Giving them the third degree, but nicely

 L’il Alex gets the Ludovico treatment in Stanley Kubrick’s “Clockwork Orange.” 

Looking for a guide to interviewing techniques? You’d be be hard pressed to find a more concise yet thorough tutorial than “Loosening Lips” by Eric Nalder, Chief Investigative Reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The prior link takes you to the version that appears on the Committee of Concerned Journalists web site; this second posting of Lips contains his contact info.

Nalder really covers the ground: 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 teachers will appreciate the list. Organized as a series of brief tips, it would be easy to build a class around, finding published 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 me make one addition and one amplification to the list.

Addition: Keep questions short, especially in press conferences and group settings. 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. Flabby questions give the respondent friendly words behind which to hide.

So choose one tough question and ask it directly. “Sir, the Grand Jury says there is a turd in the punch bowl. What are your plans to remove it? If the speaker try to dodge it should be obvious so don’t be bashful about shouting out, “Do you have any plans to remove the turd?” After all, you’ve still taken less time than any of the bloviating multiparters. 

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. With each passing day as a newspaper reporter I grow more reluctant to receive information anonymously. True, I’m a business reporter and not an investigator. My job rarely involves relying on people who could get fired or go to jail or get beaten up or murdered for disclosures.  

But I do not see much use for anonymous sources unless you do happen to work at the bleeding edge of reporting. I occasionaly use anonymous sources to help me understand context, to point me to other sources who can go on the record or would provide additonal points of view. And while I love getting my hands on a newsworthy document I would have ethical qualms about accepting even true information anonymously. Would I accept a document hurtful to a person or cause without revealing that it came from an adversary who demanded I remove their fingerprints? I think not. I once did this, unwittingly, some 30 years ago as a student reporter for the Daily Californian and have regretted it ever since. (I reminisced about this once for the North Coast Journal, an alternative monthly my wife and I started in the late ’80s; the Journal still exists but I wrote this pre-web; if I scan a pdf later I will link to it here.)

One last thing. Do not quote anonymous sources. I know it is done. But in most cases it’s an abuse of discretion. Quotes are packed with the power of color and personality. Be leery of giving a source both the power of personality and a cloak of invisibility. As a recent opinion poll suggests, the public does not trust media as it is. Perhaps it’s because we have expected them to believe too many stories that quote a “person speaking under condition of anonymity.”