Better interviews: Don’t follow Mike Wallace

We are always struggling to teach young journalists how to interview better.

Successful interviews get people to go further than they planned to go, and rarely come from a planned list of questions, even when the questions are good ones. Interviewing does not work that way. It is a dynamic process involving two basic stages. Stage 1 is planned; Stage 2 exploits the moment that Stage 1 produces, whenever and however it occurs.

In this excellent article at ESPN, John Sawatsky takes Mike Wallace (of 60 Minutes) to task for his softball interviewing style. Written and posted before the interview aired on Sunday, the article predicts very well what kind of friendly, easy questions Wallace put to baseball great Roger Clemens about Clemens’s alleged use of steroids.

Then Sawatsky instructs us as to the questions Wallace (and any good journalist) should be asking. At some point, he says, Clemens should be asked about a statement he made in 2005 that he would “depend on physicians to tell me what’s OK.”

How does he explain it? Ask him exactly that question. There isn’t a yes-no option for choosing good over evil. His response will reveal tons. He will seek to preserve his credibility, and that means staying in the middle of the road, exactly where all the accidents happen. One side of the road means fessing up, which he will resist. The other side means total denial, which is not believable and makes him look a phony.

It’s a good read for any journalist.

Thanks to Fresh DV for the link.

4 Comments on “Better interviews: Don’t follow Mike Wallace

  1. I have a problem with anyone from ESPN casting a critical stone when it comes to gathering and reporting news stories. The network and magazine have had their share of blunders in recent years.

    While I think the first blockquote you use is excellent advice for any journalist, Sawatsky’s questions in the article assume that he already knows the answers and he just needs the subject to “fess up.” Always a dangerous position where objectivity and fairness are concerned.

    I’m also not sure I understand why he objects to asking direct questions. Asking a future hall of famer point blank if he’s ever used steroids is hardly a softball question.

    The point should be how to ask informed, intelligent questions, not figure out how to make the subject squirm.

  2. I think Sawatsky’s objection is to yes or no questions. It doesn’t yield a lot of insight if the interview subject is not expanding on his answers. Plus, we all know that when someone asks an athlete, “Did you take steroids?” the athlete is going to answer, “No.” So what good is that question? No one learns anything from the answer.

  3. I always like to share with my students a couple of tips from NBC’s Bob Dotson on interviewing:

    — remember that most ordinary people will answer a question three times…if you give them the space to do so. First, they’ll you what they think you want to hear. Then, they’ll explain their answer. And, if you stay silent and wait a beat, they will then give you what will probably be the best sound bite. The key is to not jump right in…but give them silence and space…they’ll want to fill that silence.

    — understand the power of the “non-question question.” At the scene of a disaster, your opening line to a victim might be “That looks like a nice home you had there.” It’s not a question, but that statement gives an opening for all kinds of emotion to come out.

  4. When I’ve taught the semester-long class on Interviewing at UNLV, I’ve used a lot of the information linked off of the NPR page on Sawatsky here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5625218
    One of the highlights of that class also is listening to the “CBC Interview with Trucker About Beaver Attack,” which Sawatsky calls one of the best interviews ever. It is absolutely hysterically funny and tremendously worthwhile.
    The interview includes a one-word non-question that is quite simple and profound: “Ouch!”

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