Interviews with the Interviewers

Article excerpt

Some journalists have a natural gift for interviewing. Others spend entire careers mastering the skills. During 2003, The IRE Journal is presenting the series "Interviews with the Interviewers." We have talked with some of the most renowned interviewers in the field of investigative reporting. Focusing on a different style of interview each issue, we share their experiences, techniques and advice with you. This is the third installment.


Confrontational interviews

Go ahead. Pick a fight with Pat Stith. He welcomes it.

"That's a mistake on their part," says Stith, an investigative reporter with The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. "I'm not going to react to it. I'm not going to pour gasoline on it, but I won't retreat from it one iota."

When people get angry, says Stith, seasoned reporters know it's a golden opportunity to not only get good quotes, but a way to maintain the upper hand in an interview.

"I have a lot more experience interviewing people like this than they have being interviewed," he says.

Top reporters say that often the nature of an investigation leads to unavoidable confrontations in interviews where tempers can flair and lies can be told again and again. There might be more than one "no comment" from a disgruntled subject. But how a reporter chooses to deal with these confrontations can make all the difference in a story.

"Don't build up the idea of confrontation in your head," says Eric Nalder of the San Jose Mercury News. "Just be ready to deal with it."

Nalder agrees with Stith when it comes to dealing with angry subjects.

"The key thing is to not become angry and hostile back," he says. Nalder says this is often a mistake made by young reporters.

"When you become angry, you're giving up something," Nalder says. "If they get angry at you, you own something of them."

Nalder says that although journalists shouldn't react with anger, they shouldn't try to calm the subject either.

"It's patronizing," he says. "Interview the anger."

Anger often comes to the surface in final interviews with central subjects in investigations. Stith refers to such final interviews as "showdown interviews." During these interviews, says Stith, a reporter has three objectives:

* Confirm information and gather new information.

* Get a confession.

* Eliminate the counterattack after the story is published.

He stresses that maintaining control is important while trying to achieve these objectives.

And, believe it or not, being polite is still possible in a confrontational interview, and may even help you appease the subject enough to get more information.

"You can say 'please' and 'thank you' and still ask: 'Why did you steal the money?'" Stith tells audiences at IRE conferences.

While trying to achieve the objectives of a showdown interview, broadcast journalists in particular might have the impulse to provoke emotions in their interviewees to get more compelling images on the screen.

"I have to check myself against the tendency to just get a moment," says Duane Pohlman of WEWS-Cleveland. "My interest is in getting the truth, not the embarrassing moment."

Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute agrees, saying that while a lot of journalists "intentionally make interviews confrontational" to make themselves look aggressive, it should really be a last resort.

Roberta Baskin, senior Washington correspondent for "NOW with Bill Moyers," says experience helps journalists in this area.

"In the old days, I would cross a line between being too confrontational," she says. "I would turn the villain into the victim." Baskin says after an interview she sometimes felt like she had beaten up her interview subject.

Baskin says one of the most important things to do in an interview is to let the subject talk. She realized this while working on a story about drug testing in the National Football League. …