Meeting the Press: Twelve Tips for a Better Interview

Jamil Zainaldin, November 2005

Editor's Note: The AHA's Professional Division has been commissioning essays and advisory documents about common challenges historians face in their work. Although these essays will be reviewed and edited by members of the Professional Division, and although they will appear in Perspectives and on the AHA web site, they should not be regarded as official statements of either the Professional Division or the AHA. Instead, their goal is to offer practical advice from thoughtful members of the profession in an effort to promote wide-ranging conversations among historians about professional practices. Toward this goal, the AHA's Task Force on Public History recommended (in its final report) that the Association should consider ways of enhancing communication between journalists and historians to encourage better representation of history in the media. The Professional Division commissioned the following essay to provide advice to historians on communicating effectively in an interview with a journalist.

Historians communicate with their publics when they appear in the media. When historians speak with journalists, they do so as representatives of their profession. To journalists, historians are a uniquely valuable resource because historians possess knowledge derived from study, reflection, scholarship, application, teaching, and professional interactions over the course of a career. Indeed, the media often confer an authority on professional historians that borders on the reverential. (For this reason, the professional missteps of well-known historians often become an occasion for front-page headlines.)

Journalists may seek out historians to gain background information for a story. Sometimes, another historian is the subject of a story, or the journalist seeks you out because of a subject, book, point of view, or project you are known for. You may also represent an organization, agency, or institution that is the subject (directly or peripherally) of a story, or that is seen as having a special knowledge or expertise. Your location in the same geographic area as the newspaper, magazine, or TV/radio station is especially desirable from a journalist's perspective—giving the story an anchor in the local community adds color and appeal.

When speaking with a reporter, the historian's primary goal is to provide lucid answers to the questions posed and, in the process, to educate the journalist (and the reader) about a given historical subject. That is the true contribution of the historian and it should not matter, therefore, that historians interviewed for a story may not be quoted or even referred to in the printed or reported story.

What is important, though, is that historians and journalists talk. And because we are interested in having the insights of history and its practitioners reflected in public discourse, knowing how to work with the press is important. We need to know what journalists expect when they interview historians, and what it means to be effective in an interview. In other words, there is an art to working with the media, and the following tips are offered to help you prepare for that all too real possibility that the next telephone call is from a journalist seeking to interview you.

Some Tips for Working with Journalists

1. When a journalist calls and leaves a message, do not wait until the next day to respond.

The story likely will be filed by the end of the day. In some cases, of course, a journalist has more time to develop the story and may ask for more than one interview.

2. Prepare yourself for the interview.

If you are asked for an interview on the spot, and are given the subject, ask if you can call back in 15 minutes—or set a specific time. Use that time to prepare for the interview. A reporter will respect your need to be prepared.

Outline ahead of time the key points you want to make. A carefully thought-out interview will be appreciated by the journalist. Not only will it help keep the interview on track, but it will also increase the likelihood that an attributed quotation or point of view will be accurate. There is always the possibility of still being misquoted, or of being quoted out of context, of course, but remember that the professional journalist is interested in getting the story right and does not enjoy making printed retractions or corrections.

Journalists have specific "beats." Some are editorial writers, others news reporters, feature writers, or columnists. Journalists review books and report on culture and the arts; they cover developments in higher education, literature, and politics. They may work in the print media, or in TV/radio. Stories may be part of a next-day news report, or a longer-term project or series. Stories may have a local, regional, national, or international interest. Learning in advance something about the reporter and the story will also help you prepare better for the interview.

3. Journalists appreciate straightforward answers.

Avoid talking down to a journalist. Listen carefully to the question being asked. Use plain, jargon-free language. Offering a lecture is the fastest way to prematurely conclude an interview.

At the end of the interview, ask the journalist if you have answered all the questions, or if any answer that you have already given needs further clarification. Use this as an opportunity to reiterate the main points you want the reporter to leave with.

4. Pace yourself. Get it right.

Speak slowly and deliberately when interviewed, especially if interviewed by telephone. The journalist needs time to take notes and to accurately record the conversation (you can often hear the tapping of the journalist's keyboard in the background of a telephone interview). Before introducing a new thought, allow the journalist to finish typing and to ask a follow-up question. The journalist will appreciate that courtesy. Pause before answering the next question, taking a moment to collect your thoughts and frame your sentences. Again, the journalist will appreciate the care you take in responding to a question.

5. Don't bluff.

If you do not know the answer to a question, do not attempt to "talk your way" through it. Ask the journalist if you can call back with the answer or if you can suggest some other historian who does have the answer.

6. Don't be afraid of silence.

Journalists often use awkward pauses to draw out interviewees. Don't be afraid to remain silent if you have no further comment on the issue at hand.

7. Steer the interview in the direction you want to go.

The odds are that you are not the first person the journalist has spoken with in the development of a story. Journalists have an obligation (unless they are editorializing) to present more than one point of view and to portray, to the best of their abilities, the truth of a news story or controversy. You may be asked a provocative question—or expected to provide a provocative, newsworthy answer. If you have the chance to prepare for the interview, you know in advance what you will say. Productively steer the interview to the main points you wish to express.

8. Remember that journalists have opinions too.

Sometimes a journalist is fishing for an answer or a hook for a story. Or a journalist has interviewed others and seems well informed on the subject, and may even have a conclusion in mind when interviewing you. As a way of gauging where the interview is headed, it is acceptable to ask: "I wonder if you have reached a conclusion on this. Would you be willing to share it?" You may learn something from this conversation, and so may the interviewer.

9. Be wary of the "hostile" question.

Sometimes a journalist begins an interview with what seems like a hostile or dismissive question. Maintain a steady composure and professional tone and stay "on message." Preparing ahead of time for an interview will help ensure that you (and not the interviewer) control the direction the interview takes.

Do not lose your temper in an interview. Avoid casual, off-hand statements. You may read them in print. If a statement is off the record, clearly state that. Remember, however, that you still might see the statement in print.

10. Prepare for the sound bite.

Radio and TV news or feature journalists usually tape an interview, which is then canned for later editing and airing. A time and place is set in advance for the interview. Typically only a few seconds (a "sound bite") of an interview is aired, though an interview may last far longer. As you prepare, develop your message and stay "on message" during your interview.

Sometimes print journalists also will ask if they can tape an interview (they must have your permission to record you). Agree, because a taped interview is added assurance that you will be accurately quoted.

(An interview for a radio or TV documentary history program is also recorded, but is of an entirely different order, and requires a separate treatment.)

11. Do not ask if you can preview the story before it is filed.

Because journalists work under deadline pressures, they typically do not have the time to circulate their stories for review by those interviewed. Someone who refuses to be interviewed unless the journalist agrees to "clear" a direct quotation may not be called again. It is, however, acceptable to say that you are available later to verify or fact-check a story for which you have been interviewed.

Besides, if additional thoughts occur to you after an interview, you can telephone or use e-mail to convey that information. Journalists appreciate receiving follow-up information, especially if you have promised it in the interview.

12. Always give a journalist feedback.

Most journalists are trained and are diligent in following the canons of their profession. They appreciate feedback. If you feel positive about the story you were interviewed for, communicate that to the journalist. If you feel the story is flawed, a good journalist will appreciate that information as well. On the other hand, if your complaint seems unfair to the journalist, do not expect to be called again.

—Jamil Zainaldin is executive director of the Georgia Humanities Council. He was a member of the AHA's Task Force on Public History.