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Writers: say these words before every interview you conduct

Photo: The Muppets

You’ve lined up some time with a smart person. You’re about to interview them on the phone or in person, and you’re eager to get started. So after the small talk is done, you ask the first question.

You’ve made a mistake. There’s something you’d better say first. And based on the tears and rending of garments I hear from rookie authors who’ve omitted this statement, it’s something you really don’t want to forget.

Before you get into the questions and answers, say this:

This interview is on the record. However, as we conduct the interview, if there is something you would like to share off the record, let me know at the time. Before I publish anything, I’ll share with you the passage that’s about you, so you can check that the facts are accurate and the quotes accurately reflect what you wanted to say. OK?

You can say it in a nice, friendly way and get it out of the way quickly. But be sure to say it, and to get the other person to say “Yeah, sure,” before you get started.

Why is this necessary?

After writing four business books, three with coauthors, and editing four others, I’ve honed this statement to these exact words. It exists, not for legal reasons, but to maintain good relationships with interviewees, many of whom may never have been interviewed for articles or books before. Here’s some detail:

  • Why is it necessary? Any journalist will tell you that interviews are always on the record unless the subject says otherwise. But journalists are quite happy to take advantage of subjects who say stupid things. You need to stay friendly with the interviewee, not turn them into an adversary. This means telling people what the ground rules are, so they’re not surprised later.
  • Why not put it in writing? Because it’s not a legal disclaimer. Your ability to quote someone accurately is legally protected — if they say it, you can write it. Putting it in writing will put people off, especially if your lawyer insists that you make the statement even more intimidating. It’s much better to lay it out at the start of the interview, as a confirmation of the ground rules.
  • Why “on the record?” This is shorthand for “I can quote you.” But it sounds official. It puts the person on notice that, yes, you may quote them. (Some people who haven’t been interviewed may not have thought through that what they’re saying may now appear in print.)
  • Why the part about saying that some things are off the record? Because sometimes people say things they shouldn’t, and realize it right away. Since you’re trying to maintain a relationship, quoting stuff that the person revealed by mistake is bad form. You’re not trying to get people in trouble.
  • When describing the review process, why not say “for your approval?” Never tell an interviewee they can approve what you write. At that point, you have handed control of the narrative over to them, and it will not say what you want. Interviewees get to verify that facts and quotes are accurate, but not to change whatever they want.
  • Why check facts? Because, even if the interviewee told you that the company has 2,000 customers, when they realize it will appear in print, they will verify it and let you know that’s it’s actually 1,200. Or, sometimes, 3,000. You want to tell the truth, not whatever the person may have said in error. This is a chance to correct that. But the only things they get to change are inaccurate facts. I’ve had technology vendors tell me that they must be identified as “the world’s most respected database middleware vendor.” If I just described them as a technology company, that’s an accurate fact, and their desire to be described in other terms isn’t a required edit.
  • Why allow approval of quotes? Journalists will quote people saying whatever they actually said, and generally don’t allow people to change how they were quoted. But authors want the quotes to accurately reflect what the interviewee feels, even if that’s a little different from what they said. When an interviewee sees their words in print, they may feel a need to change things. This is where you negotiate. But it’s a lot easier to negotiate if you haven’t told them they have approval over the whole article.

How this simple statement pays off at the fact-checking stage

I recently discussed this with an author who had conducted dozens of interviews without the disclaimer. “Can I quote these people by name?” she asked. Well, sure, if they said what they said, you can quote them. But if they didn’t realize you were going to quote them by name, you ought to go back and check. And now, they can say “Hey, I’m not comfortable with you publishing this.” At that point, you can burn them and publish it anyway, toss it in the trash, or “anonymize” it, publishing it without identifying them. Not a very good set of alternatives.

That’s why you need this simple little statement before you conduct the interview.

At the fact-checking stage, a few weeks before the text is final, you will send the passage that mentions the interviewee to that interviewee. You will remind them that their job is to correct inaccurate facts and change quotes where they aren’t an accurate reflection of what they meant to say.

What happens then?

Most likely, you’ll get a quick approval, or an approval with a few corrections. Those corrections might necessitate a little back and forth, but having set the ground rules, you are then talking about facts and quotes, not changing the whole narrative.

Sometimes, the interviewee will insist on major changes, or ask you to pull the piece altogether.

This is when you remind them that this was an on-the-record interview, and they agreed to allow it to be published.

If the interviewee gets cold feet at this stage, you may still have to dump the passage altogether, or anonymize it. It’s not a good idea to enforce your “on the record” stance and, potentially, ruin the interviewee’s career. But having set the ground rules, you’re a lot more likely to convince the interviewee that the passage belongs in what you will publish.

One final thing. There are two groups of handlers who sometimes become involved at the fact-checking stage: PR people and lawyers. They can and will tell you to change anything they don’t like. Your defense with them is that this was an on-the-record interview and that you only allowed for revisions to inaccurate facts and quotes. PR pros and lawyers know what those words mean. This gives you the negotiating power to keep them from spiking or ruining the passage just because they feel like meddling.

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  1. Thanks, Josh.
    It’s a good rule for journalists too – especially for sources that haven’t been interviewed much.
    Note that if you are a journalist, you are often not allowed to send passages and quotes back to sources; fact-checking happens by phone. It is sometimes written into your contract. If someone is writing for a journalistic outlet, s/he needs to check with the assigning editor what the policy is before sending out quotes and passages.
    There’s a discussion on this topic for science journalists here: https://undark.org/article/science-journalism-fact-checking-quotes.
    Also, FWIW, I think that, for the most part, journalists are trying to get quotes that reflect what people feel, not trying to take advantage of them.

  2. In my experience, when working on the type of piece where sources are allowed to check their section for accuracy only, they usually ignore any instructions to that end. They send it back with every contraction removed, realistic comments changed to their canned key messages, and the whole thing sounding like a lawyer wrote it, because they think it makes them sound more intelligent that way.

    The corker was a recent response that said, “Me and XX have reviewed it and made some grammatical changes.” Turns out the person didn’t even understand what grammar meant – they had made some copy changes that had nothing to do with grammar (which is probably a good thing, given his message).