On interviews and credibility 2: criticism

As a feature writer, one is not likely to be hated to the same degree as if one were a critic. This is primarily because a feature writer is merely writing up the results of an interview, whereas a critic is actively criticising (hopefully constructively! – see this post on reviews and credibility) a band’s creative output.

However, it is not all always plain sailing; there will occasionally be somebody who will complain about your work and the representation of them in your writing. This is something that has happened to me once in all the time that I’ve been writing features as a music journalist – from as far back as the early part of this decade. That’s a pretty good record.

One of the first things you need to do (before you respond to criticism about your features) – because, nearly always, the criticism will be around the issue of a band member being misquoted – is to review your transcript or typescript of the interview. If you are going to respond in any capacity, you need to make sure that you have your facts absolutely straight; so this first step is essential.

The second thing you need to do is to read the entire complaint from start to finish. This can be one of the hardest things to do, because you know that the person who wrote it was angry and/or upset, and so the language can be simply wounding. If you can’t do it all at once, or you find yourself getting upset or angry in response, leave it and come back to it a day later. You don’t want to undermine your credibility by engaging in a cat-fight: it’s not a good look.

The third thing you need to do is to talk to your editor about removing the content (if from a website) or issuing a public apology (if printed), even if you know you’re not at fault. The issue is one of legalities, not admission of a wrong. If you don’t apologise, they could potentially claim that you defamed them or misrepresented them in the media – and that is not a good look. It will also destroy your career. Best to be nice about it (even if it kills you) and apologise for, or remove, the offending content.

I really like this notion from the ZenHabits Blog, of thanking those who have offered criticism of your work – something I have always done. It is important to thank anybody who complains about, or criticises your work because they have taken the time to read and respond to it.

In the recent palaver about an interview that I wrote up and conducted, I was accused of severely misquoting the interviewee, of misrepresenting the interviewee in terms of what he could be perceived like, of resequencing the interview (which if you read the previous post you’ll know that’s fairly common), of grammatical errors, and a whole host of other unsavoury things. It was a fairly extensive list of problems, and I first heard about it through my editor. We decided together to pull the content down off the website immediately in order to prevent any further problems, and after we’d done this I got in touch with the label to let them know what had happened and to try to clarify the situation.

I thanked them for their feedback, and outlined the situation regarding pulling the content down. However, what they wanted to know was whether the feature could be re-written in line with the interviewee’s comments, and resubmitted. Unfortunately I had to say no.

This refusal was based on a few reasons. The first was that, unless you’re Sir Paul McCartney, or someone else sufficiently high up with enough money and connections to make my life incredibly difficult unless I do what you ask, it’s not possible because it sets a terrible precedent. If one person from a band that is now defunct can get a feature re-written, what is to stop anybody else from pretty well dictating the content of a feature? It was an issue that was difficult to side-step; however, based on the commentary I had a fairly clear idea that even if it was re-written there may well be problems with even the write-up. Short of having the feature dictated, I wasn’t sure if it would be possible (or wise) to go in that direction. In any case, a re-write could potentially have undermined my own credibility by making me look either sycophantic or overly malleable or able to be influenced.

Other reasons are that perceptions interviewees have of themselves in features are often slightly off-kilter anyway; if you have a perceptive ethnographer taking your interview, there is going to be a stack of contextual information gained just from the way the interviewee presents, in what they say, and a lot of other things besides. Some of this will naturally inform the way the feature is written, because it makes for a rich weave of narrative. The interviewee, on the other hand, has to think on the fly (especially in a phone interview) and so doesn’t really have the opportunity to think about how he or she is going to present to the interviewer, and doesn’t have the opportunity to self-censor.

In responding to the label I had to be clear about the accusation of misquoting; after checking my documents I realised that the interviewee themselves had an unclear idea about the context of a comment, and that they did in fact state what they stated. I had to clarify just one of those points in order to uphold my professionalism; the key was to do it clearly, not aggressively, and not pettishly.

It is a difficult situation to resolve successfully in any case. However, by maintaining a clear and rational head, of being sure of yourself and your own standing and your own pride (though not to such a point that your pride gets in the way), and clear about your own work, you can apologise, act immediately to try to repair the problem (by apologising or removing the content), and ensure that your own credibility is not damaged by a reactionary or aggressive response to a difficult email or phone call.

It is very easy to react; but it takes more guts to be rational and diplomatic, to comply with any requests to remove content, and to uphold your own standing as a professional by assessing whether a re-write is valid, useful, or going to be helpful. Keeping and maintaining your credibility takes determination and diplomacy in situations where your work is being criticised, but if you can manage it then your career will remain intact, as will your self-respect.

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