Respect, not bullying, gets your interview further
In our latest post on conducting difficult interviews, onMedia’s Lesley Branagan talks to seasoned journalist Aarti Betigeri, who has interviewed some of the most notable names in Asia for outlets such as the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor.
What’s the hardest interview you’ve ever done?
One of my hardest interviews ever was with a very high-level South Asian politician. There was some opposition to his administration’s new policy, a lot of protests, and I wanted to draw him on that. I also knew that his government had been working behind the scenes to get dissenters on message. However, he just wanted to use the interview to put out information on the policy, and he kept sidestepping my questions about the discontent. He is a very skilled politician, very articulate, Harvard-educated, and he knew what he wanted to say. I re-framed the question a few times and he kept re-focussing the attention to the detail of the policy. After you ask a question a few times, you have to accept that they’re not going to answer you. There are examples of journalists asking the same question over again. Personally, I find it a bit bullying.
As a journalist, do you find there’s a duty to balance out the need to keep pressing for answers with other requirements of the interview – for example, to keep a good rapport going and get other potentially useful information?
I would press for answers if I felt the interviewee was being evasive in a way that was deeply unethical. In the example I just gave, I could understand the politician’s reasons for being evasive in this situation. Some journalists think they have to ‘catch out’ interviewees for the sake of it, and not on the basis of whether it adds meaning to the story. For me, preserving relationships is really important because you never know when you may need something from them in future, and you should also respect the boundaries they set.
You have to know when to push something and when to back away and prioritise the relationship. For example, many years ago, I was working for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and was chasing Benazir Bhutto for an interview, when she was re-launching her political career after many years in exile. I spent a lot of time on the phone with one of her advisers who kept saying, “She’s not ready to do interviews.” My response, instead of pushing it, was to say, “That’s fine. Let’s chat. Tell me the latest about what’s going on in Pakistan.” I built the relationship with him, and I actually got him to speak on air a couple of times. And by the time Benazir Bhutto was ready to speak, [this advisor] and I had a relationship. He knew my motivations and approach. So he could then say to her, “Speak to this woman, she’s OK.” So, it was quite bizarre, I was about to present a news bulletin, and someone called out to me in the studio and said, “You’ve got a phone call” and it was Benazir Bhutto on the end of the line. That was very gratifying because I had been chasing that interview for quite a few months and she was continually in the news at that point.
So it can pay off when you have respect for politicians’ agendas, moods and timelines, and then you’re in a better position than if you’re pushy or aggressive. I’ve actually seen journalists from some less ethically inclined media outlets threaten people, or blackmail them into giving an interview. That’s the wrong approach because it doesn’t get you what you want. What you want is a good meaningful interaction in the interview and the potential for an ongoing relationship with your interviewee, and that’s not going to happen if you bully them.
Are there any types of interviews that are generally always difficult?
The interviews I find the hardest are more generally with those people who don’t have an understanding of what you’re trying to get, or people who fear the media because they’ve been burnt or they hear that journalists are difficult. Also people who have fragile egos, which happens a lot in the arts and fashion worlds. In fact, the hardest part can be landing the interview, often harder than the interview itself. For example, I was commissioned to do a story on a Bollywood celebrity hairdresser who’d signed up an acid burns victim to front her salon’s latest ad campaign, which I thought was an amazing thing to do. She agreed to do the interview but over six weeks of chasing her, she wouldn’t commit to a date and eventually she slammed the phone down on me, questioning my motivations and suggesting I was a greedy person who wanted to get mileage out of the work of other people.
What interview tips can you offer to journalists who are starting out?
No matter who your interviewees are, and even if you don’t agree with their political leanings, treat them with respect as you’ll always get more out of the interview that way. In some ways interviews can be a bit of a power struggle. It can be easy to feel over-awed by highly credentialled or powerful people. It’s important to remember that you have something they want: access to an audience.
Be prepared but don’t be over-prepared, otherwise you might become overly concerned with micro-issues that might not have wider relevance and will leave you with less room to tell the main story.
Aim for a conversation. While there are certain things you want them to say, you don’t want to limit them because who knows what they might say that will be of interest to you?
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Aarti Betigeri is a journalist based in New Delhi who works in print, radio, online and video. Before moving to India from Australia in 2009, she spent many years as a television presenter, journalist and producer with Australia’s two public broadcasters, ABC and SBS. She now reports for outlets such as Monocle magazine and its online radio arm, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, The National, Time.com and Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Take a look at other posts in our hardest interviews series such as talking to child soldiers in Liberia or this interviewer who fought to keep his disgust under control while interviewing a former East German secret police officer.