December 30, 2021

This is one of 10 essays I offer as we close 2021 that I hope will help broadcast journalists tell stronger stories in the year ahead. 

The headline of this story mentions the word interview, but the best TV moments do not usually come in an interview. What if you thought of interviews more like conversations or, better yet, “I just want to hear your thoughts.”

Sometimes we do, in fact, interview people, especially people in power who we are attempting to hold accountable. But the word interview sounds like a grilling.

The best interviews are often not interviews at all. Rather than asking for an “interview,” just say, “I would like to talk with you” or, “Let’s chat about” or, “Could you help me understand this?” An interview sounds imposing, as though the journalist is the boss, and the interview subject is the job applicant.

Researcher and author Ralph Nichols, who wrote “Are You Listening?” observed, “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”

I teach a workshop on how to be a better listener. I usually ask people to write down the name of a person they would consider a great listener. Then I ask them to write down a few characteristics that show others how this person is a good listener. As you read the list that I hear most often, ask yourself what the people that you talk with on-camera would say about you.

  • They do not interrupt me.
  • They make time for me, no matter what they are doing.
  • They focus on me; they don’t keep typing on the computer looking at their phone while I am talking.
  • They don’t try to give me the answer; they don’t tell me what to do or how I should feel. They just listen and help me think through the situation for myself.
  • They ask questions to let me know they are really listening and that they are focused on my story.
  • They don’t judge. They seem like they care about what I am saying.

The key is to listen more than you talk. You are interviewing to learn. If you are talking, you are not learning anything. Use your ears more than your mouth.

Journalists could learn a thing or two from professionals in the healing arts. Here is a quote I found in a magazine for midwives. I am struck by how much journalists can learn from it.

 Listening is noting what, when, and how something is being said. Listening is distinguishing what is not being said from what is silence. Listening is not acting like you’re in a hurry, even if you are. Listening is eye contact, a hand placed gently upon an arm. Sometimes, listening is taking careful notes in the person’s own words. Listening involves suspension of judgment. It is neither analyzing nor racking your brain for labels, diagnoses, or remedies before the person is done relating her symptoms. Listening, like labor assisting, creates a safe space where whatever needs to happen or be said can come.

Think about the purpose of the interview

If your goal is to gather facts, use objective questions. If you are trying to elicit sound bites or opinions, ask subjective questions.

Subjective questions usually begin with such phrases as, “Why,” “Tell me more about,” or, “How would you explain.” Objective questions get information that will end up in your voice-over copy: “How much money did they get away with?” “Did the victim die?” “How many protesters did you count?”

While you may have a general idea of why you want to talk with the person you have approached, stay open to truths and nuggets that you didn’t anticipate. If you have no idea why you are even having this conversation, the interview will look like Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney. The opening question was, “You remember when you were with The Beatles?”

Ask open-ended questions

Open-ended questions cannot be answered with a yes or a no. Open-ended questions do not offer a choice, such as, “Do you feel X or Y?” Great conversation starters include, “How did,” “What if” or “Why do.” Questions that stop conversations include, “Do you deny” and, “Will you.”

When you use closed-ended questions, have a reason for asking the question that way. Bob Woodward asked then-President Donald Trump, “Do you think there is institutional racism in this country?” Trump said it was everywhere. Woodward followed up with, “But is it here, in a way that impacts people’s lives?” Trump answered, “I think it is and it is unfortunate.” That exchange was a breakthrough understanding of the president’s thinking.

The answer to a closed question may lead to a strong open-ended follow-up. “60 Minutes” correspondent Scott Pelley asked Woodward about a series of letters that President Trump exchanged with North Korean President Kim Jong Un. “Did the CIA have a look at Kim’s letters?” Woodward responded, “Yes.” Pelley followed up, “What did they make of them?” Woodward responded, “They never figured out who was writing them, but the analysts concluded they are masterpieces because they are appealing to Trump’s sense of grandiosity.”

Mirror what you hear

Tell the person you are interviewing what you hear them saying and then ask, “Did I get that right? Is there more?” Remember not to interrupt or disagree; that blocks your ability to and listen. Mirroring checks your understanding.

While covering the aftermath of the tornados that hit Kentucky a couple of weeks ago, I found myself saying things like, “Let me see if I have this right,” and then I would flip through my notebook, signaling I want to be exactly right, and I would tell them what I think I heard. Often, I found, the person would hear my summary and then remember details they forgot, or they would correct their memory. In a traumatic event, people’s memory can be jumbled, so you are helping them to fact-check their own recollection. In some cases, I handed them a card and said, “If you remember anything else that I should know, give me a call.” (I am pretty sure I learned that from “Blue Bloods” or “CSI.”)

Why shorter questions produce better answers

Over the years, I have dissected news conference questions and answers to compare the length of a question to the usefulness of the answers. The longest multi-part questions produce the most diffuse answers and mainly serve the purpose of allowing the journalist to show everybody how much they know about the topic at hand.

Stay naïve and quiet

Edward R. Murrow told new CBS News correspondents, “If you put a direct question, the interviewee will answer it as he has probably answered the same question dozens of times before. Then begins the waiting game. He thinks he has given you the definitive answer. You manage a slightly uncomprehending, puzzled expression, and you can watch his mind work. ‘You stupid oaf, if you didn’t comprehend that, I’ll put it in language you can understand,’ and proceeds to do so. Then, in the course of editing, you throw out the first answer and use the second one.”

Repeat key words that the subject says in follow-up questions

Pick a key phrase and repeat it in an open-ended question.

If a source insists, “There was no crime,” ask, “How do you know that?” If a source says, “I can’t remember,” ask, “Why can’t you remember?’”

If a politician is caught having an affair with an intern, and then, in an interview, says of his marriage, “We’ve had difficult times,” you might respond, “What do you mean by ‘difficult times’?” or ask, “What was difficult about those times?”

When a source offers you a key word like “difficult” or “remember,” I have found it useful to use that key word in the follow-up question. It is a way of demonstrating that you heard the person and using their helps force the source to own the answer because it is based on their own words.

Talking with reluctant/vulnerable people

You can cause great harm if you talk with a person at their worst moment and ask them to share their pain on camera. But it could be cathartic for them to share their story. Even when you are pressed for time, go slowly. Here are some things I say when I want to get a person comfortable enough to talk with me on camera:

  • What you are saying is really interesting and important. Would you be willing to share it on camera?
  • You have a point of view people should hear; would you mind sharing it?
  • I need your help understanding what happened. Could you explain it to me?

When somebody says they do not want to talk on camera, I might ask, “Tell me your main concern and let’s see if we can navigate around it.” While covering the Kentucky storms, a local official told me he didn’t want to talk with me. I asked why and he said another reporter “had done a number on me.” I said, “I am so sorry that you had a bad experience. You have been through a lot without that.” That empathy was enough for him to trust me and talk. I did want to be careful not to trash the other journalist since I do not know the truth about what happened.

Be clear that this is on the record. One subtle way I do that is I write down direct quotes, I will sometimes say, “Oh, I want to get that exactly right,” while I write it down. They know I am quoting them without me saying so.

Challenge disinformation respectfully

WFAA Reporter Kevin Reece is a masterful journalist. I want you to take a look at this story he did when QAnon supporters recently descended on Dallas. Reece is careful not to add credibility to conspiracy claims or fantasies about dead people coming back to overturn the 2020 election, but because he is sending signals to the demonstrators that he is genuinely interested in why they believe what they believe, they talk with him. A lot.

Photojournalist Brandon Mowry explained the challenges of the day in a Facebook post:

We were careful to reveal ourselves as journalists at first, walking around with GoPros for about 20 minutes. But it became clear just how peaceful this gathering was. So, I grabbed my equipment and started shooting. We got a few “fake news” and “presstitute’ chants, but it was rare.

We were the “enemy of the people” to them for sure. But it was fascinating how, with a smile and kind demeanor, we became part of them in a way. By the end of the three hours, QAnon members were following me around with an umbrella so I wouldn’t get rained on.

We told everyone: “We don’t have an agenda. We are just here to listen.” Not one person turned us down for an interview.

(Some ideas in this series are included in my college textbook, “Aim for the Heart.”)

Al Tompkins will expand on his storytelling and writing teaching in two Poynter seminars: The Poynter Producer Project and TV Power Reporting. Click the links to see the schedules, meet our all-star visiting faculty and apply. Thanks to a grant from CNN, we offer 50% tuition scholarships to NABJ, NAHJ, AAJA, NAJA and NLGJA members. Both seminars take place over three days at Poynter in St. Petersburg, Florida, or you can attend virtually.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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