Fireworks Safety: How to Deal with a Contentious, Pretentious or Arrogant Interviewee
“Well, you’re totally wrong about that,” the physician said with condescension. “Your understanding of the disease lacks the basic insight even the least-informed patient usually brings to me. Did you prepare at all for this interview?”
If you freelance long enough, you are going to come up against your share of arrogant, pretentious or contentious interviewees. The hypothetical example above mashes up several real situations I’ve encountered with people I’ve interviewed—not all of them physicians, by the way. (In fact, most of the physicians I’ve interviewed have been fascinating folks who delighted in explaining their research.)
What do you do when a source wants to push your buttons, argue with you or insists on spewing jargon? Here are a few tips.
1. Hold your tongue
If an interviewee insults you, take a deep breath. Remember your job as a reporter is to get the story. It doesn’t matter if the source likes you or not. You may feel a desire to spit out your best retort, but don’t do it. Stay calm and maintain your professionalism. Then ask the next question.
2. Appeal to their ego
Pretentiousness often results from a lack of confidence on the part of the interviewee. Try to set them at ease by admiring their recent research or complimenting them on a media mention. Stroking their ego like this may help them trust you and open up more. You don’t have to fawn over them; just offer a sincere comment to break the ice and warm them up.
3. Stick to the script
We all have bad days. If an interviewee comes across as cranky or prickly, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe their boss criticized them moments before they got on the phone; maybe they just found out their research grant has not been renewed. Many external factors can put sources in a bad mood.
When your interviewee sounds crabby, stick to your script. Ask your questions as efficiently as possible. Thank them for their time and get off the phone.
4. Tell your source what you need from them
Even if you are a novice health writer, don’t expect your sources to know more about interviewing than you do. If your source’s excessive use of jargon makes him sound arrogant, ask him to use simpler language. Many of the people you interview don’t have one clue about how to be a good interviewee. You may need to be very direct in explaining what you need: “If you were explaining the genetics of breast cancer to your mother, how would you say it?”
5. Don’t tolerate abuse
I have never personally experienced verbal abuse from a source, but I’ve known of freelancers who have. My recommendation? If a source is genuinely abusive (which I define as being deliberately insulting or belittling no matter how you try to mitigate the situation), don’t hesitate to cut the interview short and find another source. You deserve to be treated with respect. In many cases you are not obligated to include any particular source in your article. Find one that is eager to participate.
Always remember your role as a health reporter is to get the story. Focus on your job and allow any barbs to bounce off you. In the end, your editors will love you for your ability to handle even the most difficult interviewee.
Tell me: Have you encountered any contentious sources? How did you handle them?
Wishing you well,