Sunday, May 17, 2009

when you disagree with the reporter

What happens when you want to disagree with a reporter during an interview? How do you handle it? Do you wind up hammering your point--or hammering your fingers?

This situation may come up more often now that mainstream media reporters are being encouraged to share their opinions and personalities. But it's always been true that an interview's a two-way see-saw, and the interviewee can swing the conversation smooth or wild. In this case, NPR's Planet Money reporter Adam Davidson interviewed Elizabeth Warren, who heads the Congressional Oversight Panel keeping tabs on the bank bailout program. They wind up having a heated disagreement over what the program's priorities should be.

And that disagreement became the story--the very reason you want to consider how, when and whether to counter a reporter's statements. As a result, I can share with you the full Planet Money piece, a little over 18 minutes long, with the context and discussion about the interview and the meltdown. And, because NPR made the decision to release the full, unedited interview tape here, you can benefit from hearing exactly how the interview developed. You'll notice that over the course of an otherwise pleasant 74-minute interview, Warren's response changes when her primary talking point is challenged: Her voice speeds up, the pitch goes higher, and her volume, eventually, rises rather dramatically. The exchange starts to get more personal and less policy-oriented.

What can you learn from this?
  • Expect provocative questions. In this case, the questioner used a long, respectful, back-handed way to say, essentially, "I disagree entirely with your main point. Don't you see that it's not, in fact, what you should be focusing on in this crisis?" In other cases, reporters might use an effective if vague, "So what?" to challenge you. Washington has long called this approach the "Russert test," and to pass it, step one is to take your own talking points and come up with countering questions--and then answers.
  • Counter without defending. This is more difficult than it sounds. You'll want to consider not only your words, but your tone of voice, apparent attitude, emotion and other cues that will signal to listeners, viewers and your interviewer that you're on the defensive. That's why it's best to be prepared with calm, reasoned replies you've prepared in advance.
  • Know where this reporter's coming from. In this case, Planet Money's view and coverage of the topic were already well-established (which the reporter references in his questioning) and it shouldn't have been a surprise. Make sure you and your communications team are familiar with existing and likely approaches to lines of inquiry...and how you will handle them.
  • But don't treat this as a personal disagreement. Many interviewees forget that reporters ask questions for one reason only: To get information from you. They may sound angry, skeptical, uninformed or just plain ornery, but the goal remains the same. That information may include the content as well as your delivery and what it says. In this interview, the "disagreement" or countering question appears to have been handled as you might handle an argument over issues with your friends and colleagues, complete with hurt feelings and rising voices. It's not only possible but preferable to handle tough interview questions with more control.
  • If you're sure of your facts, counter decisively--and with confidence. "Absolutely not" is a fine way to rule out a question that's fishing for a provocative answer. Just be sure you're sure. Staying calm with your counters ("I don't see it that way, although I can see how you might") will enhance your credibility.
  • Are you on the record? When you're being recorded, your reaction is, too. Better to practice your response before you're on the record. The more controversial your topic, the more you should prepare.
Update: Go here to see NPR's ombudsman discuss the interview. While she (and many listeners) concluded the reporter was wrong to pick the argument and feature it in his podcast, the fact remains that it happened and it became the story. The savvy source will work to control the conversation rather than get caught in the firestorm, I say.

Related posts:

Can you pass the Russert test? How to survive a grilling interview

Don't get caught without anticipating interview questions (the ones you want, expect and fear)

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