broadsideblog

Interviewing “virgins” — how to do it right

In behavior, blogging, books, business, film, History, journalism, Media, work on September 4, 2012 at 10:58 pm
New York, New York. Newsroom of the New York T...

New York, New York. Newsroom of the New York Times newspaper. Reporters and rewrite men writing stories, and waiting to be sent out. Rewrite man in background gets the story on the phone from reporter outside. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not the kind you think!

For those who haven’t yet read my Welcome or About pages, I’m Caitlin Kelly, a journalist since my sophomore year of college, more than 30 years. Like every journalist, it’s my ongoing challenge  to make total strangers feel comfortable talking to me within minutes.

The journalist’s job, contrary to popular current belief, is not to yammer on breathlessly about celebrities and their pets/kids/shopping  — like a walking press release — but to get out into the world and find people with compelling stories to share.

And many of the best stories haven’t been told before, at least not to a stranger wielding a notebook, camera or tape recorder. Unlike public figures, like politicians or celebrities, trained and skilled at media manipulation, these people don’t even know the rules.

I’ve recently been writing features for The New York Times business section, like this one about Google. Many of the people I’m interviewing for these have never spoken to a reporter before. They’re “virgins.”

Several admitted to me beforehand how nervous they were at speaking “on the record” , knowing their words might end up in The New York Times; for those of you living outside the U.S., it’s hard to to overstate its power and prestige. I’ve been writing freelance for the Times since 1990.

There’s such an imbalance between how I feel walking into those rooms — excited, curious — and how they feel — often wary, anxious, unsure, wondering what will happen next.

It boils down to trust. How much can they trust me to get it right? To tease out what they might not be able to fully articulate? Will they, as they fear, end up sounding stupid?

These “virgins” sometimes forget, or don’t know, that my every word is read and re-read by several editors who can question or challenge what I’ve written.

During my visit to Google, which lasted two days, two public relations reps tapped away madly on their computers and Blackberries, noisily noting everything I asked and what their staff said. Typically, only very senior executives and officials receive this much protectiveness.

It might have reassured the people I spoke to. But once you’re “on the record” that’s it. Two people — days after the interviews were finished — emailed to tell me “You can’t use that” about a few comments. Technically, I can. (But I didn’t, a judgment call on my part.)

I’ve been interviewed a lot, for both of my books, and it is stressful!

I’ve felt that visceral oh shit moment when you create an official and frighteningly permanent representation of how (at that moment, perhaps) you think.

And none of us really knows what will happen to your story after you’ve shared it. The reporter might be stupid, lazy, disorganized, deceptive — or get it absolutely right.

It’s rare to hear a journalist admit how they feel when dealing with civilians….Here’s a blog interview with New York Times freelancer Devan Sipher:

The brides and grooms I talk to confide in me, and I take extraordinary time and effort to make sure what what goes in my articles doesn’t violate that trust.  It’s not always easy, because the best quotes are often things they would regret having said if they saw them in print.  One could argue that if they said it, I can use it. But the people I’m writing about aren’t running for public office (usually) and they didn’t steal anyone’s retirement funds.  They don’t deserve to be embarrassed by an article celebrating their marriage.  I feel I have a responsibility to protect them in addition to my responsibility as a journalist to write the best and most accurate story for my editor and readers. It’s a responsibility I take very seriously.

Here are a few tips, if you’re facing a first-time media interview:

– Find out the reporter’s name and media outlet as far in advance as possible. Google them and carefully read check their LinkedIn page for any mutual connections, like the same hometown, college or people in common. Find out as much about them, and how they write, as you can.

– Read a few of their stories and tell them you did. It’s both a compliment and a warning.

– Ideally, find out: which section of the paper or magazine it’s for, what the angle is and who else they’re speaking to. Some reporters are fine with this, others not. The more you know what they need from you, the better it’s likely to go.

– Try for more time, rather than less; i.e. 20-30 minutes instead of five or ten. Very few people with no media training are great at offering quick, pithy sound bites. But be ready to answer succinctly.

– Make notes of your three most essential talking points before the interview. Keep them in front of you, with all relevant facts and figures as necessary.

– If you’re not 100 percent sure of the accuracy of your answer, say so! Offer to get right back to them, (within minutes if possible), with the correct data, and a checkable source for them (like a report, study, poll or government statistic.) Never guess. Never lie!

– Get the interviewer’s name, phone numbers and email address so you can  follow up or add something later. Be sure they get yours as well.

– Be very clear, before you say a word, if you want the interview attributed to you by name, on background or off the record. Be sure you and the interviewer have both agreed, and that you both agree on what these terms mean.

– Do not monologue! Take a breath, for heaven’s sake. Let the reporter ask their questions as well. Some people do this out of nervousness, but it’s also (perceived as) a way to control the interaction, and therefore annoying.

– Give the interview your full and undivided attention. That means carving out some time to do it and placing yourself in a quiet, private room with no background noises (dogs, kids) or interruptions (cellphones, assistants, etc.) We can work around these, but unless it’s an emergency situation, why make things harder on both of us?

– You can ask to see their story before it appears, but most won’t do it. Magazines usually use fact-checkers, who will contact you before the story appears to make sure the basic facts are accurate.

Have you even been interviewed by a journalist?

How did it feel at the time?

How did it turn out?

  1. I was interviewed once by a journalist; the woman was very nice, not too pushy, and asked some smart questions for someone unfamiliar with Judaism wanting to know more about it for the newspaper’s religion section.

  2. As prestigious as it sounds, I do hope I never have to be interviewed for the Times or alike. Journalist nowadays often take pay attention to such irrelevant things thinking they can draw a bitter picture for the reader and instead just making it sound vulgar. Take a look at this article for instance http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/5cfe15e0-4cca-11e1-8741-00144feabdc0.html#axzz25i8aV4dU . I believe interviewing is a branch of journalism – just because you can write does not mean you can interview. Same goes for TV presenters, not everyone is like Tim Sebastian (former BBC Hard Talk presenter) – provocative and knowledgeable.

    • I read that story you linked to…I didn’t find it especially mean or bitter.

      I take your point, but here’s the challenge, which Ginny also comments on…when the interviewer/writer comes in with a point of view that’s pre-determined. Here’s how that happens…You start to research your story and look for/begin to see patterns and themes. As you keep researching and interviewing (for a multi-source story) you will, certainly for a magazine-style piece, begin to draw conclusions about what you have been told. There is point of view. It may not be at all what YOU want(ed) it to be.

  3. I’ve had both very good and very disappointing experiences with being interviewed. In the good ones, every single line was accurate, the quotes were correct and in context. I felt I had really been heard. I wrote these interviewers very nice thank you notes!

    In the most unsatisfactory interviews, the interviewers had agendas and were looking for me to substantiate a position they intended to take regardless of what I said. One took a slant very different from what I thought she wanted to talk about (my ideas and work) when I agreed to the interview and instead asked question after question about my personal life. Since this was on live broadcast, it was very awkward. I guess I need to learn more about how to drive the car from the passenger’s side!

  4. I really liked this post, found it interesting. I’m a sophomore magazine journalism major and this an interesting “virgin” perspective. Good tips, too because I’ve sat through some painful interviews before and try to avoid those at all possible.

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