How Journalists Can Interview Better


By George

Journalists often have a difficult time understanding the impact of a news article on the people they have interviewed for it.  As a former newspaper reporter and now a PR executive, I have written hundreds of articles and have also been quoted in a few – most notably in my role as an occasional spokesperson for One Laptop Per Child.

So I feel like I can offer some insight that might help journalists do a better job of communicating with business executives.

The sensation of seeing your name in print is a disconcerting one for most people.  It’s a thrill, but there’s also a sense of helplessness – a loss of control, especially when an executive feels like the journalist didn’t capture the essence of what they said.  Unfortunately, this happens much more often than journalists would care to admit.

The problem lies in part on the inadequate job journalists do in preparing the people they are interviewing for the actual interview.  Reporters often assume that people understand the process of researching, interviewing, and finally writing news articles when, in fact, most people have no idea how it works (which is why they hire public relations firms like Racepoint Group).

Here are a few mistakes I think journalists often make and ways I believe they can correct them.

  • Vacuum Interviewing: Reporters hate sharing the list of people they plan to interview for a particular story – which is ridiculous, but often guarded like a state secret.  Interviews shouldn’t occur in a vacuum and sharing that information can put the story in context for interviewees.  Since it will public information as soon as the story is published – why the hesitancy to share?  If a source is speaking on the on-the-record then reporters should provide that information if asked for it. 
  • The Undiscovered Blog: Many journalists now double as bloggers.  If they blog they should be up front about that with the interview subject.  It’s unfair for a reporter to interview an executive about topic A and then blog freely about topic B, which may have been a discussion during a side conversation after the main interview concluded.  Many executives see this behavior as underhanded and a betrayal of trust.  A simple statement of: “I’m interviewing you for topic A, but I also have a blog and any other information we discuss today might be published there.”
  • Fear of Ignorance: Reporters – especially young ones – can be intimidated when interviewing a seasoned executive.  They’re afraid of appearing unprepared or ignorant of a particular topic.  As a result, they pretend to understand a complicated technology or partnership relationship, when, in fact, they don’t.  Stopping an interview to have something explained in detail is smart reporting.  “Getting it” matters.  That way when the story is published, the information is accurate.
  • Playing Gotcha: Younger executives tend to babble during an interview with a reporter.  They’re nervous after all.  As a result, they sometimes share information that they aren’t supposed to.  If an interview subject asks for a data point to be retracted – and it’s not a crucial piece of information necessary for the story – why not let them do so?  I don’t know how many times, I’ve heard a reporter say: “But he said it” as an excuse to use information like this.  It’s one reason why executives dislike talking to reporters.

A good rule of thumb for reporters is simply to be reasonable.  Interview subjects aren’t the enemy.  And, yes, they have an agenda – promoting their company and their products – but it’s that agenda that keeps them talking with journalists in the first place.

 

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