How to Lose Control of an Interview

picture-6The concept of a media interview is simple. One person asks the questions, the other person answers them. In today’s media, with handlers, PR people and media savvy (and weary) interview subjects, interviews can get a bit more difficult to manage and if you’re not careful it can get away from you.

Who’s asking the questions here? If you find yourself talking more than listening – you are in trouble. It’s okay for an interviewee to be interested in your background or publication, but honestly your life story is not that interesting. It’s a distraction to the reason why you’re there.

Yes, yes, you’re fabulous… Flattery will get you everything, including softball questions from an interviewer. Let’s not let your self-esteem get in the way of the questions – make friends some other time.

Whoa, what was the question again? One minute your subject is talking about social media techniques, the next minute they’re talking about pruning bushes and grandma’s 80th birthday party. Keep your subject on task and on topic.

Freebies are not free. Journalists are trained not to take anything free from a interview subject. Better to die of thirst while interviewing a sub-Saharan crab than to take a drink of free water that could impair your impartial status. Bloggers are often less rigid, but know that those freebies for ‘review’ may come with strings and taint your interview.

No take backs. Subjects that want something off the record should say it before they drop the information. If they try to take something back you need to put them on notice that they missed their opportunity. Sounds harsh, but an interview full of take backs is frustrating and manipulative.

I wanna see first. Interview subjects often try to get the questions ahead of time, for pre-approval or whatever and it’s a sure way to kill an interview. It invites push back before you ever get started and obviously you lose any real spontaneity in the interview.

Let me take a peek. Your notes, your article and your recordings are yours. Unless you want to spend the next several weeks getting changes and tweaks from the subject, never reveal your notes, article, etc. until the piece is published.

There are more out there – share your tips on how to lose control of an interview below!


  1. says

    I’m very confused by your “no take backs” rule. Perhaps I’m not understanding your point?

    I interview a lot of celebs and sometimes they say more than they should or talk about a personal matter that on retrospect they shouldn’t have mentioned.

    Not only do I allowed “take backs” but I’ll ask to be sure when it comes to quotes that contain delicate subject matter. A small example being when a star mentioned the name of the hotel the cast of a movie was staying at at the time. Posting that fact might have made me popular with the fans but not so popular with the actor who slipped.

  2. says

    Cynthia, it’s a cardinal rule in journalism; if a source wants something to stay off the record, then he or she must say so before saying whatever he or she is going to say. It sounds like your celebrities and their publicists (who are media-savvy by training) may be taking advantage of your good will; you really don’t have to let them get away with that.

    No matter who you interview, it’s worth explaining how it works before you start the interview. When I interview children (with permission, of course), I always explain this to them in advance. I say something like, “Now, I’m going to be writing this down. And it might end up in the newspaper/magazine/online publication. So think about what you want to say before you say it. And think about what your parents might say, okay?” With an average Joe, I would give a similar explanation. But with a press-savvy person, like the director of communications for the governor or a corporation? Ha. They’re professionals. This is what they do. They know how it works. If they want something to be off the record, they know darn well they need to say so first. And that goes for publicists, too.

    I once had a governor’s spokeswoman call me back after a phone call and try to retroactively take something off the record. I very nicely explained to her why I couldn’t do that. She demanded to speak with my editor, who backed me up 100 percent. Guess who treated me with much more professional courtesy in the future? Yep!

    Terreece, great post, by the way. I agree with all of your points…except that I do think it’s okay for you to take a Coke or a bottle of water from a source.

  3. Alison says

    Oh, I don’t know, I think Cynthia’s okay with allowing takebacks for that particular type of interview-although her sources should know better. I’m not sure the public has a “right to know” more about celebrity’s personal life than the celebrity wants to share, and publishing the name of the hotel where a bunch of famous actors are staying could cause problems. I think that situation is the exception to the general rule.

    But Cynthia, for other stories, you certainly would want to be sure that you’re not helping your source to “spin” information a certain way or hide things from the public. And if your celebrities say something about the product they are producing that the consumer might think is important, you should publish it. Like, for example, if they let some nugget of information slip that might affect whether or not someone would want to see the movie you’re interviewing them about, I would publish that. I don’t think journalistic ethics demand you publish nuggets of info about their private lives, though.

  4. says

    I agree with you – a source can’t ask to take something back. However, the journalist can use discretion about what to write. If you want to have an ongoing relationship with your sources – i.e., to use them again as sources – you may choose to eliminate certain comments or subjects from your article. Of course, it depends on the circumstances …
    I write about a lot of technical subjects, and sometimes I will transcribe my notes from an interview and send them to the source before I write my article just to make sure I got everything right. Sometimes they will elaborate on something and give me more information that makes my story so much better! If the interviewee comes back and says, “I was wrong about that – it works this other way instead,” I always use the correction.
    This works well for me. The situation might be different if I were writing a different kind of article, though.

  5. says


    I agree that it might depend on your industry. As a former newspaper reporter, I can’t think of a single newspaper that would condone a reporter showing interview notes or a copy of a story to a source prior to its running or being published. Is it okay to run a couple of direct quotes by a particularly touchy but necessary source because otherwise he or she won’t go on the record with you? Perhaps. I’ve done it because a source matters so much to a story. Would I let that source change his direct quote? No. But similar to what you mentioned, I might let him expound upon it, though, and then decide what information is best for the story–and is the best explanation for the reader. Many reporters also run information by a source to make sure it’s correct, prior to publication; for example, I once spent an hour on the phone with a city planning director, going back over information from our earlier interview about the city’s controversial zoning requirements. All of those are pretty standard practices.

    But given what you do, I can see why you operate the way you do. You’re probably not trying to shed light on a very sensitive political subject, I’d guess, or pin anyone down to make sure that someone’s not misusing tax dollars. What you’re doing definitely makes sense for your situation.

  6. says

    Some cool ideas you’ve posted here, definitely helpful. When interviewing, always remember that the subject is the one you are talking to, not yourself. Once you feel that the conversation is turning to you, change course and divert it to the topic and person on hand.

  7. says

    I think take backs are at your own discretion. When I interview, not only am I looking for some great quotes to complement the piece, but I am also looking for that little tid-bit of detail that no one else has written about — I put as much emphasis on that as anything when it comes to doing interviews, so if the comment is on the record, and I want to us it — then I do.

  8. says

    This is more of a question than a comment, but does anyone else see the connection between a traditional (paper) journalist who interviews an expert or woman off the street for credibility’s sake, and a blogger who links to an article written by an expert? I think it’s a rather obvious instance of digital substitution and disintermediation (eliminates an entire segment of newspaper publishing industry). Just wondering “out loud.” :-) SK
    .-= Sean Kinn´s last blog ..Best list of Article Submit Web Sites I’ve seen to date … =-.


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