Breast-feeding controversy: would you give an interview?

When you’re working as a journalist, it can be extremely frustrating when someone who seems to be the perfect interviewee for a piece you’re putting together, turns you down for what appears to be no good reason – especially when you’re looking for a comment on a subject he or she feels strongly about.

I had a chance to gain an insight from the other side when an old school friend contacted me for advice. She’s a devoted member of a campaign group to promote breastfeeding and has fed both her children well beyond their toddler years. She’d been approached by The Times to do an interview and photo shoot for their Saturday magazine with her daughter, as part of a feature sparked by the controversy surrounding the Time magazine front cover photo of a model breastfeeding an older child.

She told me she was flattered and looking forward to the interview, until the reporter started putting difficult questions to her. When I asked her what had concerned her, she explained she’d been put out when she was asked about other members of her family – what her husband did for a living, how her older son felt about the fact he’d been breastfed for so long, whether the children shared a bed with their parents as babies. She felt this was prying too much into her private life and was now considering pulling out.

To me, all these questions seemed perfectly normal – in my head, I’d already formed the basis of the story, and could imagine why the reporter wanted these facts – but for my friend, it felt like unnecessary prying. I told her she shouldn’t worry too much and that the journalist was just trying to get a bit of context by building a picture of the family’s life. I didn’t think she had anything else in mind other than explaining my friend’s point of view on the issues with enough background information to make an interesting piece.

I did however warn that other people would find the whole idea of breastfeeding a young child very strange, and the story could attract the same sort of negative comments as followed the Time front cover. I then put on my journalist’s hat and repeated a well-rehearsed argument used on many occasions with a reluctant potential contributor – that it’s important for people like her to do these sorts of interviews in order to convince readers about something they strongly believe in. That clearly makes sense but it’s all too easy to give sensible advice when you’re not the one laying yourself open to criticism.

After weighing up the pros and cons, she’s decided it’s such an important issue that she’s going ahead with it and she’s off to London to do the shoot. I admire her courage and really hope it’s rewarded.

Beccy Leach

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About James Stewart

Senior Lecturer in Radio Journalism.
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