Â L’il Alex gets the Ludovico treatment in Stanley Kubrick’sÂ “Clockwork Orange.”Â
Looking forÂ aÂ guide to interviewing techniques? You’d be beÂ hard pressed to find a more concise yet thorough tutorial than “Loosening Lips” by Eric Nalder, Chief Investigative Reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.Â The priorÂ link takes you to the version that appears on the Committee of Concerned JournalistsÂ web site; this second posting of Lips containsÂ his contact info.
NalderÂ really covers the ground:Â how to prepare, how to put different types of subjects at ease, how to deal with reluctant sources, even how to deal with liars. Here’s a cute snippet:
“allow the liar to spin his or her yarn. Don’t interrupt except to ask for more detail. Deceivers frequently provide extensive detail because they think a very complete story will add to their credibility. Listen and take good notes. When the lie has been fully constructed — down to the last nail — go back and logically pry it apart (nail by nail). Don’t be impatient. The fabricator is now in a corner. Keep them there until they break.”
Journalism teachersÂ will appreciateÂ the list. Organized as a series of briefÂ tips, it would be easy toÂ build a class around, finding publishedÂ examples or gathering anecdotes to illustrate the dos and don’ts, asking students to share experiences and questions. And it would be a good class.
Let meÂ makeÂ one addition andÂ one amplification to the list.
Addition: Keep questions short, especially in press conferences and group settings.Â The tendency is the opposite. After all you have to raise your hand and wait. You have so many questions, so little time. But multipart questions get squishy answers.Â Flabby questionsÂ giveÂ the respondent friendly wordsÂ behind which to hide.
So choose one tough question andÂ askÂ it directly. “Sir,Â the Grand Jury says there is a turd in the punch bowl. WhatÂ are your plans to remove it? If the speakerÂ try to dodge it shouldÂ be obviousÂ so don’tÂ be bashful aboutÂ shouting out, “Do youÂ have any plans toÂ remove the turd?”Â After all, you’ve still taken less time thanÂ any ofÂ the bloviating multiparters.Â
Amplification: I like that Nalder is tough on the use of anonymity. He writes:
“Don’t accept information ‘on background’ blithely. Even if it means going back several times, convince people to go on the record. (Absolutely ‘off-the-record’ information is useless, since you can’t use it under any circumstance. Avoid it. It’s a waste of time.)”
Let me elaborate.Â With each passing day as a newspaper reporterÂ I grow more reluctant to receive information anonymously.Â True, I’m a business reporter and not an investigator. My job rarely involvesÂ relying on people who could get fired or go to jail or getÂ beaten up or murderedÂ for disclosures.Â Â
But I do not see much use for anonymous sources unless you do happen to work at the bleeding edge of reporting. IÂ occasionaly use anonymousÂ sources to help me understand context, toÂ point me to other sources who can go on the record or wouldÂ provideÂ additonal points of view. And while IÂ love getting my hands on aÂ newsworthyÂ document I wouldÂ have ethical qualms about accepting even true information anonymously. Would I accept a documentÂ hurtful to a person or cause without revealingÂ that it came fromÂ an adversaryÂ who demanded I removeÂ their fingerprints? I think not. IÂ once didÂ this,Â unwittingly,Â some 30 years agoÂ as a student reporter for the Daily CalifornianÂ and have regretted it ever since.Â (IÂ reminiscedÂ about this onceÂ for the North Coast Journal, an alternative monthly my wife andÂ I started in the late ’80s; theÂ Journal still exists butÂ I wrote this pre-web; if I scanÂ a pdf later I will link to it here.)
One last thing. Do notÂ quoteÂ anonymous sources. I know it is done. ButÂ in most casesÂ it’s an abuse of discretion. QuotesÂ are packed with theÂ power ofÂ color and personality.Â BeÂ leery ofÂ giving aÂ source bothÂ the power of personality and a cloak of invisibility. As a recent opinion poll suggests, the public does not trust media as it is.Â Perhaps it’s because we haveÂ expected them toÂ believe too manyÂ stories thatÂ quote a “person speaking under condition of anonymity.”