So you’re being interviewed by the media – subcultural tips by a veteran interviewee

Being interviewed by the mainstream media can be both an exciting opportunity to share and promote your work and a nerve-wracking, reputationally challenging experience. Here are some tips about what to do when you are asked to be interviewed by the mainstream media, particularly as a member of a subculture. 

Disclaimer

To many people outside the media industry, journalists are either the heroic folks uncovering a conspiracy or tabloid hounds set to make you look bad. While there may be some truth in each stereotype, many journalists are absolutely lovely and, like most of us, they’re just doing their job.

The main challenges journalists face is that they’re time-poor, and that they have to tell a story in a way that is engaging, (ideally) as factually accurate as possible and that, crucially, sells or receives clicks. On top of that, they have to appeal to their existing audience – so while you may hate how certain sites ‘spin’ stories, particularly when it comes to politics, bear in mind that journalists have to follow an editorial line which often isn’t set by them, but by their publication.

That being said there are certain news outlets or journalists who follow certain agendas more than others, and who are known for depicting certain communities or minorities in a bad light more often than not. You, as an informed interviewee who knows what you’re getting into, have the power to refuse to speak to someone who works for a site/paper whose politics you don’t agree with (more on that in a sec).

Still, so far I have never met anyone who specifically set out to make me sound like an idiot, or to make my life particularly difficult, so don’t feel like you have to go into interviews fearing for your life. The challenges of the journalistic profession can, however, result in some misunderstandings or baffle those who don’t work in the industry, so this is why I’m writing this guide: to make sure you weigh up the pros and cons of agreeing to do an interview, and that you get the most out of it.

Who have I been interviewed by? 

When you’re reading a post like this, it’s fair enough to wonder: great, but why are you giving me advice? So here’s a bit about me and, crucially, a few articles, podcasts and reportages for which I’ve been interviewed.

I have an undergraduate degree in Journalism from City, University of London, one of the United Kingdom’s leading faculties for journalism. I have over six years’ experience in public relations and social media management, having done PR for restaurants, lifestyle and tech brands, as well as for non-profits, with my last job being Account Director in a super fun agency in Australia. I have also freelanced for a variety of publications, including but not limited to TimeOut Sydney, Broadsheet Sydney, The Conversation. Plus, I have a PhD in platform governance with a focus on digital subcultures, and I am a member of a subculture – a.k.a. a group that deviates from mainstream culture, sharing values, language, attire, aesthetics etc. – myself. I’m sure that if you’re reading this blog you will know I am referring to pole dance as a subculture. 

Importantly towards this post, I have been interviewed – a lot. I have spoken to mainstream media about anything from pole dance to online abuse, from being a survivor to online censorship, managing to convey a series of delicate subjects, facts, experiences and opinions in a way that has, so far, been crucial to promoting my work in different fields. 

Why? Because I believe that for research to have real-world impact, and for people to really understand what you do (whether that’s as a business, as a creator, as an artist), the media can be a powerful tool to communicate your experience and expertise. Even when you speak off the record – more on that below – media contacts can be helpful to have in your books for your future work. 

As a result, I’ve been interviewed by: the BBC; Business Insider; Cosmopolitan; Hunger Magazine; Il Post; Mashable; La Repubblica; Vice; the MIT’s Technology Review; and so on. 

You can find more examples of stories for which I’ve been interviewed in my press page, here

Why am I writing about the challenges of being interviewed? 

No, I’m not launching my own PR agency, although old, pre-academia me might have considered it. I look fondly to the days of working with my boss, mentor and colleague Renae at The Atticism (whom I still greatly recommend if you’re looking for an agency), but those days are, for me, over. I’d much rather prefer sitting in my living room working on an academic paper than managing clients 😛

The reasons I am writing about the challenges of being interviewed are two. First of all, quite a few members of my community have asked me for tips about dealing with the media when they’ve been approached by them, and I wanted to create something more permanent for them to refer to than a DM. Secondly, and most importantly, I’ve recently been “burned” by an interview where I’d taken all the necessary care for my point to come across, and the journalist hadn’t quite done that. More info on this later.

Because I am media trained and know how to do damage control, this interview didn’t end up being an issue. But since people have come to me with similar challenges, I’d like to be able to help fellow members of a subculture deal with the aftermath of an unfortunate brush with the media. 

It’s worth noting that more expert journalists than me have written similar guides – I really recommend Chris Stokel-Walker’s one here, for instance. But as someone who is part of, and who interviews, subcultures, I wanted to share a more specific guidelines for people who are often misunderstood and/or inaccurately reported on, or who come from backgrounds with a lot more to lose from media attention. 

Before the interview: what to consider 

Money

Let’s get the first, big question out of the way: is there any money in being interviewed? Or, as my dad often asks: “How much do you get paid for all these media appearances?”

Sadly, nothing. And I’ll go as far as saying that, unless you are a big celeb leaking a huge story to a tabloid, or a notoriously reclusive character who’s not known to give interviews, you most likely won’t get paid for being interviewed. Sometimes, the tabloid press in particular will offer money for first-person stories, and they will clarify that in their contact with you, or in their adverts. Other times – if, for example, you take part in a long filming project that demands a lot of your time – you should be asking for money. But that’s about it.

Why? Because the media and its sister but much maligned industry, PR, run on collaboration and the so dreaded exposure: in short, the media are an opportunity for you to promote something (or even yourself) with a massive audience without having to pay for an ad. If you can’t spare the time or resources for free labour with the promise (but no certainty) of exposure, steer clear. 

The free labour can be quite a lot – I’ve often spent hours on the phone with journalists for my bit of the story to be dropped, or for the story to be shelved due to other breaking news. Is it fair? No, particularly if you’ve put a lot of work into it. But you can’t control world events, or news agendas, and often even an interview that doesn’t result in coverage helps building a relationship that may help you later down the line.

Are you the best person to speak on this issue? 

More often than not, people who are very visible or reachable are asked to speak for demographics they’re not part of. Consider asking the journalists who else they’re speaking to, and ask them why they’ve asked to interview you specifically: if they’re interviewing you for something you think someone else is more qualified to speak about, pass the mic.

I also like to recommend people from different backgrounds to mine when giving interviews. A piece with diverse experiences is a better piece, and while not all journalists will take up your advice, it’s important to play your part in broadening the scope of people who feature in the media beyond the old, white, male and stale. 

Reputation – yours and the journalist’s / news outlet’s

However pressing money always is, to me reputation is the main thing to consider when being interviewed by mainstream media. I’m not talking just about my own reputation, but about the journalist’s or the news outlet’s reputation. 

When it comes to your own reputation, the first question you need to ask yourself is: are you “out” with what you do, and do you trust yourself and the journalist to keep any identifying elements out of their story if so? Knowing how to manage your identity is crucial: for instance, when I wasn’t sure about if and how to blend my pole dancing and academic identities, I spoke to media about pole and blogging under my stage name, and about my research under another name. It was easy to put two and two together, but that made me trickier to Google for my students for the time being and it helped me buy time as I thought about how I wanted to present myself. 

However, it’s worth noting that some demographics are hyper visible in the media at present – in the UK, sex workers and trans people come to mind. So if for instance you’re not out in your work, hobby or identity to some people in your life, appearing in the media in any shape or form may make the chances of outing yourself a lot bigger. Not only that, it may make you hyper visible or go viral – something that some at-risk, marginalised demographics may struggle to deal with if the result is a barrage of online abuse. So this is something you MUST consider before you agree to an interview. 

Once you’ve considered the stakes in agreeing to be interviewed, we come to the next step: knowing how a journalist or a news outlet have covered your niche or similar niches before is a very important first step about whether or not you should agree to an interview. In The Transgender Issue, journalist and writer Shon Faye says she makes a point of refusing to take part in the majority of debates about trans rights. Given the track record of most UK publications and TV programmes, she refuses for her life to be turned into a talking point, and to have to address her right to share spaces instead of the crucial challenges trans people face.

I think hers is an important lesson: if a journalist and/or a publication have a bad track record in covering your niche, people you care about or admire, and you are nervous about being interviewed by them, it’s fully within your right to refuse to take part, particularly if your nervousness or, indeed, your identity or experiences are going to be weaponised against you. 

However, you could also be up for the challenge – and I know many advocates from marginalised backgrounds who are. As some argue, if the voices that should speak about the issues that affect them aren’t included, how are we going to change people’s minds? And in that case read on to find out more about dealing with tricky situations. 

What to ask before they interview you

It’s within your right as an interviewee to ask why you’re being interviewed, who for and the general direction of the piece. It’s also completely fine to put your cards on the table and say what your main concerns about being interviewed are. 

Take me as an example: I’m a pole dancing academic, often affected by online censorship. It’s important to me that 1) my experiences are portrayed correctly 2) that it’s acknowledged that my censorship doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and that it’s part of a wider censorship of sex and sex work which touches me because my work and hobby exist because of strippers. In short, I want to give credit when it’s due, and I don’t want to look like I’m distancing myself from the founders of my sport. I always make a point of stating this with journalists, who have largely understood this and portrayed it correctly. 

After you state your aims and concerns, it’s fair enough to ask to either speak off the record – so just to inform journalists of trends, issues etc without being quoted – or to be quoted anonymously. 

If you *do* want to be quoted, be aware that, as journalist Chris Stokel-Walker has written in his own helpful guide to being interviewed linked above, most reporters don’t offer quote approval. 

Some journos may however get in touch to check whether the way they have written up your bit of the interview is accurate, and that may help soothe your nerves. But don’t count on it – which brings me to the next point. 

What to do before the interview

So you’ve agreed to be interviewed and you’ve done your research about the journalist and the news outlet in question. What’s next? 

Journalists may give you a rough idea of what they will ask you, but don’t expect them all to share the exact questions in advance with you. 

If you’re not used to regurgitating the same spiel over and over again, I recommend sitting down to write a short summary of what you want to get across about who you are, why you are qualified / have the experience to be interviewed about this topic and what it is that you want to talk about. 

Next, have a mind map or a list ready to keep in front of you so you can look at it when you’re speaking to the journalist. That way, if you draw a blank or are afraid to forget something, you have something to fall back on.  

During the interview

If you’ve been tidy about your key messages and you’ve communicated with journalists ahead of the interview about what to expect, there should hopefully be no nasty surprises.

However, if you’ve agreed to speak to news outlets looking for a sensationalist take on a story, or on a contentious issue, be prepared to be asked challenging questions – which you’ve hopefully covered during your prep. Here are a few examples. 

Speaking to tabloids

In 2019, I agreed to speak to The Sun about having a pole in my house on the back of the movie Hustlers and of JLo’s home workouts. As a left-wing millennial who’s passionate about equality, trans rights and who is well aware of the paper’s role in a series of dramatic UK events, I’m definitely not The Sun’s target demographic, and not one of their readers either.

However, I thought that speaking about pole dance to people outside my bubble would be a good idea. In the interview, the journalist – who was lovely – asked me a lot of questions about whether people assumed I was a stripper, and how I felt about it. I felt like the goal was for me to say: “bUt I aM nOt A StRiPpEr,” but I didn’t go there, because that’s not my vibe. That became a chance for me to say that yes, some people did assume, but actually that wasn’t a problem for me because strippers are my inspiration and are the founders of my sport. 

In short: you may be asked leading questions, but sometimes a thoughtful, snappy answer to a leading question may go a long way when it comes to normalising things that journalists and audiences may consider taboo. The article ended up going live much later, when stories started leaking about Boris Johnson dating a woman who had a pole in her house (lol, something else you can’t control about interviews) but by that point I’d made peace with the whole thing and was glad I’d said yes.

Speaking to outlets outside your bubble or preference doesn’t have to be a problem – provided that you know what your key messages are and how to get them across. 

Live interviews 

This is all well and good, but how about when you’re being interviewed live, on air? 

Live interviews are one of the most challenging ways you can get your point across, and they’re tricky even for seasoned professionals. Just look at politicians: the way they come across in a live interview may make or break that debate, or even their whole career (or at least they did before Johnson’s government, now anything goes). So if you don’t wanna deal with the stress, don’t feel bad for turning them down – especially considering that, as mentioned above, they are often not paid and that you may be invited to be culture wars fodder. 

If you *do* agree to take part, bear in mind that the host or anchor has all the power during the interview, and that other people in the panel or segment may have more experience than you at commanding audiences’ attention. Even an expert on a bad day may not be as quick to jump on a topic or an issue. E.g. I’ve heard way too many stories of activists being invited to talk about pressing issues with extremists on the panel… only for the conversation to shift towards what the latter wanted to talk about, just because moral panics sell better than nuanced arguments. 

So if you do agree to take part in a live interview, particularly in a live panel, ask who else is joining so that you can research them and prepare for the counter-arguments they’ll throw at you. Make sure that, if the journalist doesn’t ask you enough questions, you respond to others’ points (within reason) as if you had been asked your opinion. Most importantly, even if you want to snap at someone on the panel, breathe, keep your cool and think of the message you want to convey first – you can let off steam once you’re off the air. Your message, not your reactions, is what matters. 

As an Italian, I am used to having to police my tone when speaking English. In the UK, I have learnt that passion has to be communicated formally (at work or in the media) for it to be effective – which is problematic, because anger, particularly in front of injustice, is powerful, and because often opinionated people from different backgrounds are seen as “just angry”. But I have decided to limit my anger to when I’m off the air until I’m super famous and can start gesticulating frantically in front of cameras 😛  

Example: Live Radio

I was asked to join a live radio conversation on a major Irish radio station about the potential of banning pornography. I was there to talk about how this would not only wreak havoc on sex workers, who would be pushed underground in more dangerous working conditions, but how this would cause across-the-board censorship like FOSTA/SESTA did. In short: banning porn doesn’t ban the demand for porn, or stop kids accessing it – it only makes working conditions in the industry less safe, and the porn that is being created less regulated, but still accessible. What is needed is better sex education for kids to understand porn is a performance. 

Naturally, I was put up against people who argued that ALL porn was violence against women, which needs to be stopped. These messages are very emotional and easy to convey, based on moral panics that make people buy into fear instead of nuance. Knowing who I was up against, I looked at academic research and reputable news pieces that found no real link between porn and increase in violence against women, and cited those back, also being a bit forceful in sharing my opinion (albeit with a very nasal, first-day-of Covid voice) when I was being talked over. 

So you’ve been interviewed: what to do next? 

So you’ve been interviewed. The article has been published, the interview has been broadcast or it has gone live. First of all: congrats! Now, where do you go from here?

If you are happy with the story, share it on your platforms and thank the journalist. It’s not just politeness – it’s thanking someone for portraying your story correctly, maintaining a relationship and generating engagement for you and for them.

Sometimes, you may find you’re not happy with how things have turned out. So here are a few options.

Corrections and inaccuracies

The interview has gone live and it’s in a written or editable format… and it has some mistakes in it. Maybe you were quoted inaccurately, your name has been written incorrectly, or any other detail is different from what you actually said. 

First of all, don’t panic: these things happen. Journalists are incredibly time-poor, and work on many stories at once, so chances are they didn’t do this to spite you or to put you in a bad light. Consider emailing the journalist and asking them if it’s possible to correct the inaccuracies you noticed. I have done this many times, and journalists have been very understanding and changed things straight away. 

Bigger challenges

If, however, journalists don’t want to chance the mistakes made, if the direction their story has taken can’t be changed, or if they do not respond and you fear immediate reputational damage, there are some steps you can take to gain some of your agency back. 

Given that most journalists are on Twitter, I recommend getting a Twitter account to set the record straight and point out the inaccuracies in the piece, and why they matter. This is not to publicly shame the journalist, but to get your voice back. You can still be classy and thank them for the opportunity to speak, but point out that some things were missed. You don’t even have to mention the journalist – you can just explain that by missing out on or describing x and y as the piece does, audiences may misunderstand the matter discussed. An example of what I did recently in the story I mentioned in the intro can be found below. 

The above piece made it seem like I stated I was “not a stripper” or “not soliciting sex” and that I was distancing myself from sex workers, greatly damaging my reputation as a sex worker inclusive activist and as someone who collaborates with sex workers in research, awareness campaigns and interviews. But that was taken out of context: I’d spoken to the journalist for an hour, explaining that pole dancers are censored because sex workers are censored post-FOSTA/SESTA; I’d put great emphasis on the origins of pole as an art and a sport, but that was removed for the sake of brevity, potentially damaging my reputation. With the thread, I was still able to share the piece but also to explain what could have been done better.

If you don’t have a Twitter account and if your main audience is elsewhere, you can of course use your other accounts and social media platforms. 

Broken promises and agreements

While I have been lucky enough to not count this as one of my experiences, people I know have taken part in filmed work where their faces or body parts they’d wish not to show had been showed without their consent. 

This is a much bigger issue that needs to be taken up with the producers, asking them to remove them and quoting initial communications and agreements. 

It’s also worth looking at the consent forms you should have been provided with, and at what you agreed to when you signed them. In these cases, you *can* try and post this on social media, but be aware that depending on who you’re dealing with, you may even be hit with a libel lawsuit if you’re accusing them of something big without written evidence. So it’s always worth checking with the people who interviewed you / filmed you first – they’ll most likely be sympathetic and want to avoid any issues, so make sure you mention the distress the issue has caused and the potential damage being visible may make on your life. 

Questions?

Hopefully I’ve covered most of the initial challenges members of subcultures may face when being interviewed by the mainstream media. This guide will not be perfect or exhaustive, so I’m keen to keep it updated with ideas, thoughts and questions from you as I go along.

Do you have any questions I haven’t covered? Let me know and I’ll update this post! 

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