The Shirley Sherrod story has a lot of angles to it. People at all levels over-reacted without having the full facts and there's plenty of blame to go around. It struck me that the concept of "context" is too easily overlooked in our 24-7 media-saturated culture.
Some background – Sherrod gave a speech and one of her comments was taken out of context by a blogger to make a partisan point. Once people listened to the rest of what she said, they realized the edited sound bite was not representative of her message and the tide of public opinion turned.
A speech is different from giving a media interview, but as media consumers, it's always a good idea to question the context of what you read, listen to and watch. Truth is, all sound bites are taken out of context. In an interview, a reporter may talk to you for 5 minutes, 5 hours or 5 days and they're not going to put the whole unedited tape on the air. Instead they'll choose a few sound bites, paraphrase other things you said, add facts and figures and gather information from other sources to craft their story.
You can't control what they'll choose, but during the interview, you can control what you say. Be sure you stick to positive message points about yourself, your company, your product or cause and never use the reporter's negatively worded question as part of your response. An example from history is Richard Nixon infamous response, "I am not a crook" to David Frost's question. Nothing Nixon said before or after mattered.
An ethical journalist is taught to pay attention to the context and fairly represent the person's position through judicious audio or video editing. But for various reasons, mistakes do happen. Plus, with the growth of new media, anyone with a laptop, a flip camera or a smart phone can become a publisher or "citizen journalist," putting material in front of a global audience. It's more important than ever that media consumers think about the source and the context of the information that's bombarding them from all quarters.
In the traditional media world, if you want to increase the odds that what you intend to say will actually show up in a story, you need to develop a system for getting your message points out. Then, practice, practice,practice so you can do it smoothly and effortlessly, without seeming to ignore the reporter's questions or sounding like a robot. (And there you have my agenda for this post – a pitch for the value of media training and media literacy.)