Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

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Journalism has competing tenants.  One says, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them and tell them what you told them”.  The point of doing that, of repeating key aspects of a story throughout the story, is to reinforce the message since a long story can give people so much information they can get lost in it.

But the other one is that a lot of journalism tends to speak to people at about a 7th grade level.  There, the point is keeping things simple helps people follow the message.

Where these collide is the redundant review.  I often hear an interviewer ask a guest a question, the guest gives a perfectly cogent answer, and the interviewer, for some reason, restates that answer, and maybe even puts a slightly different spin on it than the guest intends.

I wonder why this happens.  Maybe the interviewer is trying to stay loyal to tenant number one.  Or maybe, they’re trying to stay true to tenant number two.  Sometimes, I wonder if there is a number three, namely, the interviewer is working the answer out in their own mind to make sure they understand what the guest is actually saying.

I have a third tenant that makes this tendency by some interviewers understandable.  The interviewer should be a surrogate for the listener.  And if there is ever  any question in the interviewer’s mind that a listener might not understand what a guest is saying, the interviewer should speak up.  My year of interviews with Oregon political office seekers proved this to be necessary over and over.

I’ve talked about interviewers adding spin, or restating or talking down to their audience.  Each of those is definitely annoying.  But not everybody who listens has the same capacity to understand and for that reason, journalism has to give those listeners the benefit of the doubt.  For those with capacity plus, they should see that as a win-win for us all.

Written by Interviewer

February 24, 2015 at 02:02

A Mighty Wind

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I’m doing a lot of editing right now.  And when I edit, I hear things I want to talk about as part of the interviewing process.  One of those things is the message.  The interviewer is neither the messenger or the message.  He or she is the conduit only.  But the interviewer is referee, governor, filter, interpreter.  In other words, the interviewer has the responsibility to help the listener not waste their time by making what they hear crystal clear.

This can be a problem when you have a long-winded interviewee.  I’ve talked before about interviewees who may be purposely trying to obfuscate an issue by taking around it or intimidate the interviewer.  But what I’m talking about here is a guest who has a lot of very relevant things to say, but the problem is they have way too many of them.

Specifically, you ask a guest a question.  The guest begins to answer the question.  Then, for perhaps context, the guest decides to tell a personal anecdote.  That personal anecdote might then lead off on a tangent.  Sometimes, if they get too far afield, you have to interrupt to pose the question to them again.  If you’re lucky, the guest returns to the original question and reiterates the question themselves with an answer.  But now, you have a long winded response that, although entertaining and relevant, is a lot more than you have time for, let alone what the listener has patience for.

When editing something like this, it’s very important to get to the point while not taking too many liberties with what they’re saying so that the chain of understanding is not broken.  It’s easy to cut out a block of what might seem like a meaningless story, only to realize you need a connector that the guest used a couple minutes back to have any hope of making a seamless edit that makes sense.  For instance, a guest might say, “Well, to answer you question about gun reform … and then tell a long story about going shooting with her uncle, and then move onto an experience of being stopped by a cop because they saw a gun under their jacket … and then, finally summing up the need for looser gun laws by saying something like … “so, I think people should have the right to carry a gun if they’re properly permitted and have never been convicted of a crime and have no mental illness.”

Uh oh.  First of all, the answer is too short now.  Some questions deserve answers with a little meat. And in the middle of the story, they may have mentioned permitting and not having a record and never having gone to anyone for counseling, but you didn’t notice.  So now, they are at the end of the story and they mention three concepts the listener hasn’t heard except in the middle of all of that other stuff.  So you’ve got to go back into those pieces of the story you just deleted and find those mentions so you can rebuild a more complete and meaningful thought, just with a lot fewer words.

You can’t leave in the whole story because you don’t have the time.  But you can’t connect the beginning to the end without some of the stuff in the middle that ties the two ends together.

Editing is like learning a script for a play.  You have to learn your lines and everybody else’s.  Once you do, you know where things go and how they make sense.  Only then, can you know how to cut them up into smaller but better pieces.

Written by Interviewer

April 11, 2014 at 06:12

Losing Control

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dueling microphones

The interplay between interviewer and interviewee is a delicate one.  And sometimes, you hear the balance go off-kilter.  Such was the case in today’s installment of “Q” with guest host Terry O’Reilly  He was talking with reporter Ben Hubbard, the Middle East correspondent for the New York Times, about the issues in Dubai and free speech.  And the reporter had a lot of information to share.  But the interview had two problems.  One, the reporter didn’t realize he was bogarting the interview, and two, Mr. O’Reilly didn’t cut him off when he needed to be cut off.

Hosts are the captains of the interview ship.  They have the clock in front of them, they’re thinking about editing and network breaks.  So they have to be the ones to corral guest commentary.  And you can feel it when it isn’t happening.  The most obvious clue is when you hear the host trying to force their way back into the momentum of the guest’s response and failing. You see this at parties when someone on the periphery of a conversation tries to say something to capture the attention of the circle but a more powerful and maybe more credible someone keeps talking and so, holds the attention of the assemblage.  I call this “The Talkeover” and either the host or the interviewee can be guilty of it.

Of course, a guest with a history of being interviewed knows hosts need to cut in sometimes and has an obligation to let them.  But another problem is when a host has a guest with specific and unique information that timeliness might demand they share all at once.  You don’t want to stop them, really, because nobody else might have this insight or you don’t know when you’ll get them again or they might tell you something your researchers or librarians have left out of your notes.  So you balance the risk of letting them talk to the risk of cutting them off.

This isn’t a case of either person being rude.  It’s more both parties trying to fulfill their responsibility as journalists as each of them understand it.  And even between practicing professionals, it can get kind of hazy.  Worse, it can leave the audience wondering what just happened.

Written by Interviewer

January 7, 2014 at 05:38

Posted in Scratchpad

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