How to handle journalists’ interruptions
May 7, 2019

It’s long been a complaint of politicians and other spokespeople that they’ve just started to answer a question during a media interview when the interviewer jumps in with an objection or another question.  People often ask during our media training courses how to handle journalists’ interruptions.

The Sunday Times had an interesting story over the weekend about which BBC interviewers interrupt most frequently.  John Humphrys, the paper reports, interrupted former Labour leader Ed Miliband 20 times during a seven-minute interview.  On average, according to analysis carried out the paper, Humphrys interrupts his interviewees every 51 seconds.

How to handle journalists questions

Interestingly, though, it’s two female interviewers who interject more frequently, The Sunday Times piece reveals.  I say, interestingly because research shows that during normal conversations women interrupt less than men. Do the BBC’s interrupters-in-chief, Emily Maitlis and Mishal Hussain, feel the need to dive in more frequently because they’re women?  That’s a matter for another debate but Maitlis interrupts every 28 seconds and Hussain does so every 46 seconds. Evan Davis is bottom of the Sunday Times’ list of BBC interviewers by the way, with an interruption only every 173 seconds – very much in keeping with his relaxed, conversational style.  

So why do journalists interrupt during interviews and what should those on the other end of the interaction do about it?  It’s a question that often arises during our media interview training sessions.

Let’s take the first question.  One lawyer that we were training a few weeks ago complained that the interviewer had repeatedly interrupted him.  When we explored his experience it quickly became apparent that his answers were just too long. One of the things we find when we do media coaching for lawyers is that their training and experience requires them to give a comprehensive and detailed answer.  This is fine when talking to clients, regulators and judges but it doesn’t work for media interviews. We journalists just want a brief overview of the issue.

It was obvious in this case why the interviewer, with only three minutes to cover the issue and a keen eye on the clock in the studio needed to keep things moving.  (I’m glad to say that by the end of our session, this lawyer, like most of the others we train, quickly got into the habit of keeping his answers brief and punchy during media interviews.)

The fact is that journalists are almost always pressed for time.  We have short attention spans and tight deadlines. If someone is rambling or taking too long to come to the point, we simply have to move things along – very often for their benefit as well as ours.  

Obviously, the questions and answers vary in length during a media interview for as we explained to participant on our media coaching courses, a journalist question will probably last 5 to 15 seconds and a good length of an answer is 30 to 40 seconds, especially during a broadcast interview.  With the press interviews, where there is a more conversational style, both questions and answers can be much longer.

The Sunday Times’ analysis also demonstrates something that, really, we all know to be true from our own experience as the audience for interviews – politicians very often don’t answer the question they’ve been asked.  You can hardly blame Emily Maitlis, John Humphrys or anyone else for that matter for jumping in to remind a politician of the question that’s been put to them.

By blatantly avoiding this question the politician – or business leader for that matter – is not being clever or demonstrating their intellectual ability by playing verbal chess with the journalist.  No, they’re just insulting the audience since the journalist is only the conduit. They’re asking what they believe the audience wants to know.

Now, what you do once you’ve answered that question is another matter.  In our media training workshops, we look at how you can satisfactorily answer the journalist’s question – be that during broadcast or print interviews – but then move the conversation on to talk about what you want to talk about.  

The interviewer won’t interrupt at this point (unless they’ve run out of time) but you’ve satisfied the requirement to answer the question and you’ve now moved on to talk about something else that is relevant and interesting.  You might even have added a memorable little human story to engage your audience and to make your point. Again, it’s all good stuff for the journalist.

So, what do you do if an interviewer interrupts you during a press, radio or TV interview?  If you’re talking to a print journalist, the situation is slightly easier. As I mentioned, it’s more conversational in tone and there’s less pressure with time.  With a live radio or TV slot which might just be two minutes 15 seconds you need to move more quickly. Interruptions are particularly common during hostile or negative interviews and our media trainer/journalists will interrupt participants during our crisis communications courses to train them to handle aggressive interjections.

Once you’ve been interrupted, as always with a media interview, the most important thing is not to panic.  Take a deep breath and explain that you’ll answer the question that the interviewer poses during the interruption in a moment, once you’ve finished your current point.  

Now, if the subject of the interruption is actually quite helpful or at least it will allow you to put across a key message then move onto it quickly once you’ve finished answering the first question.  If, on the other hand, it’s something that you don’t want to get drawn into then you can spend more time answering that first question.

As always, with a media interview, especially one that is hostile, you want to pass the “reasonableness test.”  Does what you’re saying and the way in which you’re saying it, sound reasonable? If it does and if what your content is relevant and interesting to the audience then you can be polite but firm and answer interruptions in your own time – and you’ll know that the audience is your side not that of the pushy interviewer.

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