disabilities — particularly those who have mental retardation.

DD Month presents you with an ideal, non-threatening opportunity to approach your local media with helpful how-to’s and what-not’s on writing about developmental disabilities.

You may choose to incorporate some constructive suggestions of your own in a letter to your local newspaper, television and radio editors and/or reporters. The letter could accompany the news release you send out from your organization announcing DD Month and outlining celebration activities your agency is planning.


They are two very different conditions. “Mental retardation” refers to significantly sub-average general intellectual functioning. “Mental illness” is a term referring to disturbances of mental and/or emotional equilibrium. You may want to include ourexplanation sheet with your news releases.


Words like “retardate” and “mongoloid” are no longer used to describe people with mental retardation. They equate the person with his or her disability.


Residents of group homes, even children receiving special education services, are often referred to as “patients” receiving “treatment” or “therapy” as if they were ill or diseased.


Reporters are often reluctant to interview people with developmental disabilities, preferring to deal with advocates and spokespeople. Often, however, adults with developmental disabilities are quite able to express their own opinions and represent their own interests.


Information gained from witnesses, neighbors, or even police or fire officials may come from those who are not sensitive to or knowledgeable of, issues relating to developmental disabilities.


Headlines that read “Retarded woman injured in accident” or “Epileptic man arrested” assume that the disabilities are central to the stories.

Journalists often report mental status, as their predecessors once reported race, without questioning its relevance. People of all intelligence levels are involved in the news, but when the subject happens to have mental retardation, journalists immediately assume that fact is an integral part of the story.

People with developmental disabilities are also cooks, Methodists, tennis players, and cousins; but when they become involved in the news, nothing other than their I.Q. or disability seems to matter.”