Confrontational interviews

Investigative reporters often have to interview people who don’t really want to talk.  In a courtroom, they might be described as hostile witnesses. For journalists, especially in television, these kinds of interviews require a lot of preparation or choreography, as my former CNN colleague Mark Feldstein puts it.

The dirty little secret of TV muckraking is that, all posturing to the contrary, interviewing is not really about getting a target’s side of the story; it’s about convicting him in the court of public opinion. Mainstream news reporters may cling to the fiction of objectivity, but hardened investigative reporters suffer no such delusions.

Writing in American Journalism Review and using the new movie Frost/Nixon as a jumping off point, Feldstein offers a “how-to” primer for confrontational interviews that includes these suggestions:

  • Take charge immediately – [By] interrupting self-serving filibusters and carefully avoiding pleasantries that might weaken the necessary resolve to go for the jugular.
  • Go for the tight shot – Arrange in advance to have the videographer zoom in slowly on the interviewee’s face when the exchange grows heated. This cinematic effect visually reinforces the editorial goal of zeroing in on the quarry.
  • Use props – As every good trial lawyer knows, such tangible exhibits – video, photos, documents – not only help buttress a cross-examination but also add theatrical flair.
  • Set up targets to lie – You can’t force them to do so, of course, but it is always better to give them the opportunity to tell a falsehood on-camera before (not after) you pull out the smoking-gun memo that proves their culpability. A single lie captured on-camera shakes the edifice of everything else they say afterwards.
  • Always keep one camera rolling no matter what – That way, if your subject rips off his microphone or storms out of the room, you have footage of his defensive tantrum. Also, interviewees may blurt out embarrassing comments during a lull when they think they are not being recorded.

Are any of these tactics unfair?  Not at all, Feldstein says.  “No more so than the carefully coached evasions, posturing, pontificating, stonewalling and outright lying that your target has perfected over a lifetime.”

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