Blog Post Written By: Mike Stabile
Sex workers have good reason to fear speaking with most journalists. The mainstream media has a long history of disrespecting or disparaging sex workers, dismissing their opinions, or using them as props — comic or tragic — in their coverage. And that’s when they bother to talk to sex workers at all.
Bad journalists have been able to get away with it because, until recently, they weren’t held to account. There are rules to interviews, but no one ever bothered to tell them to sex workers. So when a journalist did something violating — like publish a legal name, take a quote out of context or without permission, or spend a paragraph dismissively describing what someone was wearing — sex workers had little recourse.
That needs to change.
Last month, we talked a bit about how you can protect yourself before the interview — researching who you’re talking to, deciding on the format, guarding personal information. Now, let’s tackle protecting yourself during the interview process.
1. Make the Interview Serve You
The journalist is getting paid for interviewing you. They’re building their reputation and career. What are you getting out of it?
If you’ve agreed to an interview, it generally means that there is either a point you want to get across, or recognition for the work you’ve done. Maybe you want people to know more about a certain proposed law would affect a sex worker. Maybe you want a predator called to account. Maybe you want greater name recognition, or promotion for your content.
While reputable outlets will not pay a subject for an interview, that doesn’t mean you’re a charity. Understand what you want out of the interview, and keep that as your guiding light when answering questions.
2. Always Assume You’re Being Recorded
From the moment you interact with a journalist — the DM, the hello on the phone, the small talk — assume you’re being recorded, and that whatever you say can be put into the final article. Even if the camera or recorder isn’t on, a journalist is likely taking notes, and can paraphrase what you tell them.
Does this mean you should panic or be defensive? Not at all. Just always be cautious and aware, like you just pulled onto a fast-moving freeway. Keep your wits about you.
More responsible journalists will ask for your consent before you’re recorded (in many states, it’s required), and some will even follow up with quote verification after the interview. But none of these should be expected, and not even particularly common, so never assume this to be the case.
3. Evaluate the Questions
Journalists will often tell you what their story is about when they first reach out. But sometimes their story is still unformed — they’re chasing an idea. In other cases, a journalist might disguise their true intentions because they know you wouldn’t talk to them otherwise.
But once an interview starts, you can tell a lot by their questions. What are they interested in? Who are they asking about? Does it match what you thought the interview was? If so, it might be a red flag that this journalist isn’t being truthful.
And if you think a journalist isn’t being straight with you, close those lips and find a way to exit the call.
4. Explain It Like They’re Five
Does the journalist you’re talking to know a lot about sex work? Have they done their research? Are they comfortable with sex? While there are good reporters who cover sex industries extensively, most reporters haven’t.
If you’re dealing with an inexperienced reporter, talk as simply as you can. Avoid jargon or slang or acronyms. In the parlance of Reddit, explain it like they’re five.
5. Beware the SWERFs and Antis
Many journalists — maybe even a majority! — think sex work is shameful, deplorable, exploitative, or illegal (or should be). If you find yourself with a journalist who isn’t just uninformed about sex work but hostile, think twice about continuing the conversation. No matter what you say, you’re likely to end up misquoted, or to have your quote used to further one of their points.
If you do stay on the call — I regard these conversations as a challenge, and rarely turn them down — make sure you have your guard high. Make notes about the types of questions they ask you, as well as any assumptions they might have. If you need to contest the piece later, it’s good to have ammunition.
6. You don’t have to answer every question
An interview is not a test. Just because you picked up the phone or let a film crew into your house does not mean you’re required to tell them everything — especially something that could hurt you. A good journalist — and there are lots of them — wants to get to the truth. Maybe you know it! But if telling them something they want to know is going to get you fired, into a fight, into legal trouble, or cause you to lose clients or fans, don’t do it.
By nature, I’m a people pleaser. I want to make people happy, including journalists. But that’s not my job.
The easiest way to not answer a question is to, well, not answer it. Say a journalist wants to talk about your family, your income, or a #metoo allegation, but you’re not comfortable with it. A polite “I’m sorry but I’d rather not talk about that” or “I don’t know enough about that to really talk about it” is perfectly acceptable. Journalists will sometimes try and figure out what you *would* be willing to talk about, but if they continue to push, be explicit. Tell them if they’re going to continue to push, you won’t be able to continue with the interview.
7. Move Tough or Unexpected Questions
The most difficult questions to answer are often the most complicated and nuanced. Say, for example, you’re being interviewed about a platform you worked on that’s being investigated for fraud. Or a colleague who has been filming controversial scenes. Or a friend who suffered assault at the hands of police.
In each of these cases, the stakes are high. You might have some information that you want to share, but aren’t sure how to say it correctly, or if you want to say it at all. In those cases, it’s best to ask the journalist if you can think about the question, and get back to them later. Or, better yet, if you can follow up by email or DM.
Email gives you some time to think about what you’re saying before you say it. It allows you to get a second opinion. It removes you from a heated and possibly emotional situation.
Not every journalist will allow it. Some think a written response feels too formal or crafted. Some journalists want to trap you into giving an unplanned or damning answer. Too bad.
8. Avoid speculation
The easiest way to get into trouble in an interview is to talk about things you’ve heard, or think *might* be the case. Speculation and rumor are often part of normal conversation with a friend, where it’s generally taken for what it is — unserious. But casual speculation that ends up in print becomes incredibly serious. Even if the journalist describes what you say as speculation, you can bet the person reading it will regard it as a direct accusation.
My general rule? Speak from your own personal experience as much as possible. Repeating things you’ve heard, or talking about your gut feeling about a situation may give a journalist a good quote, but they can have lasting implications for your reputation, your career and your friendships.
9. Don’t lie
I’ve probably given close to a thousand interviews in my lifetime, and I haven’t purposefully lied once. Because talking to the press is one of my jobs, I depend on my reputation. If you plan on building lasting relationships with the press, keep it truthful. This doesn’t mean I’m an open book. In some cases, I have to choose my words carefully. When I can’t speak to something — for whatever reason — I tell them.
But when you lie, you can get caught. Maybe they’ve spoken to someone else. Maybe they’ve gone through your trash. Suddenly, everything you’ve told them — good or bad — is worthless.
10. Avoid going off the record
“Can this be off the record” is a phrase that *seems* simple enough, but is actually quite complicated. While tv and movies make it seem like an easy way of sharing secrets, it doesn’t have a firm meaning. Different journalists use it differently — it can cover a wide array of unofficial disclosures. And even if something is told to a journalist “off the record” they could potentially:
Print the information you give them in the article, but not say who told them
Print your direct quote in the article, but attribute it to an anonymous source
Tell someone else they interview what you’ve said
If you’re talking about something sensitive, or something you’d want to keep private, talking “off the record” isn’t a great way to do it. Even if you’re theoretically anonymous, you might be one of a few people with knowledge of a situation. You might use a phrase that someone can use to identify you. Even if you say something “off the record” it might still cause unintended damage. Telling a journalist a secret isn’t the same as telling your therapist or priest.
There are ways to talk privately — and it can be an effective way of getting your story out there, or shining a light on a complicated situation — but there are very specific rule and protocols that require their own separate post.
Unless you know exactly what you’re getting into, stick to talking about things you can say “on the record.”
11. Exit Gracefully
Are you uncomfortable with the direction of the interview? Is the journalist hostile, insulting, ignorant or badly intentioned? It may be time to conclude the interview.
Generally, if you need to prematurely exit, it’s easier to conclude an interview by email or phone than it is a live broadcast or documentary film. But whatever you do, avoid drama — drama that can easily find its way into the final article or segment. Exit as politely and simply as possible.
If it’s over email, you can always choose to not answer. Phone? Tell them you’ve got another call, and will call them back in a moment. (Don’t.) Broadcast or documentary film? Ask if you can break for water or the bathroom (anything to get you on camera and off-mic), and simply walk off set.
12. Follow Up
By the time you’ve finished speaking with a journalist, you should have a sense of who they are and what they’re after. If you sense their goals match yours, ask them who else they might need to talk to, and offer to be a source for follow up questions. If there was information they needed but you didn’t have, offer to see if you can find it.
Likewise, if the journalist is bad, raise the alarm. Let other people know. You’re likely not the only person they’re trying to exploit.
Mike Stabile is documentary filmmaker, journalist and media strategist. In 2014, he founded Polari Media to help sex workers and sex-related business communicate more effectively with mainstream media. He currently serves as Director of Public Affairs at Free Speech Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter at @mikestabile
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