If I’m at a dinner party and tell someone I’m a journalist, the response is either excitement (it sounds glamourous) or disdain (it sounds like I’m always digging for a story). Neither is true. Or both are true. Well, hear me out then you decide.
The ‘glamourous’ part of journalism for me is getting to interview you: the expert. You are awesome at something that I want to learn about, on behalf of my readers. So in a way, I am always digging for a story, especially as a freelancer. Without stories, I starve.
But that doesn’t mean I’m out to do you wrong.
In fact, if you can convey your perspective/expertise/amazing-new-invention-that-is-going-to-radically-improve-life-for-all-of-us in a way that works for my story, chances are, we’ll all come out ahead.
Here’s five things to keep in mind next time a great media opportunity comes your way:
1. Journos don’t need to show you their story before they publish it.
If I had a dollar for every time I was asked, “Can you send me a copy to look at before it’s published?” I’d have paid off my mortgage, upgraded my bicycle to one of those amazing Danish electric ones and been able to employ a live in chef. And that’s just in the last twelve months.
Here’s the deal: we journos don’t have to show you the story before it runs, and mostly, we don’t like to anyway. That’s because you (my interviewee) will tend to tweak with parts of my story which don’t have anything to do with your quotes. Or, often, you’ll see an interesting quote from your awesome self and want to dull it down into a boring quote which makes my story less interesting (or impacts other parts of the story which you haven’t factored in – for example, my transitions). I realise this is a big call but, if someone interviews you, just trust them to do the job well. I don’t want to misquote you. If I’m worried I will misquote you, I will get in contact and clarify things. Here’s why…
2. Good journalists aren’t out to misquote you.
Because if you complain, our editors are onto it in a flash asking, “What happened?”
Why would I want that? I only make a living if my editors are happy with my work, not frustrated by it. So it’s in my interest to quote you correctly. I record my interviews, so I can check the tape if there’s anything I’m concerned may be incorrect. (Note to any new writers reading this: you have to ask people’s permission to do this.)
3. Off the record is a messy business.
OK. Imagine we’re mid interview. If you want to tell me something that you DON’T want in the story, in theory you can say, “This is off the record Sue but…” (I guarantee you’ll then tell me something really interesting that nine times out of 10, would be better left in the story, and isn’t really a big deal or a big secret. It happens all the time.)
I know journalistic ethics are a messy business, and my job in this post is to help you come out unscathed so that I can have more fun at dinner parties, not to convince you every journalist is a good person.
So here’s the thing. It’s really up to me if I include your “off the record” comment in my story or not.
Just between us here, if you tell ME something is off the record, I’m going to keep it off the record. But that’s because I apply an ethical filter to all my work. Actually, two. (The MEAA has a code of ethics for journalists. Plus, I also am guided by a set of ancient principles from the yoga world, which means I kind of think like a Buddhist – ie: I don’t want to screw you over as that impacts my own stuff too. But that’s a story for a different post.)
I can’t guarantee all journos will do this. Although really, I’m confident the good ones do. But like a good hairdresser, you don’t know who the good ones are till you try them out. So if you don’t want something to be on the record: DON’T SAY IT IN AN INTERVIEW. It doesn’t get any easier than that.
4. Remember, journos like catchy quotes
That’s because you, the reader, like them too. So if you tell me during the course of our interview that, “Doing this project was the hardest thing you’ve ever done” or that “People in our industry always fight about this”, OF COURSE I’ll want to weave it in to the story. Because readers will find it interesting. It’s good to be interesting in an interview. If you’re not interesting, I can’t use your material. So try to give me a few catchy quotes. And be interesting. Your natural self, but your most interesting self. (Just like at a dinner party!)
Anecdotes are great too. Tell me, “When I was in France last year I realised that to the French, sitting around the dinner table for hours on weeknight is commonplace. Back at home, the experience of eating is always rushed.” That’s great. It will bring the story to life. But keep your anecdote short, so I can use it. Don’t take five minutes to get to the point of your experience in France. Because…
5. Waffle is the enemy of a good interview.
Don’t waffle. Please, don’t waffle. I can’t use waffle in my stories, because my editors will have usually (okay, always) given me a really tight word count to work with. Even if you’re REALLY interesting, I will have to write to a set story length (more likely to be 1200 words, 800 words, or even 500 words rather than 3000 words). That’s because you (the reader, not you, the awesome interviewee) are now demanding shorter, snappier stories. So I’m getting less words to tell your story in. Which seems like a good place to stop this post.
Want to continue the conversation?
What’s gone wrong when you’ve been interviewed? Could any of these tips have helped?