Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Archive for February 2014

I Don’t Have to Take This.

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Oregon’s governor, John Kitzhaber, walked out of an interview with KATU reporter Kelly Lane in early January after four minutes and two questions.  Staff cut the interview short because they said the governor needed to stay on schedule.  But coincidentally, the interview ended immediately after Ms. Lane asked Mr. Kitzhaber about the failed Cover Oregon website. The governor’s office has taken an intense amount of what some would call well deserved heat for a breakdown in the site at practically every level of its development and implementation.

There are many reasons why a prior appointment time may have been missed by a staffer, thus forcing an interview to be cut short. Staffers also however, have the responsibility of shielding their bosses from potentially embarrassing questions that could lead to other questions about credibility. Which precipitated this incident is unclear.

This non-interview reveals how the most simple questions can be the most explosive, with two in particular being the time honored fuse and match. They represent the most basic questions reporters must ask whenever they are talking to a politician about a high profile and potentially politically damaging subject.  Ms. Lane managed to ask a derivative of one of them. They are:

1.  What did you know and when did you know it?

2.  Where did the money come from and where did it go?

This whole kerfuffle was because the governor said he never received a message regarding an update on the problems of Cover Oregon although a member of the legislature said they received a reply from the Governor’s office that he would.  Email messages can certainly be lost, accidentally deleted or misdirected.  Which was the cause of the truncated conversation comes down, sadly, to he said “I didn’t get the message” while she says “Oh yes you did”. But there are things the reporter can do to not get in the way of these snits because such confusion can be surprisingly illuminating. And when it happens, it’s not the reporter’s job to get in their way or save an interviewee from themselves, although there can be exceptions.   Those safeguards include:

1.  Confirming the amount of time that will be set aside for the interview in advance and re-confirming that time before the interview begins.

2.  Never taking such incidents personally.  Reporters should only be a mirror that reflects the candidate’s behavior and actions back to themselves and their audience.  A clear reflection lets the audience apply their own filter and make their own judgments on candidate viability.

I’ve said before how one of the most important things that the reporter can do during an interview is prompt a “reveal”.   But as this example shows, non interviews can prompt them as well.

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February 26, 2014 at 12:21

New Track: Cathleen Callahan Interview

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A new track on SoundCloud “Cathleen Callahan Interview”:

Cathleen Callahan is running for 1st position Circuit Court Judge in Columbia County’s 19th Judicial District. She recently talked with Don Merrill about small town dynamics, the need to take care of home and why she thinks she would dispense justice as fairly to her neighbors as strangers. *These interviews are part of a project to invite all Oregon candidates for the 2014 election to share their views. A transcript of this interview will be posted shortly.

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February 24, 2014 at 13:12

Posted in Scratchpad

New Track: Tom Sincic Interview

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A new track on SoundCloud “Tom Sincic Interview”:

Tom Sincic has spent much of his life working as a family nurse practitioner. But this year, he decided to take his listening skills and focus them on needs he sees in the Oregon legislature. That’s why he’s running as a Democrat for a seat in House District 45. Don Merrill talked with Tom Sincic about the CRC, the effect of lobbying and why health care is at the center of Oregon’s most pressing problems. *These interview are part of a project to invite all Oregon candidates for the 2014 election to share their views. A transcript of this interview will be posted shortly.

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February 14, 2014 at 23:42

Posted in Scratchpad

New Track: Art Robinson Interview

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A new track on SoundCloud “Art Robinson Interview”:

Art Robinson is the president of the Oregon Republican Party and is competing as a candidate for the US House of Representatives in Oregon’s 4th District against Democrat Pete Defazio. He talked with Don Merrill about issues ranging from Bitcoin to marijuana including lobbyist influence in lawmaking and business influence in school cirriculum. *These interviews are part of a project to invite all Oregon candidates for the 2014 election to share their views. A transcript of this interview will be posted shortly.

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February 14, 2014 at 12:54

Posted in Scratchpad

Credibility Traps

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When an interviewer is talking with an interviewee, its important to establish rapport.  The interviewee has to want to talk, to feel comfortable talking.  And there are a few things interviewers can do to help them.  A lot of them are exactly what someone would do in a conversation with a friend.  One is to repeat a question so the interviewee feels like they are being heard.  Another, if both are in the same room, is to establish eye contact and not be looking at something else while the interviewee is talking.

But there are some things an interviewer has to be careful not to do, or if they do them, to do them judiciously.  One is be careful of the supportive “Uh huh …” When someone is explaining a point it is common for the listener to say “uh huh” as a way of greasing the  social gears.  By doing that, the talker and the listener implicitly agree to be in agreement.  But an interviewer who is trying to not sound biased can’t lend their credibility to an interviewee’s point by seeming to agree.

The other danger is the misplaced laugh.  Humor can be elusive when people are shooting for it.  Likewise, it can erupt sincerely, but unexpectedly.  The thing about a laugh is it can give even more credibility than simply seeming to agree because a shared laugh is even more personal.

Fresh Air’s Terry Gross has a great laugh.  The sound explodes from her throat like a cap pistol.  Sometimes, she even snorts.  And when someone she’s interviewing says something funny, you can expect to hear it.  When something is funny, that’s one thing.  Laughing can be irresistible, therapeutic, infectious; all of the good things laughter is.  But Terry Gross has also been dead silent even if her guest has said something funny, or while they were trying to extract a laugh from her.

Interviews are conversations between humans and humans naturally want to connect.  But interviewers need to be careful to not sound like they are agreeing with an interviewee’s opinion or point of view by giving either too much or too often.

Written by Interviewer

February 12, 2014 at 14:41

New Track: Tim Schwader Interview

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A new track on SoundCloud “Tim Schwader Interview”:

Timothy Schwader is known by thousands of indie music fans as “The Impaler” and through his website, “The Impaler Speaks”. He has been an indie music reviewer since the mid 90s and an indie music lover since age 6. Don Merrill talks with Mr. Schwader about his hate for record companies and auto-tuning, his wish to see David Geffen’s head on a plate (metaphorically speaking) and a love so deep for indie musicians that it almost brings him to tears.

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February 10, 2014 at 14:24

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New Track: Glen Phillips Interview

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A new track on SoundCloud “Glen Phillips Interview”:

Glen Phillips is a vocalist and guitarist for the band Toad the Wet Sprocket. They broke up in 1998 and officially reunited in 2010 after playing a few tours as a band beginning in 2006. Don Merrill talks with Glen Phillips about staying fresh as an artist, reuniting a broken up band and how the accident that almost ended his musical career taught him the importance of grace.

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February 10, 2014 at 13:38

Posted in Scratchpad