Media Interviewing: Don’t Name Names

media interviewing names

Since 2018, I’ve produced over 230 episodes of the Shaping Opinion Podcast, which is released weekly. In all of those episodes I only had to go back and edit one after it was posted because I made the mistake of letting the guest name names.

More to the point, the guest told a few stories that were unflattering to the two or three individuals mentioned in our interview. The guest knew them. The stories were based on my guest’s personal experience. I trusted that and went with it.

Not long after the interview posted, I got a call from one of the individuals mentioned who heard the episode and told me that my guest’s memory was foggy and he wasn’t even in the city where the supposed story took place.

As a podcaster, I am not an investigative reporter. I do my best to fact-check the facts I can if need be, but when it comes to guests telling stories based on their own experience, I can’t verify those. Since I had no way of knowing whose memory was more accurate, I took those portions of the interview out.

What did I learn?

What I learned from this experience is that as a podcaster I need to listen for certain types of claims of “fact” that could be disputed, particularly if those claims have the potential to put some unsuspecting third party in a bad light.

In other words, if a guest tells a story that makes someone else look bad, and they say the name of that person, more often than not, I will stop in mid-interview and ask the guest to tell the story without mentioning the name, or if need be, I will edit that part of the interview out during production.  The only exceptions are when there are publicly verified news reports or other accounts that prove the claim is beyond dispute and a matter of public record.

As a podcaster, I don’t have teams of lawyers and prefer not to get embroiled in libel, slander and defamation lawsuits. This most likely applies to you if you’re the one being interviewed. Do you want to find yourself on the wrong side of a defamation suit?

A Teachable Moment for Media Interviewing

The lesson in the story above is this: When you are interviewed by the media, do what you can not to name names. Unless the purpose of the interview explicitly requires you to name the names of others involved in the story, or if whatever you say will not catch the other person off guard, don’t tell unflattering stories about specific people when doing media interviews. Even if you feel the details are true to the best of your recollection, it’s not a good practice to call people out or cite names to score points in news media interviews.

This is not to say you should never mention names if the purpose of the interview is a critical, perhaps controversial story in the public domain. In those cases, you may need to mention certain names, but it’s always a good idea to be working with lawyers and others who can verify and vet the claims you plan to make before you make them publicly.

But on the matter of routine practice of mentioning names in media interviews, discretion should be used for individual and organizational names as well. If you’re about to tell a funny or embarrassing story that involves a former employer, a client or some other organization, think twice before you mention the name of that organization.

Chances are you’ll find it more prudent not to drop the name.

A Better Approach

A better and more professional approach is to speak in general terms. Instead of saying, “I remember the time someone I worked with named John Smith got drunk at a company Christmas party,” say, “I remember a time one of my colleagues drank too much at a company Christmas party.”

Or, instead of saying, “The ACME Widget Company used to let its employees flirt with each other almost as part of its workplace culture,” say, “I remember one company that used to look the other way when its employees engaged in flirtatious behaviors, almost as though it was a natural part of the workplace culture.”

In the end, there are many times when it is appropriate to mention names, but the trick is to know when. More often than not, to avoid creating problems for yourself, your interviewer and others, it’s always best to be very selective on which names to mention in news media interviews.

If you have something on your mind with regard to media interviewing, get in touch. I’d love to chat.

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