Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘opinion

Host Flip Flops

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Flip Flop Fish

Sometimes, an interviewer has a bias and they conduct their interview that way.  They have a slant, a tilt, an opinion that they think the guest they are interviewing shares.  But then, in the course of the conversation, the guest says something that disputes that bias and the direction the interviewer is going.  It shouldn’t happen since interviewers usually research their guests, know their views in advance and build the conversation around legitimate pro and con aspects.

But when it does happen, the interviewer has three choices; to drop down into neutral (which is probably where they should’ve been all along), or switch up, drop references to their bias and agree with the guest’s view or confront the guest, either by directly disagreeing or continuing to hold the view by periodically questioning the guest’s views.

This is never a good situation.  There is no point in an interviewer asking a guest onto a program to then discount the expert opinion the were invited to provide … except when the point of the interview is to generate contention and entertainment, not necessarily an informative discussion.  I’ve talked before about how an interviewer might not personally like an interviewee or even morally agree with some position they hold.  But I think neutrality of the interviewer is necessary to let the audience decide how they feel about the issue, not for the interviewer to inject themselves into the balance.  That is not the interviewer’s job.

If an interviewer does this, switching up, too many times, they can start to look and sound wishy washy, i.e., lose credibility.  That’s certain death for someone who wants what they do taken seriously.

Written by Interviewer

March 21, 2015 at 01:01

The Outrageous Sh*t People Say

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controversy

Interviewers can’t afford to judge the people they’re interviewing for two main reason.  First, if they judge, the interviewee may stop talking.  Usually, the more a person talks, the more comfortable they get.  And if they feel they are being allowed the freedom to get comfortable, they will, over time, be more and more honest with what they are saying, even if those view are repugnant to many listeners.

The fact that those opinions may be repugnant to some is not the point, however.  The point is allowing them to be heard and then, letting the public whether represented by the legal system, the activist community or the woman on the street, to respond.  They may respond with new legislation, an arrest or the kind of public pressure Americans are so good at applying.

It is not the job of the interviewer to judge.  It is the job of the interviewer to honestly provide a direct highway from the interviewee’s mouth to the listener’s ears and let the chips fall where they may with the acknowledgement that sometimes, there is no reaction.  Maybe people are not listening because they’re doing something else.  Or maybe they are listening but they don’t see the subject as rising to a level where it affects them directly enough to respond.  But that too is not the interviewer’s job to worry about.

The other reason why an interviewer can’t judge is because judgement tends to lead to confrontation.  An interviewee with a controversial view has been honed with a prize fighter’s prowess to hit back whenever they feel attacked.  And a judging interviewer may question those views in such a way that the interviewee feels attacked.  This can escalate until you have both trying to outtalk each other.  It is bad for the interviewer because it lessens his credibility but great for the interviewee because he has been able to draw a heretofore impartial interviewer down to the level of shouting.  You’ve heard the expression, “Never wrestle with a pig.  You get covered in mud and the pig likes it”.  That is a saying that should be at the front of every interviewer’s mind whenever they find themselves in conversation with someone with controversial views.

Again, the best and only thing a good interviewer can and should do is make it comfortable for their interviewees to talk and then, let them.

Written by Interviewer

August 12, 2014 at 00:49

I Agree

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Image

This is a quickie.

I’ve been doing a lot of interviews with politicians as part of a project to invite as many Oregon 2014 candidates as possible to the microphone and let the public hear their views.  In many cases, these candidates have been ignored by their party in favor of candidates that have already been approved by the larger political machine.  In others, the candidates don’t affiliate themselves with that machine, opting instead to run a “grass roots” campaign.

The point of this post, though, is messaging and how some candidates, even if unknown, are much better at it than others.  An interviewee with experience turning the agenda during an interview can use many tricks to do that.  A really cool one is trying to subtlety make the interviewer complicit to their point of view.  For example, consider this exchange;

Q: What do you think about the opinion of some that taxes are too high?

A:  I agree with you that taxes are too high, and this is how I would fix that …

I agree with you?  The interviewer was asking a question about a question, not making a statement or giving a personal opinion.  But to bring credibility to their own views about taxes, a clever interviewee might turn the question into an opportunity to trick the listener into thinking the interviewer has the same opinion about taxes as the interviewee.  This technique can be used for any subject, and the interviewer must immediately challenge the reply by making clear that they have no position on the subject.  But if the interviewee manages to slip it in, the egregious “I agree with you that taxes are too high, and …” can simply be edited out.

I’ve talked about credibility dangers the interviewer can face.  The interviewee is not talking with you to enhance your credibility.  They are there to enhance their own and sometimes, they will try to do that by any means necessary.  An interviewer’s job is to make clear everything the interviewee reveals without allowing their own credibility to suffer in the process.  As I’ve said, the point of these interviews is to let people hear the candidates and their views.  Hopefully, they also hear how and what the candidate doesn’t say.

Written by Interviewer

April 14, 2014 at 23:45

The Audio Doesn’t Lie

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audio

This is a quickie.

The interesting thing about interviewing is you can tell where the passion is very easily in someone’s views, arguments, whatever, and it’s not always where you think it would be.  As an interviewer listening to someone voice an opinion, you would think that if you follow their logic, their thinking would lead you to a conclusion and it is in that conclusion where their greatest passion and truth would lie.  But as an editor, watching the waveform of them speaking, you can see the most heat isn’t always at the end of a reasoned and well lit conclusion.

At the outset, I want to say that of course it is important to take the natural rise and fall in a person’s speaking style into account. But, with that said, I find me wondering about the conviction a speaker may have for whatever points they are making when I start paying attention to the volume of their voice as they speak.  When the needle gets peaked or buried in places you don’t expect, I go back and listen to what they were saying and ask why, if that is where they imply they are most affected, doesn’t their emotion reflect that?  Alternately, something that seems insignificant is actually a source of their real passion.  

When they talk in hushed tones about something that they say is important, is it them being reverential or unsure? When they swing loudly upward, are they showing conviction or insecurity? I would expect a researcher could have a lot of fun comparing points of the highest and lowest volume of a speaker’s voice against where those speakers place their most relevant logical arguments.  Anecdotally though, they don’t always match, which sometimes makes me wonder about the sincerity of the message.

As an editor though, all I really care about is that riding those highs and lows isn’t too much work for the listener. So, I usually end up smoothing those peaks and valleys out with compression or leveling software. Fortunately for me, all I have worry about is turning that picture into story for the listener to interpret for themselves.

But is it is one of those things that make you go, “Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm …”

Written by Interviewer

January 30, 2014 at 05:36

Stump the Chump

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stump

I sometimes talk about the “dark art” aspects of journalism and interviewing.  This one is firmly rooted in the “How To’s” of discrediting an interviewee and making yourself sound smarter or more of an authority than you are.  Stump the Chump means asking questions, or pursuing lines of questioning that, on some occasions, are rhetorical and on other occasions, esoteric.  But both are intended to throw the interviewee way off their game.

How?  I have conducted interviews with people about to start a new job.  Since these people have worked very hard for this job, a listener might assume that they must have done all of their due diligence to learn about every aspect of it.  I mean, that is what the idea of “hitting the ground running” is all about.  An employer or a constituency wants to be confident that the person they have just put in this important position knows as much about it as the person about to leave it so there can be as little disruption as possible.

Journalists and interviewers can exploit this assumption to the extreme however by asking the interviewee questions purposely engineered to be outside of their knowledge.  For example, let’s say the interviewee will be part of a department that is responsible for an interactive system that updates the public on something or other.  If there have been changes to that system, or if it has been down for maintenance, a Stump the Chump question might be, “So, what can you tell me about XYZ system, and why has it been down so long?”  It’s possible that the interviewee will know about XYZ system, but it is much more likely that they don’t because they have been overly occupied in learning the broader aspects of the job; the direct responsibilities of their soon to be predecessor, the politics of the position, the specific day to day requirements, organizational structure and so forth.

But a question that seems to be germane to their duties that they have difficulty answering can make them sound unsure at best and incompetent at worst.

A good interviewer spends at least hours, and probably days plotting a course through the interviewee’s experience with a list of questions.  With that kind of birds-eye view of the interviewee, a general knowledge of the job and an overall understanding of the culture as it relates to both, interviewers can cogently test an interviewee’s knowledge in a way the listener can relate to and evaluate.

But although journalists and interviewers are intelligent and savvy enough to discover and formulate legitimate questions that the interviewee considers expertly posed, they are not the experts they are interviewing.  Journalist and interviewers with the intention to embarrass interviewees can find themselves on thin ice if they pursue this tact.  And those experts can fight back against Stump the Chump questions.

The simplest way is to simply ask them to “explain” what they mean.  Unless the interviewer has relatively deep knowledge of the inner workings of the issue, they may find themselves stuck and unable to further explain their question.  A variation of this is if the interviewee reasks the interviewer’s question “for the purposes of clarity” in an equally complex way but from a different technical direction.  Since the interviewer may have only investigated one aspect of the problem, an interviewee that forces them to repose the question from another direction can shut down that line of questioning.

Another way the interviewee can avoid being cornered is to say something along the lines of “I don’t have an answer for that right now, but I would be glad to get back to you or one of your staff with an answer/solution before the end of the day”.  This is a good come back because it shows that although they don’t know,  they promise to find out.  This can give them credibility with listeners.

Most interviewers are professional, meaning, their intention is to not think for the listeners.  That can mean not trying to funnel or filter audience thinking through their own by way of questions that emphasize one aspect of the interviewee or denigrating others aspects.  A professional interviewer asks open, honest, straightforward questions with no subtext on the assumption that the audience is intelligent and can come to their own opinions about the interviewee, their experience and qualifications for the position.  Stump the Chump questions are asked by amateurs who lack confidence or so-called professionals with an agenda.

Written by Interviewer

January 21, 2014 at 06:57