The 16 Things Reporters Find Newsworthy

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on December 2, 2014 – 8:38 pm

Editor’s note: Three years ago, I published a post containing 11 things that journalists find newsworthy. Since then, many readers have added their thoughts to mine—so today, this list becomes the 16 things reporters consider newsworthy.

If you’ve ever pitched a story idea to a reporter by phone, you know how hard it can be to succeed.

When reporters say “no,” the person pitching them on the other end of the phone often protests, “But this issue is so important!” They’re probably right. But there’s a big difference between what you consider important and what the reporter considers newsworthy.

As an example, more than 35 million people are living with HIV worldwide. That’s an important story. But in the eyes of reporters, that story will be no more important tomorrow than it is today—unless something happens related to HIV today. If physicians discover a new vaccine or a drug company pledges to provide free drugs to one million HIV patients in Africa, the “important” issue will suddenly become “newsworthy.”

As a spokesperson, it’s important for you to understand what reporters consider newsworthy. You can often propel your story from important to newsworthy just by highlighting a different angle.

News

So take out that story you’re about to pitch and see which of the following 16 elements it has (hopefully it has several). If you’re not prioritizing those elements enough, turn them into your lead!

1. Conflict: Reporters are professional storytellers, and good stories contain conflict. If you disagree with a competitor’s approach, for example, you’re more likely to receive coverage than if you agree.

2. Local: Most news organizations cover a specific geographic range. A newspaper in Iowa may report on a local charity event, but is unlikely to report on a new condo development in Florida (unless a well-known Iowa entrepreneur is the development’s lead investor).

3. Incident: Anything that goes wrong has the potential to become newsworthy, such as an industrial explosion, a car crash, or a school shooting.

4. Extremes or superlatives: Reporters love extremes or superlatives: the first, the last, the best, the worst, the biggest, the smallest. If your story contains one, highlighting it will usually make it more newsworthy.

5. New: It’s no coincidence that the word “news” contains the word “new.” News stories have to answer the question, “why now?” Stories that don’t are considered “old news”—or worse, “no news”—and usually receive little coverage.

6. Clickable: This is a new category, spawned by the popularity of news and entertainment websites such as BuzzFeed and Upworthy. Because they depend upon clicks to draw readers, and thus advertisers, they’re more likely to run your story if it helps them attract a large audience. Think in terms of provocative, highly emotional, and downright weird stories, images, and videos.

7. Timely and Relevant: Timely stories, often about an upcoming event, are often considered newsworthy, as are stories relevant to the news organization’s specialty. An upcoming hearing at your local statehouse about a topic that affects the state’s senior citizens, for example, is a good example—and the story will be of greater interest to a news organization that covers local politics than one that doesn’t.

8. News You Can Use: Reader Fletcher Doyle, a former journalist, recommended this category. He writes: “Tell me something that will help my readers, and tell me how it will help them.” For example, if a local Department of Motor Vehicles introduces a new auto registration process that helps drivers avoid standing in line for two hours, local outlets might be interested in the story.

9. Scandal: The Congressman who hides money in his freezer, the hedge fund manager who rips off his clients, and the music mogul who murders his companion are almost guaranteed to be deemed newsworthy.

10. David vs. Goliath: In many stories, there is a “big guy” and a “little guy.” Since the media often view their role as being the protector of the exploited, the little guy usually receives more sympathetic coverage.

11. Incompetence: The corporate executive, politician, or celebrity who can’t seem to get it right will almost always draw the critical eye of the press.

12. Surprising: Stories with an unexpected hook are candy to reporters. If your study discovers that fried foods have previously undiscovered health benefits, you can bet the media will lavish your work with coverage. That story, incidentally, would also make me very happy.

13. Hypocrisy: Say you’re an anti-gay rights politician who gets caught with a gay lover. Or the president of an animal shelter who’s caught abusing animals. There are few stories as delicious to reporters as powerful people betraying their own publicly-stated positions—and they’re almost guaranteed to remain in the headlines for several days or weeks.

14. Emotion: Reader William Runge added a category he called “heartstrings.” Juliet C. agreed, pointing out that many stories are neither surprising nor new—but that by digging deeper, you can often uncover a story worth telling. For example, imagine you released a new product two years ago. It’s no longer “news”—but if you’ve just learned of someone using the product in an unexpected, potentially life-altering way (e.g. a technology product that unexpectedly helped a hearing impaired child hear for the first time), reporters will eagerly share the news.

15. Milestones: Reader Susan Pepperdine suggested this category, pointing out that “the seven billionth baby on Earth” was newsworthy, but “the baby born just before seven billion and the next one after were not newsworthy.” Some anniversaries are inconsequential—few journalists care that your business just celebrated its 35th anniversary—but others, such as 9/11, will be noteworthy for decades to come.

16. Narrative Extenders: This new category is most often seen in politics. For example, a small political gaffe might not normally receive much attention—unless it’s committed by someone with a long history of committing gaffes. Or perhaps a politician with a bullying streak gives a sarcastic answer to a constituent, confirming the “bully” narrative the media had already established about that person.

What have I missed? Please add your thoughts to the comments section below.

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Why Cognitive Dissonance Is A Critical Media Strategy

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 22, 2014 – 4:02 am

Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values. (source: Wikipedia)

I recently worked with a company that is frequently portrayed by the media as a “bad guy.” As a result of receiving some critical media coverage, the company’s executive team ordered a clampdown on external communications.

That means no more interviews. All interactions with the media occur solely through written statements. That way, the company figures, reporters will be unable to twist their quotes. By maintaining a paper trail, they feel safer and better protected.

There’s one problem with that approach: Their defensive posture results in media stories that contrast the company’s cold, lawyerly written statements with their opponents, who speak to the press, appear open, and look more sympathetic.

Man's Hand No Questions

When working with the company’s representatives, I had an “A ha!” moment. I noticed that all of the spokespersons were smart, funny, and instantly likeable. Unfortunately, the public couldn’t see that for themselves, since their statements contained none of those things. But if they could—if the public could see that this company was made up of thoughtful people who were trying to serve their customers well—it could force them to change their thinking.

Think of it this way: A customer who thinks, “Oh, I hate that company. Their customer service sucks.” would believe that their beliefs were well founded when watching a news report that showed the company communicating solely through uninspired written statements.

But a customer who thinks, “Oh, I hate that company. Their customer service sucks.”— and who then sees a company vice president expressing sincere commitment to improving their service—might experience a bit of cognitive dissonance (“I thought they were jerks. I still don’t love them, but maybe they’re not as bad as I thought.”).

If your company is in a defensive crouch but has charismatic, credible, and thoughtful spokespersons, ask yourself this question: Would our interviews create cognitive dissonance for some members of the audience? And if they would, should we really depend solely on written statements to carry our message?

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Can You Say “I’m Not Here To Talk About That Topic?”

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 13, 2014 – 3:02 am

Bill Maher, the host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, made some controversial comments about Muslims during one of his recent programs, during which he had a well-publicized debate with one of his guests, actor Ben Affleck.

A few days later, Maher was scheduled to give an interview to a reporter from Salon about a different topic—his “Flip a District” campaign—but the writer understandably wanted to ask Maher about his “spat” with Affleck. Maher made clear he didn’t want to talk about that; here are three excerpts from the interview:

“Yeah, let’s leave that for a while. I’ve said enough about that.”

“You know, I don’t want to talk about this. You just said we’re not going to talk about this and now we’re talking about it.”

“I’ll tell you something interesting — and then I am going to get off the subject because we’re here to talk about “Flip a District,” was my understanding.”

Ben Affleck

Maher’s responses made me think about a question we hear a lot during our media training sessions: What should I do if I’m asked a question about a topic I wasn’t originally booked to speak about? Do I have to answer it, or can I insist on speaking only about the topic we agreed to discuss in advance? 

 

In that situation, you have a few options:

1. Answer The Question

This is often the best option, particularly if the question is one that the audience would expect you to be able to answer. Deflecting a straightforward question that deserves a straightforward response often plays like this infamous 2008 interview, in which Sarah Palin refused to name the newspapers she reads.

 

2. Give a Short Response, Then Transition Away From It

Maher used this approach, reminding the reporter that he had agreed to speak about a specific topic and insisting that they keep to the ground rules. He provided a short answer to the questions about his controversial comments, then moved away from them.

This approach can work for more experienced spokespersons—Maher used it well—but it requires a deft touch to avoid being portrayed as evasive. But there’s one problem with this approach: By giving even a short response about his controversial comments, Maher allowed Salon to run the exact headline he didn’t want: “EXCLUSIVE: Bill Maher on Islam spat with Ben Affleck: ‘We’re liberals! We’re not crazy tea-baggers.’”

 

3. Confront The Reporter

In a 2012 Republican primary debate, Newt Gingrich was asked about accusations that he had asked his second wife for an open marriage. He deemed the question out of bounds—we’re here to talk about serious issues, and you’re asking me about a personal relationship—and went on the offensive.

Gingrich used this approach brilliantly, but he also deployed it in front of a supportive audience that shared his dislike of the media. Generally speaking, this is a high-wire act that few people pull off well. 

 

 

4. Refuse to Answer The Question

Here’s where things get really tricky: Let’s say you agreed with a reporter in advance that the interview would be limited to a specific topic. When the interview begins, the journalist breaks his or her promise. Cameras are roiling. Do you refuse to answer it, perhaps reminding the reporter of your agreement, even if doing so risks making you look evasive to the audience? 

The answer is “it depends”—on the context, the topic, the format, and the spokesperson. This option is risky, and in my experience, only a small percentage of spokespersons have the media savvy and personal qualities to pull this off well. But assuming you do refuse to accept the question, keep these two things in mind:

First, make sure your tone doesn’t convey even a whiff of defensiveness.

Second, you can refuse to answer the question with a response like one of these:

“I’m not here to discuss that topic today. I want the focus to be squarely on our new product, and I’m aware that if I comment on anything but that, the headlines won’t be about the product. So let’s get back to that…”

“You know, Janet, I’m surprised you would ask me that. Before we began this interview, we agreed that you would ask me only about this project, and now you’ve broken that promise. I’m happy to do this interview with you if we focus it on this project, which is so important to so many people. But if you insist on breaking your commitment, you’ll leave me little choice but to end this interview.”

The second option is similar to “confront the reporter” approach, but with one key difference—whereas Gingrich still proceeded to answer the question, the spokesperson in this example didn’t.

 

Final Thought

This post focused on what you can do during the interview itself. But you can also help reduce the need for saying “I’m not here to talk about that topic” by negotiating the ground rules before the interview, and you can register a complaint after the interview (and disclose that breach to your audiences through your blog and social media feeds) if the reporter breaks them.

 

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A Surprise For People Who Think They Hate Reporters

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 6, 2014 – 12:07 am

I’ve worked with many people who don’t trust or like the media. But one recent group of trainees from a public entity was more emphatic in their hatred of the press than I’d ever encountered before. 

This group constantly felt besieged by a rapacious press corps that couldn’t be satiated, and they believed that reporters were far too busy pursuing their own predetermined agendas to give them a fair shot.

Given the hostility of this group toward the press, I decided to try something different. The result was striking, if not outright shocking.  

Press Conference

Instead of playing the role of reporter (as I usually do in media training sessions), I decided to divide the group in half.

The first group played their usual role of serving as corporate spokespersons. I gave them a scenario to work with, asked them to develop their messages and media strategy, and told them to assign a person who would deliver a press conference.

The second group was tasked with playing the role of reporters during a press conference. I told them that their job was to do everything they could to get the facts the spokesperson was reluctant to offer. I instructed them to get past the spin, challenge evasive responses, and do whatever they could to get to the truth.

The second group took their job seriously. When the press conference began, they were unforgiving of anything that remotely bordered spin. They asked tough follow-up questions, used evidence to contradict some of the spokesperson’s claims, and adopted an almost hostile tone. Frankly, they were tougher than most of the reporters I’ve ever seen at press conferences.

Microphones Over White Background

 

The “Aha!” Moment

When the press conference ended, I asked both groups what they were feeling. The group representing the company said they felt exhausted and beaten up. But the group of reporters was pissed. They felt that the company was being evasive, and they resented the company’s lack of candor.

I didn’t have to say anything. My takeaway message seemed to wash over everyone simultaneously: Reporters aren’t always being jerks just to be jerks; sometimes, they just resent that you’re not being straight with them.

That profound realization, which reminded me of the old adage about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, changed their perspective. Suddenly, they understood how they were complicit in the media’s reaction to their attempts at media management—and they recognized the need to begin doing things differently.

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Classic Post: Seven Times To Turn Down A Media Interview

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on August 26, 2014 – 2:04 pm

Editor’s Note: Since August 2010, I’ve written more than 1,000 posts. Some of the most popular posts have gotten buried over time, so I occasionally unbury especially useful older posts to share with readers who missed them the first time. This article was originally published on December 27, 2010.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ve seen my regular advice to do almost every media interview you’re offered. But there are times when turning down an interview makes the most sense, and this article will discuss the times when saying “no” is your best move.

Below, you’ll find a list of seven times to turn down an interview.

The original list comes from the IABC (The International Association of Business Communicators). Although it’s a solid list, the tips are overly-generalized, so I’ve added my own commentary to each of the seven suggestions to help make them more complete.

Hand No

1. Employees Have Not Yet Been Notified About a Specific Issue

As a general piece of advice, this is fine. But if a reporter is about to run a story with or without your input – and if you lack the logistical ability to inform your employees directly before it runs – it might make sense to participate in the story to ensure you provide the necessary context. Plus, what is the “specific issue” at play here? Announcing a new product before all employees have been notified (e.g. the iPad) might be strategically sound, while announcing employee layoffs through the press would not be.

2. Employee, Client or Patient Privacy Is Never Breached For Any Reason

Client confidentiality might be waived, for example, if you’re subpoenaed to testify in a lawsuit or before Congress, especially if no confidentiality agreement was signed between the parties.

3. An Emergency Has Occurred; Next-of-Kin Have Not Been Notified

I agree you should not be the first party to announce any deaths before next-of-kin has been notified, but what happens if the media has already announced the names? Do you confirm them then, or continue to wait hours – or days – before next-of-kin has been notified? These cases aren’t always cut and dried, and sometimes confirming the names is the more humane choice.

4. Sensitive Competitive Information Would Be Divulged

In a reputational crisis, there are times you might lose more by NOT divulging a proprietary piece of information. As with any crisis, you have to analyze all possibilities, including divulging competitive information.

No Thank You

5. Security Legislation Would Be Breached

Whistleblowers aside, this is probably good advice. I assume this refers to laws already passed, not pending legislation.

6. Union Negotiations are Underway; An Information Blackout is in Effect

If both sides are honoring the agreement, this is good advice. But what about when one party breaks the agreement and is killing you in the press? You should talk to the media – if not to offer specifics, at least to remind the public that you’ve agreed to an information blackout, that you’re not going to talk for that reason, but that there’s more to the story than they’re hearing from the other side.

7. Legal Counsel Has Advised Against Communications

If there’s one thing on this list that makes me bristle, it’s this one. First, even if counsel has advised against “communications,” you can still communicate. You can almost always offer a generic statement such as, “We can’t offer specifics in this case since it’s in litigation, but I would like to remind everyone that there are two sides to this story, and we’re confident that our side will come out in court.”

Second, legal counsel often advises against communications as a kneejerk reaction, even when communicating makes the most sense. Executives would be wise to consult their attorneys and their communications professionals prior to making such decisions. Sometimes the reputational damage caused by your silence is greater than the financial damage of future lawsuits.

Editor’s Note: A grateful hat tip to a good marketing blog called IMC Intuition by Beth Ryan, on which I originally saw this list.

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Should You Use A Reporter’s Name During An Interview?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 28, 2014 – 4:02 am

I recently received this email from the communications director for a major league sports team:

“What is your opinion on a speaker (in our case it’s usually the head coach after games) addressing questions by naming each reporter before the answer or finding a spot within the answer to name the questioner? I hear writers talk about it, how it shows the speaker cares about the media or is making an effort to connect with them more than just spewing a quick answer. Do you think a speaker receives better coverage when naming the reporter in his answer than just to answer the question? I’m torn on it because:

1. My head coach will have to learn each reporter’s name (meaning the non-beat writers), and the reporters who cover us change quite often.

2. It distracts from the answer sometimes. Fans might think, “As a viewer, do I really care that Joe from the local newspaper asked the question? I’m a fan of the team, he should address me too.”

 

I’ve always been conflicted about this topic for the reasons the emailer stated. In The Media Training Bible, I wrote that:

“Many media trainers teach their trainees to call reporters by their names, arguing that doing so helps forge a warm connection with the interviewer. Perhaps that’s true. But it comes at too high of a price. When you call reporters by name, it makes it clear to the audience that you’re speaking to the reporter, not with them.”

Although I believe that advice is generally sound, does it always apply?

It definitely applies to taped sound bite interviews, in which the person conducting the interview may be a behind-the-scenes producer. If you say that person’s name during the interview, the news station will probably be forced to edit it out—or drop that quote altogether.

But does it apply to a live press conference?

Press Conference Microphones

On one hand, naming reporters might help make the reporter feel valued. Reporters may even want to edit their name into the piece to show that they’re the one who asked the question (and let’s face it—hearing their name may also satisfy their ego).

But on the other hand, if the head coach doesn’t know a few people, it will become abundantly clear to everyone watching that they don’t know the reporter. In addition, reporters from competitive outlets may not want to use otherwise great quotes that name their competitors. Plus, as the emailer suggested, it may interfere with the connection the coach should be making with the viewers and fans outside of the room.

Should This Head Coach Call Reporters By Name?

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The emailer and I would both like to learn from you on this one. Please select an option from the poll above—and leave your more complete thoughts in the comments section below.  

 


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As Seen On TV: What Would You Do In This Situation?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 17, 2014 – 3:42 am

The season finale of HBO’s Veep, which aired earlier this month, featured a hilarious moment that made me wonder what I would do in the same situation.

If you’re not familiar with the program, Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Selina Meyer, the nation’s first female vice president. The show revolves around Ms. Meyer and her rather colorful staff.

The moment occurred just after the vice president concludes an in-person interview with an obnoxious Boston newspaper reporter. After the reporter walks away, Meyer and her staff begin discussing a couple of their small-money campaign donors and insulting their thriftiness. They even give their low-money donors a derogatory name—GUMMIs—an acronym for “Give us more money, idiots.”

Just as they finish their conversation, they realize that the Boston reporter accidentally left his phone behind, on which he had been recording his interview with the vice president (it was still recording). The reporter, who realizes his mistake, is on his way back to the office to collect his phone.

Veep

The staff quickly realizes how much trouble the campaign will be in if the recording of their conversation gets out—small-money donors will pull their contributions, and the campaign will be seen as elitist. They weigh their options: We should destroy the phone with a lamp! We should say it accidentally fell into the toilet!

The reporter enters the office and collects his phone before they can execute their plan (and, spoiler alert, the “GUMMIs” conversation does cause unflattering headlines).

That made me wonder: What would I do in that situation? The choices boil down to these three:

1. Do nothing and hope the reporter doesn’t use that material

This is the option Meyer’s staff took—and it didn’t pay off.

2. Destroy the evidence

This would kill the negative story about the GUMMIs—but it might lead to even more damaging headlines about destroying a reporter’s phone and speculation about what Ms. Meyer said on the destroyed tape. (The phone was password protected, so simply deleting the file wasn’t an option.)

3. Negotiate with the reporter

This is the strategy I would have chosen. When the reporter came back for his phone, I would have asked him to consider all of the material included on the tape after he left the room “off the record.” The reporter would have had no obligation to honor my request—such requests are typically made prior to the interview and agreed upon in advance by both parties—but in this case, the material was gathered without the consent of the taped party (which might even constitute an illegal recording in some states).  His leaving the tape recorder behind might have even been an intentional trick, although the show didn’t address that question.

If the conversation with the reporter doesn’t go well, there could be an either implicit or explicit threat regarding future access—publish that material, and you’ll never speak with the vice president again.  (That’s the “stick” approach; the “carrot” approach of offering increased access could also work.)

What Would You Do?

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If you have any additional thoughts, please leave them in the comments section below.


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How To Change A Reporter’s Description Of You

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 13, 2014 – 6:02 am

A reader recently wrote in seeking advice about how to change a reporter’s description of her as an “opponent” of a proposed new middle school. “The label is convenient,” she writes, but “it sounds negative and oppositional.” More importantly, she says, it’s inaccurate.

“Our town is currently locked in an ongoing school bond debate revolving primarily around the construction of a new middle school. The bond has failed three times, but the school board and supporters plan to float it yet again.

A number of us in the “no, not in that current iteration” camp are consistently referred to in the media as “opponents” of the bond…it doesn’t accurately convey our position. We are in fact for the bond in that we support a new middle school. But we disagree with proponents on a number of key issues and want the board to back-pedal and revisit prior assumptions…we aren’t opponents of the bond as much as we are “yes, but let’s do this thing right” voters.

Is there a word, or handy phrase, we can use to better identify ourselves, both as we speak with people individually and as presented collectively, via the media?”

Agree Disagree

1. Speak to the reporter

Reporters might use the term “opponent” for a few reasons. First, it may be an accurate descriptor—you are in opposition to the current plan, if not the entire project. Second, reporters working under a strict word count don’t want to burn up words on your descriptor. “Opponent” takes up one word; “who opposes the current plan” takes up five. Finally, “supporter vs. opponent” plays to the media’s tendency to eliminate nuance and reduce characters to simple archetypes.

In this reader’s case, she did contact the reporter—and got positive results. “I contacted the reporter, thanking him for a well-done, objective piece,” she wrote. “I added that I’m not, strictly-speaking, an opponent as I don’t oppose a new school/alternative bond. He asked how he might better describe me in future articles.” Her non-accusatory tone was perfect.

2. Create an irresistible media sound bite

I’d develop an irresistible sound bite, such as this one:

“The supporters of this bill have consistently misrepresented our position. We are for the construction of a new middle school; we’re against irresponsible construction (or reckless growth, etc.)”

Or, if you want to be more positive:

“The supporters of this bill have consistently misrepresented our position. We are for the construction of a new middle school—but we insist on smart development that serves the community well for many years.”

These sound bites work for three reasons:

1. They oppose something most people would also be against—irresponsible construction or reckless growth—or support something people would be for—smart development.

2. The lead sentence places the blame for misrepresenting your position on the supporters of the bill, not on the media (which might bristle at the accusation).

3. The “for-against” construct of the first sound bite plays to the media’s preference for two-sided conflict, increasing the odds they would choose to use it.

Finally, if you don’t want to come across quite so aggressively (or, if you don’t want to use the term ‘supporters’ in your sound bite), you might choose more neutral language instead:

“Our position has been consistently misrepresented. We are for the construction of a new middle school; we’re against irresponsible construction.”

Thank you for your email, and good luck!

Do you have a question about public speaking or dealing with the media that you’d like answered on the blog? Please send it to Contact@MrMediaTraining.com.

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

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