Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Your difficult expert: What reporters think

At the National Association of Science Writers 2011 meeting, a session called "You're not going to print that, are you? Handling difficult interviewees" shared the perspectives of two top reporters on what your difficult experts look like from their vantage point--and how they handle them to get better interviews. I'll be sharing these perspectives in the next "Be an Expert on Working with Experts" workshop, coming this fall. Email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz for more information.

Experts' less-than-winning behaviors were catalogued by NPR's Richard Harris, who sees three main categories of experts that are tough to interview:
  • The unintelligible scientist, to whom he suggests slowing down, offers analogies, or just cajoles them to use simpler language. Harris does a "truth check" at the interview's end by saying "Let me be sure I have this right: Are you saying..." with a paraphrase that he hopes will do the simplifying.
  • The recalcitrant scientist, who often retreats into repeating talking points, perhaps because the topic is controversial. Harris says he'll avoid asking a two-part question in favor of direct single queries, remind the expert "You didn't answer my question," or just wait quietly to get them to fill the void of silence with more remarks.
  • The egotist expert, like the sociologist who greeted his call by saying "Good thing you called. I am the world authority on this topic and this is a story you have to tell." (That genius was left out of the piece that aired.) Experts who demand their entire remarks be included, and those whose competition with rival groups is evident also fall into this category for Harris.
Warren Leary, retired New York Times science writer, added to the list of difficult experts with these types:
  • Picky: Those who challenge reporters from outlets other than the experts' favorite with "Why should I talk to you?"
  • Paranoid: Those who conduct interviews with several people--and tape recorders--in the room. His record? A White House interview with 6 people and 6 tape recorders present.
  • Burned: Experts who've been burned by a bad experience with a previous reporter that they remember for the rest of their career.
  • Mispoken and defiant: The expert who misspeaks but claims the reporter has misquoted him. Leary told of one expert who demanded a retraction, and when a tape of the interview was played back to him, kept saying, "I didn't say that" after hearing what he actually said...until he admitted "I didn't mean to say that."
  • The eloquent dodger: An expert capable of sustaining a long interview full of eloquent phrases but no substance or facts.
Both reporters emphasized the lengths they'll go to to save interviews with these types of difficult experts--but science communicator Joann Rodgers, also on the panel, urged communicators to work with their experts well in advance of interviews to help reduce or remove these barriers in experts' behavior. (The panelists agreed, however, that the egotist expert was likely beyond help.) Check out a summary of the session that focuses on tips you can use when interviewing your experts.

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