Journalist tricks and traps: 10 types of questions to prepare for before an interview

At the start of each of our media training courses, we ask delegates what they think of ‘The Media’. The replies are rarely complimentary but over the course of the session, delegates learn techniques to build confidence and help them manage their media interviews. However, asking questions is the bread and butter of journalism and it is a journalist’s job to get a story. Even the most experienced interviewee needs to stay on their toes, look out for tricky questions and make sure ‘the story’ is their key message. Sometimes these questions are inquisitorial, as the reporter seeks information. On other occasions they might be accusatorial as he or she asks the interviewee to defend their position. Whether it’s “How did you feel about that?” or “You care more about profits than your customers?”, having an answer ready is key to doing a successful media interview. The only way to be prepared with an answer is to spot the difficult questions before they’re put to you.

Here are 10 tricky questions that a journalist might ask you or a colleague:

1. The first question

This can be disconcerting. You’ve agreed to talk about a particular subject or to approach it from a particular angle, but the journalist starts off with something completely unexpected. This scenario is particularly likely during interviews on fast-paced local radio, where presenters have minimal knowledge and might find themselves doing 10 or 15 interviews during a morning.

Sometimes journalists use it deliberately to throw an interviewee off-guard. “I notice that you went to such and such a school, you didn’t know X did you?” or “You look very fit, do you work out?” are also great ways of getting a spontaneous response from even the most experienced, media savvy interviewee.

2. The chatty/friendly question

A journalist’s small talk, (apparently to warm you up) might not be as innocent as it sounds. “Gosh, you look very well, have you been away?”. You mention a fortnight in the south of France or a winter break in the Caribbean – how lovely. Except, that is, when it appears in an article which mentions that your staff have not had a pay rise in two years, or that redundancies are being announced.

You can make small talk in meetings but just be aware that what you say is still on the record and can be used in any way the journalist wants.

3. Putting words into your mouth

Journalists will sometimes use negative phrases in their questions. Very often the interviewee repeats this negative language, even when they are defending themselves and rebutting the accusation. For example you might be asked: “This is very disappointing isn’t it? Aren’t you disappointed?” You answer: “I wouldn’t say it’s disappointing…” But you just have. The journalist’s negative language can now be attributed to you. Whether it’s broadcast or press, they have a neat soundbite with you using their negative phrase. Don’t repeat negative language.

4. Speculation

Journalists are obsessed with the future. Journalism has sometimes been described as the “relentless pursuit of the new”. If we don’t know something, we can always speculate about it and invite you to do the same. “What would happen if…?” is fascinating to the media but risky for interviewees. Even something as anodyne as “Where do you see turnover in three years’ time?” can make you a hostage to fortune.

In crisis situations in particular, speculating on the cause of the incident or it’s possible consequences is very dangerous. If you don’t know, then don’t guess.

5. The two-part question

Journalists will sometimes make a statement during a question. For example, “I know that you’re launching X next week, how do you see the market developing over the next few months?” Another one might be “You’re due to make redundancies, I know, but what are the the big issues facing the company over the next year?”

If the statement part of the question is correct and you’re happy with it, then that’s fine. But if not, then challenge and if necessary, correct it before going on to answer the question.

Journalists will sometimes do this because they genuinely believe what they’re saying but more likely they’re “flying a kite”. In other words, testing to see whether something is true or not. Either way, if it’s not accurate then don’t let it go unchallenged.

6. The Personal question

You’ve promoted a product or defended an issue very effectively by giving the organisation’s official line. But then the journalist asks you about your personal experience or preferences. “Would you like a nuclear power station/hypermarket/major road next to your home?” you might be asked. Or it could be “Do you eat this stuff?” or “When did you last do something for charity?”.

Many people will remember Matt Barrett, the £1.7million-a-year head of Barclays, admitting that he didn’t borrow money on his credit card. Barrett was actually giving evidence to the Commons’ Treasury select committee but either way, your personal experience or preferences are fair game to journalists.

7. Just for background

You’re discussing all the issues that you’ve agreed to talk about, when the journalist asks you for some facts or figures just for background. This is fine, but you need to think about how they will be treated. Will they be attributed to “a source at (your organisation)?” Will it be quoted at all? Does it involve commenting on competitors or on market-sensitive information? Depending on what you say, what was intended to be in the background of an interview could easily end up in the foreground.

8. The oft-repeated question

Why do journalists keep asking the same question again and again? You’re asked a difficult question and you answer it with the line that you decided to take. The journalist looks quizzical and then asks the same question only in a different form. Or perhaps they go on to ask a couple of other questions and then come back to this question. Then they do it again. Then they apologise or look confused or frustrated – and ask it yet again.

Why won’t they leave it alone when you’ve already answered it? The simple truth is that many people, when asked the same question again and again will (out of boredom, politeness or a mix of both) eventually give a slightly different answer and then the journalist has them.

9. ‘While I’ve got you’

This is usually put towards the end of the interview. You’ve discussed all the issues that you arranged to talk about and have answered all the questions on the topic. Then suddenly, the journalist asks something completely out of left field. It’s topical and vaguely related to what you do, but nothing to do with what you arranged to speak about.

Being familiar with other issues connected to your sector or organisation that are in the news that day and having an answer ready for any questions about them is essential.

10. The final question

The interview has gone well. The journalist has asked tough but fair questions and you’ve answered them all successfully. The pen and tape machine are being put away when the journalist asks a final question – and it’s a stinker. A classic example of this is Jeremy Paxman finishing an interview with the former Chancellor, Norman Lamont on Newsnight. “Do you enjoy your job?” asks Paxman. It’s an easy question and Lamont, who has acquitted himself during the interview very well, makes some anodyne comments about it being challenging but enjoyable role, at which point Paxman asks: “Are you going to miss it then?” Cue look of horror on the face of the Chancellor.

“Do you really think you’re worth your salary?”. “Let’s catch up again this time next year – if you still think you’ll be here?”. “Do you agree with the government’s policy on…?”.

Leaving the nastiest question to the end is a classic journalist trick – be ready for it.

If the journalist asks you the same question five, six, seven or more times then smile, be polite and give the same answer every time. Better still, try and move the conversation on to something more positive from your point of view.

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