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The art of being persistent in an interview

Two young journalists interview mother with child on her lapSomething even experienced journalists struggle with is asking a question again when it isn’t answered the first time or asking follow up questions seeking clarification. This is especially true of journalists working in cultures where it is deemed impolite to question those in authority or older people. OnMedia has some tips on how to be persistent and get the answer you, and your viewers, need.

Whether your interviewee is being deliberately evasive or has gotten so excited about something else that they have forgotten your question, your job is to get them to respond to the question you asked. Don’t be afraid of interrupting and posing the question again. There are many ways of doing this politely and respectfully.

Ask and ask again

Probably the most famous example of persistent questioning is BBC’s Newsnight reporter Jeremy Paxman who asked former British Home Secretary, Michael Howard, the same question 12 times. While this is a bit over the top, it’s worth watching the interview to see how Paxman keeps asking without seeming rude or bullying. (As background information, Paxman was asking Howard about a report critical of Howard’s handling of the prison service following the escape of several prisoners. Paxman then asked Howard whether he had threatened to overrule Director of Prisons Derek Lewis.)

I have often made use of the very same phrases Paxman’s uses as a way of leading the interview back to the issue at hand.

I note you are not answering the question, did you threaten to overrule him?”
I am sorry, I am going to be quite rude but did you threaten to overrule him?”
With respect, that is not answering the question of whether you threatened to overrule him.”
With respect, you haven’t answered the question.”

On a similar vain, take a look at this interview conducted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist Mark Colvin with Australia’s then environment minister, Peter Garrett. Colvin asks six times how long Garrett had known about a report outlining problems with the government’s home insulation scheme.

Seek specifics

Many experienced interviewees, especially politicians, are very good at giving general answers or making general accusations. You need to follow up and ask exactly what is meant and get specific examples. Your job as a journalist is not to give people free air time. Rather, it’s to provide information to your listeners.

I once sat in on an interview a reporter did with a Ghanaian politician about his pre-election promises:

Politician: “When I am voted in, the first thing I will do is fix the problem of power outages.”
Journalist: “What else will you do”

WRONG. The politician has said nothing about how he is going to fix the power problem (the biggest issue in Ghana’s last election). Your job is to probe further. The interview should like something like this instead:

Politician: “When I am voted in, the first thing I will do is fix the problem of power outages.”
Journalist: “How exactly do you plan to do that”

Followed up by:
“Do you have an estimate of how much this will cost?”
“If you are voted in, how will your government pay for that?”
“How long will this take?”

I also heard an interview conducted after an incident at a polling booth during elections in Sierra Leone:

Protester: “The police used excessive force and it was the minister’s fault – he wanted to intimidate voters.”
Journalist: “Do you know how many people didn’t vote because of the police action?”

WRONG. Firstly, you need to establish exactly what happened, which is why you are interviewing the protester in the first place.

Protester: “The police used excessive force and it was the minister’s fault – he wanted to intimidate voters.”
Journalist: “What exactly do you mean by excessive force?” or “Can you describe what happened?”

Again, Jeremy Paxman provides a good example. In an interview with minister Barbara Roche, he asked her to substantiate her claim that big firms were threatening to quit London if Ken Livingstone were elected as mayor. Her asks her several times to be more specific.

Understand the answer

As a radio program editor, I once sent out a journalist three times to interview the same expert. The journalist was supposed to be doing a background interview about how hydro-electric power worked. The first two times she came back with the interview, I didn’t understand the expert’s answers because they were too scientific and full of jargon. She didn’t understand his answers either but hadn’t thought to ask him to make his responses more simple “because he was the expert and knew what he was talking about.”

But if you, the journalist, don’t understand, then the majority of your listeners or viewers won’t understand either, which pretty well defeats the purpose of broadcasting something in the first place.

There are a few strategies you can use to get more simple responses. If you don’t understand an answer, come straight out and say so. Depending on the culture you are working in, you can also try a bit of flattery so that the person isn’t offended.

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t quite follow, can you tell me how it works in plain English.”
“I’m sorry, I’m a bit confused here. Can you describe how it works more simply.”
“Some of our listeners don’t have the benefit of your education – can you explain what you mean in simple words.”

Another ways I have gotten people past the jargon is to ask these kinds of questions:

“Imagine you are talking to a room full of children – how would you describe it to them”
“Picture it in your mind and describe it to me”
“Can you give me a specific example of who uses this / how it is used”

Be polite no matter what

At times interviewees  are offended by journalists’ questions. Sometimes their anger is genuine but sometimes it’s a ruse to put journalists off and stop them asking the question again. Don’t buy into this. Take a deep breath, and ask politely again. It’s your job.

Last year, US film director Quentin Tarantino lost his temper an interview with British journalist Krishnan Guru-Murthy, at one point telling the Channel 4 news anchor, “I’m shutting your butt down.” Guru-Murthy stayed calm and polite throughout. You can, too.

Written by Kate Hairsine


Tuesday 2014-06-10



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