Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘interviewing

Yes, No Thank You

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Confusion

Politicians is what makes politics interesting. Specificially, how they use language and perception to try to bend time, space and minds.  You can see this when, for example, a politician votes for or speaks on the behalf of something that they know has absolutely no chance of becoming law.  They may not even agree with it but dare not speak against it for fear of alienating a potential constitutiency.  So, they throw their support behind a sinking ship so they can say, “See, I support you” knowing they’re true intent is as safe as if it were in a mother’s arms.

You can see a version of this “yes means no” thinking sometimes when it comes to interviewing them.  You can try for weeks to interview someone.  And each time, they or their aide promptly send back a reply saying “I’ll be available in a few weeks”, or “Call and we’ll set something up” or “Give me some options”.  So, you wait, or you call or you propose.  And again, a prompt reply saying, “Still out of town” or “Sorry we missed you” or “Those won’t work for me”.  So you wait, or try again or suggest alternatives.  Strangely, nothing ever seems to work.  And yet, when you look at who’s never available versus who makes themselves available, it’s easy to wonder, “Hmmmm, A’s campaign or prospects don’t seem nearly as hectic as B’s, yet, B and me talked last week and A is still in the wind.  Curious”.

Then, when the prospect of a conversation is obviously off the table because of time or some other factor, there are emails of apology.  And in those moments come the easy realization that they never intended to talk with you.  But as a way of seeming accomodating, they stay in touch, respond promptly and are always polite but never available.  Politicians want love, even from people they won’t meet.  They really are experts at what they do even if the way some of them do it, sometimes, seems pretty unseemly.

Written by Interviewer

October 30, 2014 at 22:40

When Will They Ever Learn?

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Image

Yesterday morning, Jeremy Hobson of the NPR Program Here and Now was interviewing Cardiff Garcia of the Financial Times.  The conversation was about drug company Pfizer trying to again acquire drug company AstraZeneca.

At the end of the interview, no doubt because Mr. Hobson was running out of time, he asked Mr. Garcia for a one word answer as to whether recent mergers in the drug industry represented a healthy or unhealthy environment for the companies.

Mr. Garcia gave Mr. Hobson exactly 78 words.

By telling an interviewee to answer a question in a single word, phrase or sentence, professional interviewers like to think they have total control over interviews and interviewees.  But professional interviewees know how to play this game too.  And often, they will talk just as long as they want until they themselves hear the cue music loud in their headphones, indicating that the host is experiencing a panic attack, trying to end the interview on time.

This tactic represents a kind of insincerity in the interviewing profession.  Maybe interviewers assume they won’t get a one word answer.  Maybe it’s a”wink wink, nod nod” kind of thing between the two.  When I say one word, it means you need to wrap it up.  We all know issues can be complicated and sometimes to protect their own credibility, a guest can’t or won’t try to boil down a request to answer an impossibly complex question into a one word answer.

But sometimes, when interviewers say, “one word”, interviewees do respond with “one word”.  So, there is a consistency problem that might not completely set with some listeners.  Interviewers probably sense somewhere that it is, to some extent, unfair to expect an nterviewee to boil something down to a single word.  If an interviewee can do it, then they should.  If an interviewer is asking them for a one word answer, it’s because they are out of time but want to put a bow on the point of the conversation.  Or maybe it’s because they know the interviewee can be long winded and they don’t want to find themselves out of time.  Besides, it certainly makes it more likely that an interviewee will be invited on other programs if they can show that they can summarize in a crunch.

But the interviewer can’t cram every second of the interview with questions and then leave the interviewee no time to answer the final question “lightning round” style.

It reminds me of a sign I used to see inside a lot of office cubes; “A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part”.  That applies to interviewing too. Each side should to be aware of and sensitive to the needs and limitations of the other.

Written by Interviewer

April 30, 2014 at 23:42

Simple Questions

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M16

I worked for Armed Forces Television, and one of my jobs as a member of the News Department was to host an interview program. I worked on a small post and everybody watched American TV because it was familiar and reminded military and their family of home. And because it was in English. So we kind of had a captive audience.

Whenever anything happened on post, we were almost always behind the curve because the grapevine had already spread it all over before station politics had the testicles to speak of it too. As an aside, although it called itself a “News” department, it wasn’t really news. It was more like storytelling, which BTW, isn’t always immediate or proactive.  But, considering that the military can be an insular culture, even to itself and trusting of no one, it’s no small leap of faith to give a pocket of soldiers TV cameras and microphones and satellite dishes, even if they aren’t doing investigative journalism. You can still have scandal, and they can be caused by the smallest things.

Anyway, regarding this one particular incident, a military police officer had discharged a weapon in the military police arms room. For those who don’t know, an arms room is where soldiers go to be issued weapons and ammunition for duty requiring them to be armed, and turn in weapons and ammunition when the duty is completed.

So, the rumor was that a weapon had been fired. And since I was hosting a weekly, call in interview program with the Post Commander, I asked if this was true. It was a simple question. But there was a lot of weather behind it.

For one, the station commander and the administrative staff didn’t particularly like this commander’s style. He was belittling and a bit bullyish. Plus, some of them really wanted to broadcast news, not pabalum from the public affairs office. Also, I had developed some credibility as a reporter, so they must’ve thought I’d be good as a conduit between the community and the commander. Finally, the station knew me and this commander didn’t get along. So, I also believe they used me as a stick to poke him. I knew that was true because others who heard of the incident asked me to ask him on the program. I asked my supervisor first if it was OK to bring it up and she said yes. Other people said putting the commander on the spot would be disrespectful. But, I was a journalist and I was conferring with a supervisory journalist at a network broadcast station. Regardless of it being a military facility, it was one of those times when you follow the other professional track, and I was OK with that. Years later, I discovered a letter from him, written to my commander, saying how he thought I was terrible at my job and how he wanted me replaced. Funny thing is, I interviewed him for several more months after that until the program was mysteriously ended.  

So, anyway, I asked the question, “Sir, what happened in the arms room?” And as I remember, what followed was a long drawn out nothing of an answer, followed by a short but obvious castigation of me, on live TV.

I never did find out why the weapon was discharged. Was it accidental? Was it intentional. Were there injuries? What changes would be made to arms room protocols? But besides learning the brutal power of simple questions, I also learned that even when you’re inside an organization, you can’t always find out the truth.

You may know people are using you. Or you may have no love for the person you’re talking to. But the question still needs to be asked. And the simpler, with the least number of syllables and the flattest inflection and the most direct eye contact, the better.

It is one of my proudest moments.

Written by Interviewer

June 1, 2013 at 03:40

Guts

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Maze

There are two ways to write a story.

One is to already know what you want to say and then look for quotes or soundbytes that you can drop into the spaces you’ve carved out ahead of time.  In essence, you know what you want the story to say and where you want it to go and you don’t really care where it could possibly go on its own. Maybe you do it because you’re pressed for time, or you don’t really care, or because you want to look like something you’re not.  Doing a story that way, , you’re kinda sorta censoring.  But for sure, you are a lazy SOB who coasts the low road and God help anyone who swallows your crap thinking you’ve done your due diligence.  God stop them from making an important choice based on the slop you feed them.

The other way is to start out by knowing nothing.  You study the subject, you ask questions from every possible perspective.  You talk to people who know what you don’t know and ask them to ask you questions.  You ask questions against your own biases, against the information you’re given, with the information you’re given and with your own biases.  And once it’s all in one place, on paper, in a hard drive, on a spreadsheet, you start making connections and relationships.  You build matrices, and mind maps and block diagrams.  And when you know as much as you can know in the time that you’ve had, you start to write.  And when you finish writing, you press the button and launch it.

That way of writing a story is harder, slower and full of more dead ends.  But, it’s more sincere because it goes where it is supposed to go.  You may suffer at the hands of its path, not your own but in the end, you and it end up somewhere much much better than you though every you’d be, sometimes to your own greatest surprise.

Written by Interviewer

April 27, 2013 at 10:16

Shout Out to Reporters

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Pen Sword

This isn’t about interviewing, but it is about reporting.

Two things.

First, a reporter may, in his or her career, be a lot of things; spokesperson, marketing expert, advertising consultant, author.  But of them all, being a reporter like being a marine, is forever.   Especially if being a reporter was first, because the reporter never forgets that the truth is what is really important.  To a reporter, the crooked can never be made straight no matter the size of the giant or the paycheck.  If someone is trying to make them see something one way, it will never look right to them.  It will eat at them because their DNA is lit from within with the power of the pen.  Eventually, they’ll start truthtelling because even if the reporter has stopped using his teeth, he never loses them and they resharpen quickly.  Semper Fi.

Secondly, I am sick of hearing people who say that a reporter can never be objective so they shouldn’t try.  Weak people point to human base nature as an excuse to do nothing.  They say that since we can’t be “pure”, any attempt at objectivity is failed and thus, discredited and useless.  So reporters should just report with their biases with no attempt to be balanced.

If we’re going to pretend to be civilized, then we should play it out, and that means swallowing the higher ideals hook too.  Person A gets away with too much shit while trying to crush Person B for theirs.  I’m not for double dealing, but I’m for hypocrisy even less.  So, I guess I do care that some get away with it and others don’t simply because some thieves are thicker than others.

In journalism,  decent reporters load everything they can find out about questionable someones into the reporter’s centrifuge and whirl the hell out of it until everything has separated, and then burn up what’s left in the reporter’s autoclave until all you’re left with is something that is as pure as you can get.  And then you serve it back to the public and wait for what happens.  Because in the end, if anything changes, they’ll be the ones to change it.

It’s not perfect, but it’s a damn sight better than nothing, and well above the curve for effort.  I’ll take it.

Written by Interviewer

April 26, 2013 at 14:34