Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘questions

Answers about Questions

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iur

This is a quickie.

As I labor through a project I’m currently working on, the question of questions came to mind.  Specifically, the questions a reporter should be asking in interviews while doing their reporting.  I am thinking of two types of questions to ask and two types of questions to not ask;

To Ask:
Questions you think the audience would ask if they could
Questions that compel the interviewee to reveal something you or they didn’t expect

To Not Ask
Questions that sound like you’re reading them
Questions that you think make you sound smart

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Written by Interviewer

December 21, 2015 at 12:19

Say What?

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ISIS Syria 2

I just heard an interview where the interviewer was talking with someone who left Syria just before the group ISIS (or Da’ish) began their campaign of retributive kidnappings and murders.  The interviewer asked why they stopped their humanitarian efforts of distributing blankets.  It was a confusing question since the interview centered around the worsening conditions for aid workers in recent years as well as the just confirmed death of aide worker Kayle Jean Mueller of Prescott, Arizona.  To a listener, it would make perfect sense why the worker stopped providing that aid and the question would’ve probably seemed unnecessary.

But in the follow up question, the interviewer asked the former aid worker if they were naïve for going to Syria in the first place.  Again, it was a strange question since, as the worker pointed out much earlier in the interview, conditions were very different at the beginning of the conflict and distributing the aid was both easier and more accepted by local authorities.

Perhaps, as is the practice of many interviewers, this is an example of covering all of the bases by playing “devils advocate”.  But to me, it’s less that than of the interviewer not listening to the answers or thinking through the history of a subject when preparing for the conversation.  These kind of questions are maddening because poor preparation or inattention by the interviewer can confuse a good topic and a cogent interviewee and leave the listener with no clear takeaway.

I’ve talked about this before; questions that dilute or miss the point.  It happens.  I just wish it happened a little less often.

Written by Interviewer

February 11, 2015 at 01:47

Who is This?

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Press Pass

Yesterday, I spent several hours trying to get a state agency to talk to me about a program they had created to help homeowners deal with the possibility of forclosure. I saw the story on Feedly and it sounded like  a good one. I called the agency, identified myself and the staff person was reluctant to tell me the name of the program case manager. She directed me to another state agency where I had to leave a message on voicemail for their media relations person. That person called me back an hour later and said the case manager had been called and she was ready to talk to me about this program. I called the case manager and she said she hadn’t received any call and needed it  before she could talk to me. I called the media relations person back and got her secretary. I told her I didn’t understand why it was so difficult to let me tell what I thought was a GOOD story. Half an hour later, I was called back by the media relations person who told me again that the case manager had been called and told it was OK to talk to me. I called the case manager and conducted the interview. I edited the story and it aired.

Supposedly, bureaucracies will talk to you all day about the good they do but will clam up like a safe if you want to talk to them about problems. That’s the assumption, anyway but it’s not always true. What’s seems more true is that everybody watches the news but nobody likes reporters. And waiting for call backs with reluctant interviewees when you’re on a deadline to tell even a positive story is a bad taste that’s hard to forget when that same agency sends out a press release about something they want to get coverage for. Your first thought, even if just for a second is, “You ignored me then and you want me now?”

So sometimes, reporters call with questions first and identification second. I did that this morning. I called an agency with some general operations questions that weren’t on the website. When I was asked who I was, I said so. That is an ethical responsibility. But if reporters aren’t asked who they are, sometimes in some situations, they don’t volunteer it because saying you’re a reporter is often followed by a promise to call back that never comes. Some people say it is unethical for a reporter to not immediately identify themselves when they call with questions. And if I’m asking the same questions that an average citizen might ask, the argument then is it’s not about the questions but about the intented use for the information.

Reporters not identifying themselves as they collect information for a story is not unprecedented. In 2004, the Poynter Institute, a leading journalistic ethics organization, published a story about the work of the Contra Costa Times and their investigation on the accessibility of public records. Times reporters called public agencies and asked for very general public information but didn’t identify themselves as reporters. And in each case, they were eventually thwarted by officials for arbitrary reasons. You can read that story here.

I called Poynter and talked with Al Thompkins. Mr. Thompkins has advised media organizations on ethical issues for years. He said with the Times, reporters were posing as citizens because citizens should have access to public information in a way no different from journalists. That was different than me because my intent for the information was for reportage, not general interest. I didn’t first identify myself because it might’ve resulted in no call back for a story I need to complete. Many organizations may be obliged to talk to citizens and journalists, but when a journalist is identified, they have to follow a protocol. In that case, the person who answers the phone deserves to know who they’re talking to.

But Mr. Thompkins also said that doesn’t mean there is never a time when a journalist doesn’t identify themselves. He once did a story about how the offices of then Senator Al Gore weren’t recycling. This was during the time when Senator Gore had just written “Earth in the Balance.” When the story came out, Mr. Gore’s office manager was practically apaplectic. Mr. Thompkins says if an individual or an agency has information that is relevant to a story, the first words out of their mouths should be, “Of course we’ll give you what you need. We just need to go through this process first.” In that respect, he said I was not as fair with the person on the phone as I should’ve been.

So that’s why I feel like crap. I think in my whole career, that was the first call that didn’t lead with my ID. I shouldn’t have let my experience the day before color me. But on the bright side,  Mr. Thompkins said that as an ethics expert, my self questioning is just what he wants to hear. At the same time, he said he doesn’t want to hang up thinking I’ll be “pussy-footing” around anybody from here on out trying to block a story because of this minor sin. But for reporters, having reluctance to reveal yourself is always a tantalizing tease because you know officials and bureaucrats can run like white tailed deer even if the goal is to make them look good.

That’s bait I can’t take. Live and learn.

Written by Interviewer

July 11, 2014 at 01:33

Singed

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Image

This is a quickie.

I have been interviewing candidates since December.  I’ve talked to at least 40 passionate people running for judgeships, the legislature, govenor and the US Congress.

My strategy was ask them similar questions, according to their category, so that people comparing candidates in that category could compare answers – apples to apples.  Many times in past political races, candidate answers have sounded to me like trying to compare cell phone plans.  So by asking all judges-to-be, all legislators-to-be, all governors-to-be and all US Congress-to-be candidates the same types of questions, it would be much easier for listeners to decide who has the best answers.  And as issues have changed or been resolved, I adjusted the questions.  For example, questions about the Columbia River Crossing disappeared when the Oregon legislature FINALLY killed the proposal.

I did my last interview of those candidates that showed interest and initiative to follow up with me about two weeks ago.  But because of a last minute rush to speak to candidates live over three nights, and concurrently, a deadline to get reporters to and from Kansas City in time for a long form piece due during the early days of KBOO’s fund drive, I haven’t been able to edit the remaining interviews fast enough. So, I am trying to get the rest of the interviews up before the primary on May 20th so those candidates too get heard on my Between Us podcast.

This has been a whirlwind, and I will be happy if I don’t see any more waveforms for a little while so I can recover from drowning in them over the last few months.  I’m not burned out, but I am a little singed.

I love this stuff, and I can only hope it has made a teeny bit of difference.

Written by Interviewer

May 17, 2014 at 00:03

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

What I Can Talk About

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Kenny

You can tell you’re talking to a professional if, in the course of the interview, they say something like “What I can talk about is …” But it’s not a good sign about how the interview is going. I’ve talked a lot about what interviewers do to get an interviewee on track. But sometimes, an interviewee has to get an interviewer back on track. Usually, an interviewee says this when an interviewer is getting too personal, or asking the interviewee to talk about things beyond their realm.

I just listed to John Goodman being interviewed for his part as Sully in Monsters University. Out of the corner of my ear, I heard him say this phrase, which to me, sounded like a car alarm going off, and I swung around in my chair. One of the CBS This Morning anchors had asked him something like, did he have any idea the movie would be as successful as it had become. And Mr. Goodman spoke to what he knew, which was his passion for the part. How could he possibly have known whether the movie would’ve been successful? It’s the kind of blue sky, prognosticator question that makes the audience tear out their hair. Interviewers ask stuff like that when they don’t have anything more substantive to ask. Or maybe, in that situation, they ask it because their producer has only given them two minutes for this segment before the break, “So get him to say something cutesy or something deep, but remember, only two minutes.”

I once snagged an interview with Kenny Rogers. He was playing in Nashua, NH and I was working at a closed circuit radio station near Boston. When I got there, it was a press pool type of situation. A side room had been set up for the media and there were probably about 15 or twenty reporters from different media there. I had three or four questions. And this was in the days before the Internet, so I had gone to the library and looked up newsclips about him. My questions were about how his style had changed since he had left The First Edition, and about his strained relationship with his daughter. And even though I was new to interviewing, I noticed everybody else was asking questions about his tennis game. They were yukking it up. I guess they were thinking, “We’re just shooting the shit with Kenny,” like this opportunity comes up everyday. But I thought, “What the Hell?” I knew this was work, so I asked my questions. When he started to answer, everybody dropped their heads and started writing. When it was done, and he left to get ready for his show, his publicity person came up to me and said, “You asked the best questions.”

I’m not working at a CBS or a CNN. But hackers who created Linux don’t work for Microsoft either. What I’m saying is the rules for being good at what you do aren’t just the domain of the big names. Little gals and guys out here with podcasts and field recorders and Audacity can do it good, and do it right. And sometimes, that not only means asking questions with meat, but not trying to take your guest outside of where they want or need to be. Only your research can help you draw those boundaries. And if you’ve done a good job, you’ll be surprised at just how big that space can be.

P.S. About gals doing it good and right, Constance A. Dunn on Soundcloud is doing some great interviews with Serbian thinkers and musicians. Ren Green at KBOO is rocking her author interviews on her new podcast, “Experience Points”, just like Courtney Crosslin with her guests at haveawonderful.com and Deanna Woodward, The Veteran’s Coach. Give them all a listen.

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