The Born Freelancer on the Care & Ethical Treatment of Interviewees, Part 3

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.


Over the last couple posts I have discussed the importance of a freelancer’s interviewees and some of the techniques I have learned to maximize results while relating to them, ethically. I have had a few additional thoughts which emerged from those earlier posts that I want to share with you today.


The nonprofessional who has a tragic personal story

I have previously discussed the category of nonpro interviewees or “real life” people who are not professionally trained in PR or public speaking.

Nothing ticks me off as much as broadcasters sticking a mic in front of a real (nonprofessional) person’s face following a tragedy and asking, “How do you feel about losing your family, your life’s savings and your best friend”? How the hell would YOU feel? Such people in such extraordinary circumstances deserve to be treated with more compassion and understanding than that! I’m not saying you shouldn’t go after their story, I’m saying there are more appropriate methods and times to do so. With nonprofessional folk who have a personal story to tell (traumatic or otherwise) I have learned to accept that they may go from monosyllabic answers to a torrent of words once they are comfortable with me. Somewhere in that torrent, often in the first “gush” will be the quote I need to frame the story but I always try to allow them the opportunity to go on a bit more than is required. Again, it is partially the “organic” approach and it is partially just being a good human being.

Going into such an interview you must be prepared that there may be extra time required to extract the essentials of the story in a compassionate and appropriate way (unless you want to shove a mic in their face and file the type of story I despise). Perhaps you are short on time. Perhaps you have a deadline looming. Somehow, you must still take a moment to remember this is not just a job for your interviewee, this is an important perhaps once in a lifetime experience in their life. This may well be a time of grieving, and you may well become a prime conduit for that grieving. Well do I know this firsthand from the other point of view.


Put yourself in their place

I once had a notable but distant relative die and honestly thought very little about it. I was then phoned by a reporter whose work I knew at a local newspaper who was writing an expanded obit. She wanted a few extra family details. Well aware of the nature of the gig, I gave her the information she needed immediately up front. And then something totally unexpected happened to me. A kind of dam slowly broke within me. I started to remember things about my relative and I began to ramble on. I expected the reporter to thank me briskly at this point and hang up but she stayed on the line and asked me more questions and allowed me just to talk. OK, I thought, she’s digging around for some colour. I can do colour. But more than that, I felt the need to unburden myself of grief I didn’t even know I felt about the death of a relative I barely knew. Maybe forty five minutes passed before my cathartic torrent came to an end. The reporter thanked me very kindly for my time and interest and respectfully hung up. When I read the obituary a few days later the reporter had used my “upfront” quote that I knew she wanted and nothing else.

One could argue that she was listening for any additional facts she could use, any additional colour to fill in the story of a life well lived. And that I had failed to give her any of use. Or you could argue that she was simply being kind and courteous and respectful to a family member who had lost one of their own. I suspect it was a combination of both but more an example of the latter than the former. Either way she had respected my need to grieve and had given me valuable time I’m sure she could have spent more efficiently elsewhere. I’ve never forgotten the incident and that reporter’s patience and understanding. I always try to “pay it forward” whenever I am in the position of speaking to individuals experiencing any kind of personal tragedies.

Thinking about all this, I realised that sometimes an interviewer almost takes on the role of a pseudo-therapist with certain interviewees. Especially if they have been through difficult times and no one has ever asked them about their story. These folk can be hard to access initially but once they open up to you they can become extremely vulnerable and talkative. So I believe if you induce them to talk (for your story) you have the additional responsibility to offer as full an experience as possible for them to vent (to a stranger), to give them positive feedback about their experience and also some kind of closure having shared their story. I’m not saying we have the responsibility of being an actual therapist for such people (I for one do not have the training) but I do believe such trust as they may place in us during the process of their storytelling must never be abused or taken lightly.


A cautionary tale

Many interviewees can be followed up on for secondary stories. You can tell them truthfully that you wanted to see how they are doing, etc. which could lead to a follow up story. Readers/listeners like to hear more about real life characters they can identify with in print or on air. As well, you never know when their unique POV will provide you with a useful quote on some future story unrelated to the first. Once you have established yourself as a reliable, respectful journalist they will be much more likely to talk to you again.

I should add that you also need to exercise selective caution when following up.

Why “selective caution”? There is occasionally the very real danger of an interviewee (non pro and pro alike) mistaking your interest in them as something other than purely professional (assuming it is not). In all such instances, it is necessary to make it immediately clear that this is a purely professional call, following up on the initial story, etc. In some cases the interviewer may have inadvertently come to resemble a kind of free therapist and some interviewees may feel a closeness to you that was never intended. In those cases, it may be better to kindly but definitively close the file on those subjects than to risk future misunderstandings. I once kept in casual contact with an interviewee after doing a successful interview, thinking it was an enjoyable but totally professional relationship. Unfortunately it was a short jump for her to calling me at 2 am in the morning “to chat” because she thought I was the only person in the world who really “understood” her. I tolerated it briefly while I kept advising her to seek professional counseling. When she failed to do so and kept calling I eventually cut off all contact. I was rewarded with verbal abuse and threats. Lesson: Never allow a professional interview to escalate into something personal unless it is a mutually equal, healthy kind of relationship.


On interviewing overly nervous interviewees

I heard about one trick from a veteran broadcaster for extremely self-conscious subjects: for radio interviews on location he would offer to rehearse the interview with his nonprofessional subjects ahead of time, using his microphone and simulating the interview so that they would have a chance to feel what the real interview would be like. In many cases the subject would be very relaxed and loose and reveal their story in a much more casual way than during the actual interview that followed. So what was the trick? He would actually tape both, mixing them together into the final aired interview. I always felt this bordered on the unethical and so never used it myself but recognize that this is a personal choice. He always made it clear to the subject afterwards what he had done (and sought their permission to use either version) explaining that it was a technique he had employed to get their best “performance” on tape. He certainly felt OK with it (and he was a most ethical person).

Of course the danger with this technique is that you might be accused of subterfuge or insincerity to get your ideal audio interview. Better I think to really establish a good working relationship with your subject immediately up front without resorting to such trickery if at all possible. They need to have confidence in you that you will treat them with respect and will not make them look/sound foolish. (Of course this is primarily for radio/audio interviews in which you need the subject to sound relaxed and comfortable; if it is a print interview these factors may be less important to you).

Although I have never used the “record the rehearsal” technique myself I will admit there were several times I wish I had. (And given challenging enough circumstances I still might.) I can recall once interviewing a seasoned sales rep for a major retail outlet about the merits of some of his company’s latest products. I ran through the questions ahead of time with him (although I did not record it) in order to relax him and so that he could see I was not trying to “ambush” him. His responses were great. Once we started to record the interview proper he immediately tightened up and could barely talk. That was one time I truly wished I had taped the rehearsal! Afterwards he apologized, he had not meant to be so difficult an interview but he just suddenly become very self-conscious. So even among seasoned subjects self-consciousness can occasionally ruin a seemingly routine interview. In the end I worked around his repeated hesitancies by using only clips of his responses in the final radio piece rather than whole segments “off the floor” as I had originally intended. So all was not lost. But it was a close one.

Over these last three posts I have shared some of my thoughts on the ethical treatment of interviewees. They are the key to any successful story (and thus our freelance careers). But more importantly, I hope I have conveyed my belief that we must never lose track of the fact that they also deserve to be treated with as much dignity and respect as possible throughout the process. In fact, they should be treated in the first instance as we ourselves would wish to be treated in similar circumstances. It may seem obvious but it is a golden rule that can easily get lost in our endless pursuit of the next story.



Posted on May 17, 2013 at 9:15 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

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