In Ideas on March 17, 2016 at 2:56 pm
U.S. National Archives
Al Tompkins posted a fascinating breakdown of White House press corps questions on the Poynter site last week. He maintains, with plenty of justification, that the best and the brightest covering the most important public office in the world blow their big moments when face to face with the president.
Then he tells us about interviewing Alex Haley in 1976, which dates him a bit. Nevertheless, he makes some valuable points.
The key takeaway is an awareness of the difference between open-ended and close-ended questions. Open-ended queries are those that start rather than end conversations. They are best defined by what they are not. “Will you run for president, Mr. Bloomberg?” is a close-ended question. The only acceptable answer is “Yes” or “No,” and then the interviewee is free to go. If, however, you asked, “What would motivate you to run for president?” you can see that the answer would have to be more nuanced.
I realize this isn’t new territory for anyone who has been a journalist for more than a week, but perhaps you haven’t thought about it in this way. Too often (and we’re all guilty from time to time), reporters ask questions only hoping for a sound bite or quote to run as the third graph of the story. We are hardly listening to the answer. Think about the likely response to your question and you are likely to think of a way to ask it that elicits something interesting. … Read the rest of this entry »
In Writing techniques on May 1, 2014 at 3:37 pm
This image comes to us from the Australian War Memorial and shows an Australian reporter interviewing a Chinese family that had been taken captive by the Japanese during World War II. From Flickr Commons
My old friend Jay Croft has put forth a dozen tips that will make you a better interviewer. When Jay talks about this stuff, you would do well to listen.
Jay and I survived our college years together back when print newspapers were state of the art. He went on to a distinguished newspaper reporting career in Anchorage, South Florida and Atlanta and now works in corporate communications. He has a blog that’s well worth following and he said I could pilfer from it.
Among his more insightful tips, in his own words:
- Try it three times. If you’re not getting the kind of answer you need to a question, ask it again twice, in different ways. “What would you like to see happen before you commit any money to the project?” might get a different answer than, “Bill says he’ll commit 10 percent if you will.” Which might get a different answer than “Why are you letting another department get out front on this?”
- Stop talking. Do you feel awkward if a conversation goes quiet for a moment? Don’t. Be confident, let the silence linger and see what happens. It’s not a game of chicken. It’s giving the conversation some breathing room. Unless it is a game of chicken, and then it’s a great little tool. …
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In Writing techniques on April 4, 2013 at 4:33 pm
Capital Journal Managing Editor Lance Nixon led a fascinating discussion among Team Discovery journalists last week. We were talking via conference call about one of the most important, least understood, skills of the job: interviewing other human beings.
Lance compiled some really terrific tips from poynter.org, travelllll.com, sparkminute.com and mediahelpingmedia.com. I hope you will click on all the links and take a look. I bet some resonate.
Our discussion was, in part, a chance to share some old war stories. The best stories we tell all come with stories of their own. It was also a chance to bring into the open some of our common ideas about the interviews we conduct.
It is interesting how little training goes into the art of the interview. I suggested that that may be because it is an art rather than purely craft and that the best interviewers are probably not in positions like mine.
Here are some of the things we touched on:
- Creating the right tone can be a challenge. On the one hand, you want to “get close to the interviewee,” but on the other, there is a notion that we must keep professional distance;
- Sometimes it helps to “reboot.” Have you ever gotten off on the wrong foot? Sometimes things just start wrong. When that happens it can be helpful to simply acknowledge that you began things poorly and seek a way to start over; … Read the rest of this entry »
In Writing techniques on February 21, 2013 at 3:53 pm
Alaine Griffin and Josh Kovner
Last night, I watched a fascinating episode of Frontline. You know the show – it’s an hour-long news documentary series on PBS. This one focused on the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings and was particularly interesting because the videographers partnered with journalists from the Hartford Courant.
As a narrative device, the show’s producers told a two-part story through the eyes of several Courant journalists. It was one of those popular culture moments that was a minor victory of sorts for newspaper journalism.
The reporters were thoughtful, diligent, compassionate, thorough and a credit to our profession. I hope you’ll find time to take a look for yourself.
I was particularly struck by the way Alaine Griffin and Josh Kovner conducted their interviews as they worked for days and weeks to understand shooter Andrew Lanza’s relationship with his mother.
First, let me say that I realize it appeared a bit “made for television.” But bear with me. I still think the show and the reporters’ comportment was useful. Here’s what I want you to note: the reporters highlighted on the show were not so busy preparing their next question or furiously scribbling quotes that they couldn’t actually listen.
I make the mistake myself. Too often, in my own interviews, I’m not so much listening as harvesting quotes. That is a big mistake. You miss the body language your questions elicit. You miss the hesitation in the response. You may even miss the tears that come with the answer. … Read the rest of this entry »
In journalism on February 17, 2012 at 9:23 am
The other day I had the pleasure of trading emails with a very talented Stanford University student. Joyce Ho holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Stanford, where she is currently in her second year of medical school. She is taking a year off from school to be the inaugural Stanford-NBC News Fellow in Media and Global Health. In addition, she created the Stanford Service in Global Health Journal and has completed graduate courses in the university’s journalism program. Did I mention she is a concert pianist? (That is not her in the photo, by the way, but rather one of my favorite physicians, Dr. Joy Enriquez.)
I was struck by something Ho wrote in her blog. (You can find her blog here and I recommend you follow her on Twitter, too. It compared one aspect of her training as both a media professional and an aspiring doctor. I asked if I could reprint it and she graciously agreed. Ho wrote the following in November. — Clay
One of the things I have come to really enjoy and appreciate is the opportunity to interview the subjects of my articles and multimedia pieces. In a way, being a reporter reminds me a lot of being a physician-in-training – both roles require me to go into a room, learn an individual’s story inside out, and present the learned information for a further goal.
In Professor (R.B.) Brenner’s “Public Issues Reporting” class, the journalism students practiced interviewing techniques not too far off from the interviewing skills I learned through Stanford’s “Practice of Medicine” course. Both classes emphasized empathy towards the subject. Both courses taught the art of extracting information through carefully worded questions. … Read the rest of this entry »
In Writing techniques on December 9, 2011 at 9:48 am
Hey, is it ever OK to laugh in the face of the guy you are interviewing?
That’s today’s question after Miami Herald reporter Marc Caputo laughed at an answer given by Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart the other day. If this account is to be believed, Caputo chuckled when Diaz-Balart suggested the Bush administration deserved some of the credit for hunting down Osama bin Laden and the U.S. involvement in Libya.
That prompted the congressman to say, “You laugh; are you a reporter or a debater? … It’s funny because, and I’m not giving you a hard time here, but usually reporters are reporters, not advocates.”
For his part, Caputo writes on the newspaper website that “the laugh was more an expression of surprise Diaz-Balart wasn’t giving any credit to Obama without strings attached.”
What do you think? If you giggle at something your source says, does that scratch the veneer of objectivity?
I think it can. I also think it may not. I think it depends. … Read the rest of this entry »
In journalism on March 31, 2011 at 4:42 pm
As I write this, one of our reporters at the Half Moon Bay Review is on the phone with a guy I’ll call Charlie, because that’s his name.
Charlie is a local guy with a problem. He says that a contractor, while making improvements to a home up the hill, rechanneled stormwater so that it rushes on to his land. He says the change has caused a landslide on his property and that county officials are callous to his predicament and that the offending contractor says he would charge $15,000 to fix the problem he created.
I know all this, because I talked to Charlie, too. Charlie spoke to our reporter and, when he didn’t hear what he wanted to hear, he called me. When he still didn’t read the story he wanted in the next day’s paper, he called the reporter back. Charlie is starting to get on my nerves.
Now, Charlie may have a point. He may have been wronged by the contractor. It may even be a story for the newspaper. But you have to balance your own open-door policy and the fact that you want to hear from readers with story ideas against the fact that you probably have bigger fish to fry. You can’t let one really squeaky wheel distract you from stories that, in your judgment, are of greater interest to more people.
So what do we do the next time Charlie calls? … Read the rest of this entry »
In Writing techniques on April 17, 2009 at 8:44 am
A predictable and probably unavoidable result of recession (and other hard times) is that sources will be on edge. They will not be excited to talk about the latest Bad Thing. The chamber president will not want to talk about vacancy rates downtown. The mayor will not want to discuss furloughs. The principal will not want to talk about teacher layoffs. Should you write about these newsworthy events, these folks are likely to seek someone to blame for it all and, tag, you are it.
Try to remember that it is only natural to shoot the messenger. It’s not personal even when it feels like it is.
Most of the time what these unhappy sources mean when they say they don’t like your stories is that they just don’t want the coverage, period. Don’t be discouraged by that. Try a little psychology.
Courting a source is a lot like drinking in college. You start out with lite beer and next thing you know you are doing vodka shots off the dean’s belly. OK, maybe that was just my college. The point is, before launching into an uncomfortable line of questioning, try to engage a recalcitrant source in happy talk. Ask the executive if she’s been golfing recently. Oh, yeah, did she see the Master’s? Then transition into the hard stuff. Ask the school district president about the science fair winner before hitting him with what you are really after… Read the rest of this entry »