Gotcha! Being interviewed by the media

Pari Noskin Taichert

I have a friend who sold her book for a news-grabbing sum of money. She’s a former reporter and was mortified when her peers misquoted, misrepresented, and even made up things in their articles about her.

Poor dear, she wasn’t thinking like a PR pro at first. Believe me, she is now.

When I’ve written features in the past, I’ve preferred to craft upbeat pieces for publication. I know other journalists with the same aims: to find and write interesting, informative stories. But there’s another beast in the news business: the reporter who believes dirt is more interesting than Ivory Soap. This animal is always looking for the Gotcha! It’s that moment when a reporter smiles, knowing she’s got an unanticipated tidbit to run with, and the interviewee’s guts turn to mush.

Here are some tips when you’re talking with a reporter you don’t know, don’t know to trust, or don’t trust based on his or her previous work:

1.   Know what you want to say. No matter how smart you are, winging it is just stupid.

2.   Be in control. This doesn’t mean you grab the mike from a reporter. Au contraire, know the image you want to convey and then figure out how you want to do it. Otherwise you’re at the mercy of someone who may not have your best interests at heart.

3.      Don’t prattle. The reporter is not your friend.

4.      THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS “OFF THE RECORD.”

5.      You can record a phone conversation or interview if you’re concerned about being misquoted. Just inform the reporter or writer.

6.      Don’t ask to review a story before publication; it’s offensive to the reporter and won’t serve you well.

7.      Develop talking points — two to five items that you always come back to—to keep control of the interview.

8.      Practice and role-play to become accustomed to quick questions and to ensure you don’t say things that can be horribly misinterpreted or make you sound like a dope.

9.      Use your mirror and a practice audience to critique your answers and how you deliver them (extra “ums” and “uhs” are as bad as looking away from the reporter in what could be construed as evasion).

10.  Hire a media trainer or consultant if you’re in a position where you’ll be interviewed on television more than once – or nationally (wouldn’t that be nice?). There are former reporters in most communities that run workshops or consult for a fee. Insist they bring television cameras, lights, a big mike and a bad attitude — to put you through your paces.

I’m not trying to make you paranoid here. Even pros forget some of these rules.

When BELEN came out, I had an interview with a reporter in Belen, NM. I blew off every one of these rules and ended up with a nasty feature article – front page in the paper.

That’s once.

Although the public doesn’t remember many things, a bad news story usually sticks around a lot longer than a good one. Don’t mess up for lack of preparation. Don’t give any reporter the satisfaction of a Gotcha!

13 thoughts on “Gotcha! Being interviewed by the media

  1. Naomi

    Good tips, Pari. I think No. 4 is critical. When I was a young reporter in my early twenties, interviewees, I think, underestimated me and went on and on. They didn’t say anything was off the record; they assumed that I would censor anything distasteful. One interviewee involved in the arts used four-letter words left and right, and when a quote resulted, indicating his colorful language, he was very angry. All of a sudden, this cutting-edge artist was concerned about what his mother would think.

    Sometimes the reporter isn’t necessarily looking for “gotcha” moments–it’s the interviewee who represents himself/herself a certain way and later is surprised by the results.

    Reply
  2. Pari

    Naomi,Thanks for the perspective.I certainly underestimated the reporter in Belen. Granted, most people didn’t think the article was bad . . . but if I’d paid attention–or hadn’t blathered on, assuming she was “on my side,” I would have come out smelling much better than I did.

    If I’d sussed the direction of her questioning a bit more, I would have known she was offended that I’d dared point out some of the warts in her hometown.

    Reply
  3. Pari

    Thanks, J.T.

    I wish someone had given me these when I was starting out.

    Of course, the trick is to remember them when the time comes.

    Reply
  4. Beatrice Brooks

    This is from Deni, since Beatrice Brooks wasn’t “born” when the following occurred. I was living in Colorado Springs. It was 1992 and my first book had just come out. I appeared on a local TV show, where I was interviewed by “Barbie” and “Ken” [they were married in real life and I’ve always assumed that their kids, if they had any, popped out of the womb looking like Skipper and G.I. Joe]. Things were going swimmingly–yes, I lived in the Springs, yes I was a waitress, yes, I killed off dieters, ha-ha–until Barbie asked me a highly sensitive, political question. I stupidly responded, and the conservative contingency, offended by my “bleeding-heart liberal” reply, called the restaurant where I waited tables and demanded I be fired. Now, when interviewed, I play Miss America and slowly repeat the question [a Southern drawl is always good], giving me time to think.

    Reply
  5. Brett Battles

    Thanks for sharing this info. Incredibly helpful.

    I might add in this age of the internet, bad articles may fade from someone’s memory, but more often than not, they are only a Google search away.

    Reply
  6. Pari

    Rob,Don’t be scared of the media–interviews can give you great exposure . . . just remember to be in control.

    Of course I thought of some other tips this morning.

    One that helps with print media is to remember that when a reporter says she’s on deadline, you can always offer to call back in a minute rather than letting yourself get backed into a corner. By giving yourself a minute or two to think, you can defuse that pressure.

    Okay, I’m done now . . .

    Well, almost . . .

    Reply
  7. Pari

    Brett,You’re so right about bad articles having a new life now that the internet is so accessible.

    The author about whom I wrote at the beginning of this piece continues to get guff from the articles written years ago . . .

    Of course, she’s turned her prickliness into an art and I think it works for her.

    Reply
  8. Elaine

    Great advice, Pari! A local (Monterey) reporter asked me what my antiques dealer friends thought about my writing about the biz – I replied that many of them were getting a hoot out of it, a few of them were indifferent and one or two were pissed. Guess what? He quoted me as saying they were ALL pissed. It wasn’t easy to get out of that when some of us got together at an auction. I was so busy apologizing, I missed bidding on two lots I was after. Talk about being pissed?

    Reply

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