You're not going to print that, are you? Handling difficult interviewees

By Megan McKenzie

Joann Rodgers from Johns Hopkins was first up. She was quick to point out that, most of the time, writers and researchers are on the same page, working together as cautious collaborators to get an accurate story. She emphasized the value of preparing scientists for interviews and suggested asking them to put some thought into finding one or two points they really want to get across.

Joann finds that researchers usually fall into one of seven categories:

  • Scarlet O'Haras who try to put off the interview until some vague future time point. (Track them down and set a date.)
  • Übermenschen who don't think anyone else can possibly grok their work. (Ask them to explain it to you.)
  • Strategists who wish to speak only to major news organizations. (Remind them that local connections may directly impact their research programs.)
  • Shrinking violets. (Help them prepare.)
  • The truly overwhelmed. (Forget about them and seek out a coauthor.)
  • Impossible dreamers. (Facilitate a reality check.)
  • And, last but not least, control freaks. (Give in to them as much as possible.)
Left to right: Richard Harris, Joann Rodgers, Karen Infeld Blum, Warren Leary

Next, NPR's Richard Harris stepped up to the lectern. To get a good interview from a scientist who uses minute detail and a lot of jargon, Richard told us, try to slow them down. Seek an analogy, or ask how they first became interested in their research. It can also be helpful to paraphrase their explanations and ask if you've got it right.

If conducting an audio interview of someone who's just plain unintelligible, he advises asking good questions and using short clips!

If your interviewee answers only with their own fixed talking points, observe that they didn't answer your question and give them another chance. Or wait quietly — they may fill the silence with something more interesting.

When retired New York Times correspondent Warren Leary took the mike he seconded Richard's advice that courtesy come first.

Warren reminded us that interview is the key to what we do — like an axe to a woodsman. We need to hone our skills to get a great story. Decades of experience have taught him that you never know what challenges will come up during an interview, and sometimes there is nothing you can do to pull out of a tailspin, but if it simply seems as if your interviewee is having a bad day, reschedule. No matter what, be prepared, show up on time, and be respectful.

Warren suggests leading in with something personal. At the end of the interview, close your notebook and ask them how they think things went. Find out if they said what they wanted to say. Sometimes the best part of an interview happens when it's over.

During Q&A the subject of going off the record arose. Joann jumped in with "anything you say can and will be used," qualifying that this is a bit of a gray area. Richard declared his blanket rule against blanket rules, and Warren advised clarifying with your subject what going off the record really means.

Oct. 16, 2011

Drexel University online