News Interview Tips for Handling a Combative Situation

A picture of a reporter interviewing an angry man
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Typical news interviews are cordial and friendly, but they sometimes turn combative, making it difficult to maintain control. Confrontation is sometimes inevitable and unavoidable when conducting news interviews, but by following a handful of tips and remembering some basic journalistic principles, the combative interviews can become less common and less stressful when they do occur.

Preparation and Research

Good journalists seek to be as knowledgable as reasonably possible about their interview subjects and the topics they'll be discussing before an interview takes place. Journalists can't realistically expect to be experts on every subject they cover, but confrontation is less likely when they show they are able to discuss the topic at hand intelligently. They also need to do their homework on their interview subjects so they know what to expect.

When researching a topic, consider how and why it has an impact on your audience, and know the difference between established facts and speculation based on established facts. For example, a proposed change to a zoning law or a tax rate includes details that can be reported as fact. However, the impact the proposed changes may have if implemented is unknown.

Whatever the topic for your interview, prioritize a list of questions you hope to have answered. You may not get to address everything, but if you tackle the top few items, you will have done well.

When learning about your interview subject, look at more than just their resume. It's important to understand their backgrounds, but you also want to look at how they've handled themselves in past interviews with other journalists. Watch or listen to footage from TV or radio interviews or read past newspaper articles. You also can speak with coworkers who may have experience with the subject. The more you know the person's tendencies, the better prepared you can be to respond.

Listening Skills

While you've planned your questions and what you hope will be the end result of the interview, you should also discipline yourself to listen more and talk less so that your interviewee feels as though he has time to respond. After all, you've likely chosen to interview this person because he is knowledgeable about the topic at hand.

If your interviewee isn't answering the questions the way you'd like, it's tempting to interrupt to get him back on track or to demonstrate that you're in charge. That can be the spark that lights a powder keg of anger if the person thinks he's not being treated fairly.

If time isn't an issue, listen patiently to the answer, then redirect your question in a different way. Don't allow yourself to appear frustrated that it's taking several attempts to get an answer. Outward calmness shows the subject that he's not getting under your skin, even if that's what he wants to do.

Being Objective and Factual

As an interviewer, it's important to express that your interest in a question or a topic is based on an objective assessment of its importance to the community and that it is rooted in some factual basis. The more emotional or confrontational a subject might be, the more important it is that you remain professional and keep your emotions in check.

For example, a political opponent might have accused your interview subject of wrongdoing. In that case, it's important to phrase the question in a way that notes the exact source of the accusation and presents the interview subject with an opportunity to defend herself. What you don't want to do is challenge an interview subject with an unattributed accusation or phrase the question in a way that is accusatory by itself.

The ability to be objective and factual is reliant on the level of research you've done as an interviewer. If a subject dismisses a question as baseless or biased, you want to be able to respond by pointing to the exact research you did that led to the question. Again, this should be done calmly and in a way that emphasizes the factual source of the question.

Human Connections

The easiest step to avoiding confrontation in interviews is to connect with subjects on a personal level. This doesn't mean interviewers and interviewees need to be friends, but you can do your part to express an interest in the person you're talking to beyond just the topic of the interview. Maybe you have kids who go to the same school or you are fans of the same sports team. These are conversation starters that can help create a relaxed atmosphere before the cameras or microphones or tape recorders are turned on.

It's important to remember that it is a job for both of you and that it's not personal. This starts with respecting the other person's responsibilities and not taking it personally if he bristles at a question. It's OK to be firm when necessary, but be calm and professional.

Standing Your Ground

When asking tough questions, look your interviewee in the eye so he knows you're not embarrassed or afraid of getting answers, regardless of his status. A polite firmness shows respect for his job and yours.

When the heat's on him, expect one of these three retreat tactics:

  1. He will go into shutdown mode, not answer anything, and may try to leave the room.
    Solution
    : Let him vent while keeping him in his seat. Remind him that you're giving him the chance to make his case to your audience, but he has to speak and not waste this opportunity.
  2. He will turn into the questioner and ask you your opinion.
    Solution
    : If he says, "Don't you think that I've been mistreated and deserve more respect?" say that the answer is up to a judge, or voters, and is not your call to make. Responding with, "Let me ask the questions," is likely too aggressive in an already tense environment.
  3. He will accuse you of political bias and sinister motives.
    Solution
    : Most reporters are well aware of the typical accusations of bias. As long as you can answer to yourself that you're not being biased, ask him what he means. This is where it is helpful to have done sound research so you can point to what the data says.

Long-Term Rapport

Some interviews might represent the only time you ever have to deal with a particular source. Many interviews, however, are with people you might be covering on a regular basis. The more effective you can be at building a foundation of trust and mutual respect with these people, the more smoothly potential confrontations will go.

Part of this is making sure not every interview is about a topic that puts your subject on the defensive. Yes, you need to ask tough questions of the police chief every time a controversial issue involving law enforcement arises, but that doesn't have to be the only time you talk to her. Also make a point of talking to the police chief about law enforcement trends, new training methods, or other related issues. This is much more effective than being the reporter who only calls when there is bad news.

Treat a source like an expert in her profession and seek out her expertise when relevant to your reporting. By emphasizing the importance of these easier interviews in your research as a reporter, it will be easier for both you and your sources to get through the tough interviews that have the potential to turn confrontational.