PJ White surveys the pleasures and pitfalls of the journalistic interview process

Journalism can feel like a game between professionals. Journalists try to bag interviews by sneaking past the PR firewall. The PRs head them off with their repertoire of blocking tactics, accompanied interviews and self-promoting quotes written by robots.

Sometimes the game is fun. Mostly it's tiresome. Freelances can neatly sidestep it by building stories on interviews with ordinary people. If they have done something newsworthy, or know something worth reporting, they add insights and authenticity to a piece. Such people are likely to be flattered by a journalist's attention. Most will be happy to hear that their views or experiences deserve a wider audience.

The good news about interviewing ordinary people is that they are a lot easier to get hold of and are more approachable, says Helen Gregory, a Brighton based freelance. She calls the youth workers and young people she interviews for public sector trade magazines "refreshing". That's compared with the seasoned pros of marketing companies for PR magazines she also writes for.

You need a softer approach when dealing with people not used to talking to journalists says Gregory. She says she is generally more empathetic, relaxed and chattier. There is no need for the ultra business-like style appropriate for busy professionals. You can use personal anecdotes, it becomes a more "two-way" conversation, she says.

But there can be problems. One freelancer, who preferred not to be named, interviewed several refugees who'd made a new life in the UK. She found she couldn't just switch people off with a cheery thank-you when she'd got the quotes she needed. "Some were very upset at remembering what happened when they first came to this country", she says. "All the interviews took much longer than I expected". That was emotionally draining for the journalist. It also turned a standard gig into a poorly paying one.

Then there's the problem of unreliability. Medway Kent Messenger took the word of a fundraiser that two teenagers were "seriously ill" and had spent their lives "in and out of hospital". She said that one of the pair suffered from a muscle-wasting disease. Not so, said the girl's mother. The Press Complaints Commission - faulting the paper for both inaccuracy and intrusive breach of the Code of Practice, upheld her complaint.
On similar lines, it is worth remembering that interviewees are capable of making libellous remarks about other parties. Journalists are responsible for disseminating any remarks that they publish. Because they were said by an interviewee and accurately reported in good faith doesn't mean they cannot be defamatory. And the journalist could be liable.

Politicians, celebrities and company executives are trained and protected. They are coached to avoid making inaccurate or indefensible claims. They pay people to guard them from making gaffes that might come back and haunt them. That makes whatever they say fair game for accurate reporting. By definition, an inexperienced interviewee has no such support or guidance. They don't always think deeply about how the press works. For example, they may be comfortable speaking frankly and colourfully about a boss, an organisation or a neighbour in conversation with a friendly interviewer. But they may be horrified at the consequence of seeing those remarks in cold print and in a hostile different context.

Other problems can arise when people talk too freely. Enjoying the chance to talk, keen to tell say what the reporter seems to want to hear, they can lose all caution. Sally Adams, whose book "Interviewing for Journalists" has a wealth of good sense and insights, warns that they may need advising if their lack of experience makes them vulnerable. "If you're told 'We bought this old picture because we wanted the frame for just £15 and then discovered it was an early Lord Leighton and sold it for £80,000', do you check with them they have declared capital gains tax, letting them know that the Inland Revenue reads magazines for just this sort of information?"

People who have never dealt with the media before tend not to know the operating rules. "When do I get to see the article to check it before print?", can be a depressing request at the end of an interview. Helen Gregory says she sometimes reluctantly agrees to email the direct quotes she plans to use if she thinks it will reassure someone. But it is a risk that requires careful judgement. Editors notoriously dislike the practice of quote checking. If they get wind of it, relationships can be badly soured.

Then there are the mags that take advantage of naïve interviewees' inexperience and lack of clout - and spice up their stories, adding melodrama and altering quotes.  It is an occupational hazard for journalists working in certain specialisms, particularly first-person stories, to find their filed copy embroidered beyond recognition. As a result, the interviewees, referred to in the trade simply as "case studies", can feel betrayed by someone they trusted. The magazines' reaction is likely to be dismissive, and perhaps no more than a cynical call to Interflora. Hugh Wilson, a Manchester-based freelance, says that while doing writing shifts on glossies he more than once saw a "resort to the magic flowers for disgruntled case studies".

That's no help to the conflicted freelancer, though; who feels stitched up and professionally compromised. Knowing that an interviewee is badmouthing you is not a great feeling, and does nothing for the reputation of journalists in general.

As Sally Adams points out, an ordinary person interviewed just once in a lifetime by a journalist probably tells 30 other people about their experience. "Any poor practice just kicks us further down the list of the trustworthy - and we're already rated below estate agents." Which, as she says, is a powerful reason not to foul it up for journalists who follow.

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