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Merged: John Sawatsky at Poynter

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Michelle Hiskey, Apr 20, 2007.

  1. FYI

    Here are notes from John Sawatsky's seminar on "Art of the Interview" at Poynter Thursday. [Unfortunately, print can't convey the clips of TV interviews that are a highlight of this session.]

    Interviewing is one area of journalism that has NOT improved over time. Everything else has, but this is one skill that has gone down.

    The question and interview are two different things and have different designs.

    Questions are very powerful and fragile. They are like peregrine falcons. They are most powerful bird in the sky, but it's endangered from DDT in its shell. There are toxins out there that threaten our questions. Here they are.

    People sleepwalk through interviews and throw any questions out there. You don't get a focused answer because you don't ask a focused question.

    Part I: The Question

    We look at a car and we don't know how it works. We like it until it breaks down. The mechanic knows how to fix it. The mechanic is professional trained and knows about the moving parts.

    You are the mechanic for your interview. You need to know the moving parts for when your interview breaks down.

    Why did CBS fall flat in interviewing Mickelson after the Masters? We blame the car -- it's a lousy car. "No one can make Phil interesting."

    The answers you get are a function of the question asked.

    Every question has two purposes: big and little.

    Your question is the only tool. No one HAS to talk to us. We have to rely on questions. We use the question to move it along from Point A to Point B. Each question is moving it forward. That movement is the Big Purpose.

    The question's small purpose is to gather information incrementally. But the big purpose and small purpose are separate. Like the transmission and engine of car. You need both, but they are completely different.

    Simply defined: A question is an inquiry into something.

    If you can name something, you can deal with it. The name "West Coast Offense" communicates meaning without having describe the whole system. So we will define terms.

    Question = Topic + Query

    If you understand those, you can ask questions with amazing precision.

    Think of a non-digital camera. The lens determines what is in the picture.
    The shutter makes the camera operate.

    Lens is your topic -- what you are looking at.
    Shutter is the query -- what does the work.

    There are Seven Deadly Sins of interviewing. It's important to assess the damage so you can learn.

    Seven Deadly Sins of interviewing -- are based on principles. We can't afford to violate them. [ This is not pure science but it's not hard. It's a social science like economics. Principles are the same but human behavior wavers. So we are talking about percentages, like between .250 and .700.]

    1. No query.

    About 20 percent of what we ask don't have a catalyst, an engine.

    Greg Gumbel, after Katrina. The Saints didn't have a home stadium, went to the Meadowlands. Saints' WR Joe Horn is the subject.
    Interviewer: : "How are you going to expect in terms of fan support when you step out on the field?"
    A: "I think the whole world will welcome us.... we appreciate it... but we know it won't be a home game for us."
    Interviewer: : I did recommend to the commissioner that you fly 65,000 people up there to make it a home game.
    A: Yeah, let's do that... [he stumbles, He doesn't say anything. ] Uh, I second that emotion.

    The query could be, "What do you think should be done?"

    The content is result of the process. Rapport is great, but it's not necessary.

    A statement proclaims something. A question creates a demand. We have to make our questions do the work to get people to talk to us.

    60 Minutes:
    Interviewer: "There can't be anything worse than losing a child."
    Paul Newman: [Looks cross.] That will come to completion and full circle but it will.
    [He reveals nothing about losing a child]

    The query is akin to blocking and tackling. It's basic to making everything work.
  2. Sawatsky -- part 2

    Deadly Sin #2. Double-barreled question

    This is even more popular as a sin than the first deadly sin.

    EXAMPLE: CLIP FROM 20/20 clip :

    Barbara: How do you explain her visits to the White House? How do you explain the tapes?

    Bernard Lewinsky, Monica's father : "she worked there. She worked on weekends."

    He goes to the one he prefers. People default to t he safest, most favorable, least dangerous question.

    The quesiton is the vehicle for getting the answer. It's not about showing how much you know.

    - the SNL spoof of Chris Matthews on SNL interviewing HIlary Clinton... Hilary tells him which questions are OK. we laugh, but basically we are informally giving the subject a chance to pick what questions to ask.

    We typically do this because we are in rush, want to narrow or broaden focus, want to get the story in, for dramatic effect (esp. on TV). A single barrle question hanging out there doesn't seem like that much. Often it's because we are trying to overcome our own internal doubt about our first question. Sometimes it's because we want to hear our own voice. And sometimes we just don't know what the question is. Those are only some of the reasons. Sometime you just build up too much momentum --

    You have to slow down before a stop sign. When we finish the question, our voice drops. Sometimes the second question is just to get the voice from 50 mph to 0. But the damage is done.

    The double barreled question gives the subject a ramp off the highway. You do not want that.

    Deadly Sin #3 -- Overloading
    A question can't support a topic that is too broad, or multiple topics. "What do you think about sports?" is just too broad.

    EX: Interview of Gary Condit.
    Q: Can you survive? Can your career, your marriage survive this?
    A: My family's intact. It will take more than news media... to split my family up.

    He takes the exit ramp to the safest part of the topic. Overloading is a cousin to the double barrel.
    The pizza principle: Usually the more toppings the better, for more flavor.

    With questions, less is more.

    Deadly Sin #4 Remarks
    The most common violation. Join the club.

    Any time you put remarks OF ANY KIND in a question then you are offering another off ramp to the highway you need to stay on.
    YOU DON"T NEED REMARKS. IF YOU FEEL LIKE YOU NEED to make a remark, then the question is flawed. You need to break up the quesiton into several questions.

    Newton's Law: every action creates an equal and opposite reaction. There are no neutral remarks. Everything makes an impact.

    Think of a fax machine. It has two functions: send and receive. Don't go into send mode -- giving information -- when you want to receive information.

    EX: 60 Mins interview with Energy Dept. bureaucrat on a bonus given for shoddy work. 60 Minutes want an explanation. The why question demands an explanation.

    Q: Why give them a bonus at all? If they mess up why did they get anything? And $7 mill is a hefty bonus in anybody's book.
    A: The 7 mill is not a lot of money if you're talking about a $2 billion a year operation.

    The final part of the question gives them

    The power comes from focusing a topic and subjecting it to them.

    When people want to escape questions, they will resort to a volume answer -- they will take on a different premise.

    Q: Why did you screw up your story so badly?
    A: It wasn't so bad.
  3. Sawatsky -- part 3

    Deadly Sin #5 Trigger words.

    (see John Stossel for this)

    Stossel interviews a pro wrestler.

    Q: I'll ask you the standard question. I think it's fake.
    Wrestler: [Smacks him hard, Stossel falls down]

    Who attacked whom? This was a physical attack from the wrestler.
    But Stossel had a verbal attack, and those are lasting and deep.

    Every question is made up of words that each have independent meanings.
    Question = word + word + word + word
    Ex: How do you know?
    Sometimes people will react to the meaning of a word.
    The trigger word eats the question. It sets someone off.
    You put a trigger word in your question, and you can just forget that the subject will answer.

    Here's the Richter Scale for Trigger words.
    9 - physical attack
    8 -- interview ends
    7- hostile outburts
    6- visibly irriated
    4-5 general defensiveness
    2-3 temporary irritant
    1-- keep smiling

    Ex: Larry King interviews Putin, Russian leader
    Q: You know judo? You're an expert?
    A: I am fond of that sport, I've been involved in martial arts.
    Q: but weren't you on your team?
    A: yes i was involved in the city team and got right back in the all national competition and i was master of sports. he had a black belt.

    Putin reacts to the word "expert" because the meaning of that takes over the meaning of the question.

    The words inside your question need to make the question better.

    Deadly Sin #6 Hyperbole

    What is hyperbole?

    This is what comedians do. It's great at driving home a point.
    Leno: It was so cold that the accuser at Duke changed her story, she now said it was the ice hockey team.

    When you're hungry, you're starved. When you're bored, you're bored to tears.
    Really? No one takes it literally. We use hyperbole all the time. It can be useful as long as it does not mislead.

    Was the shot really heard round the world? No, but this makes our copy colorful and gets the point across, so there's a role for hyperbole -- and that hyperbole is when we are in "send mode. "

    Think about a voice over, or a lede.

    Hyperbole is bad if you are in receive mode. If you put hyperbole in a question, you are done for.
    The focus becomes the excess in your question. And that excess is the exit ramp.

    We are communicators. We receive and send. That's all we do.
    The problem is that each are governed by opposite principles. What makes you good in one makes you bad in another.
    TV --the journalists who are the most colorful are usually the worst interviewers. They can send but can't receive. The great exporters are lousy importers.

    EX: Mike Wallace ("a terrible interviewer") interviews Pavarotti. His questions allow Pavarotti skirt questions about his attraction to women and personal wealth.

    Q: You're an industry now, aren't you?
    A: I am what?
    Q: An industry. Your voice, your name, your horse shows, your records, your wife's talent agency, your real estate holidings. It's gigantic. The Pavarotti empire.
    A: I don't think it's an empire. You know very well that people in the entertainment they gain a lot and they spend a lot. Most of my collegues in the past they finished in misery.

    This is an example of counterbalancing.

    Let's quantify what's being said. Let's say Pavarotti is prepared to say "I'm worth 100 euros." Wallace only knows hype and boosts it to 150 euros. YOu would think Pavarotti would say , no it's 100. But people are sophisiticated and understnad how they come across. He wants to come across at 100. So he'll give 50 instead.

    If you put hyperbole in your question, you will get understatement in your answers.
  4. KnuteRockne

    KnuteRockne Member

    Re: John Sawatsky -- Notes from Poynter Sports Summit

    Let's see him try it given five minutes to speak with an athlete in a sterile "interview room" with 20 other reporters also present.

    This perfect world stuff is interesting, but impractical for so many of us.
  5. Piotr Rasputin

    Piotr Rasputin New Member

    Re: John Sawatsky -- Notes from Poynter Sports Summit

    Agree with Rockne.

    So many of these events, while an excellent opportunity to hear people speak (and of course, "network" for you movers and shakers out there), speak in terms of a perfect situation when interviewing, reporting, writing, etc. A lot of what is said in these sessons sounds like so much psycho-babble and overthinking of what we do. And I find that those who sit nodding their heads the most are the youngsters at Podunk who can't wait to put this stuff in motion at their next high school athlete interview.

    Yes, I'm cynical.

    But at the same time, the ones where veterans speak about their experiences - like the walkin APSE one in Sacramento last year - are quite interesting, and always include new things to learn and memorable pointers. Kind of like a journalism professor telling stories in class. But a long lecture on how to interview? Not my cup of tea; maybe it's others' cup, since I'm sure this was well attended both by youngsters frantically scribbling notes and by veterans who were there to support their buddy's lecture and hobnob with him afterward. And I had a journalism professor who said about these events and reading books about interviewing: "Sometimes it's good to hear the words again, as a reminder of what we do, how we do it, and why we do it."

    And of course, I'll do my damnedest to get to next year's summit if there is one.
  6. SF_Express

    SF_Express Active Member

    Re: John Sawatsky -- Notes from Poynter Sports Summit

    Guys, there's a difference between an in-depth interview (which he's describing) and what you're describing, and nobody would deny that.

    Sometimes news reporters have time for three quick questions by phone.

    This is when you're after something big, and you have time.
  7. dustin_long

    dustin_long New Member

    Re: John Sawatsky -- Notes from Poynter Sports Summit

    Thanks SF, you get it.

    Yes, there are times we're surrounded by masses, but that doesn't excuse people for asking a bad question. I know that there's no guarantee that your perfect question will get the best response, but it's still a tool to have and use whenever you can. I attended his session Thursday and it made me think about what I'm doing wrong and how I can improve.

    Just have an open mind. Not everything connects with everyone but this guy had some good ideas.
  8. SockPuppet

    SockPuppet Active Member

    Re: John Sawatsky -- Notes from Poynter Sports Summit

    Where are sins 2 through 7?
  9. In Cold Blood

    In Cold Blood Member

    Re: John Sawatsky -- Notes from Poynter Sports Summit

    sins #2-7 are in the "Sawatsky part 2/3" threads...

    And I agree with some of the above posters... much of the tips seem to be "in a perfect world" type things, but I'm one of those newbies who could use a reminder every now - I read the sins today and immediately began thinking about my own experiences... I've had times when I've violated some of them horribly and others when I think I've done a pretty good job crafting questions... It's a constant learning process and I enjoyed the posts today that allowed me to rethink my own habits.
  10. jambalaya

    jambalaya Member

    Re: John Sawatsky -- Notes from Poynter Sports Summit

    Maybe the TV interview examples would cause you to think the advice is impractical, but it hardly is.

    That session was very enlightening. Pure and simple it's about how to ask a question correctly, whether you are in a 5 minute interview in the locker or in a 50 million dollar studio for TV.

    While at the summit the last three days, I'd say I learned more in John's hour than all the other sessions combined.

    In fact, I had to do some work while down there and found myself "checking" myself in a phone interview with John's helpful tips not even an hour after first hearing them.

    Go back and re-read Michelle's posts. You'll learn something in there, I'm certain.
  11. Sawatsky -- part 4

    continued from earlier posts, notes from "Art of the Interview" seminar by ESPN's John Sawatsky at Poynter:

    Deadly Sin #7
    Closed Queries

    This is the worst one. It has a special place in hell.

    We ask twice as many closed queries than open ones.

    A closed query is a yes/no question.

    A closed query only works with an absolute topic -- a topic that, like a coin, can only be one or the other. Heads or tails. No in between.

    EX: 60 minutes interview with Al Gore in 2004.
    q: are you going to run?
    a: i've decided i've not going to run.

    [The topic -- entering a presidential race -- is absolute. You are either in, or you're not].
    [A closed query usually begins with a verb. An open query is going to begin with who/what/when/where/why/how].

    EX: Brett Favre interviewed after Katrina, in a calamitous year for him.
    q. do you think it would be nice to have a year without a tragedy?

    [duh. look at the options that he is given. of course, you know what he will say.]

    The great interviews are the ones who bring surprises, something you didn't already know or didn't expect.

    What is the problem with using a closed query for a topic that is not absolute?

    First, let's look at the moving parts inside a query that work together for an effective question. (Don't think about this in terms of content -- that's the paint on the car. We're talking about the engine. )

    Topic + query= Question

    If a topic is not absolute, it must be relative.
    Almost all of our topics are relative. What we are trying to find out in most interviews is beyond absolute information. We want people to describe change that is incremental.
    A relative topic would be the position of a door. It could be open at different stages -- half open, barely ajar.
    If you simply want to know if the door is locked or unlocked, then go ahead and use a closed query.
    Topics such as fairness, power, freedom, justice are matters of degree. Great reporters listen to what the person values and get them to go further than they have ever gone.

    How can you get into a relative topic with a closed query? You can't.

    So when you asked a closed query about a relative topic, it can bomb like this:

    EX: Gary Condit interview.
    q. do you think you're a moral man?
    a. i think i am a moral man, yes.

    [is morality relative? of course. ]

    People answer in ways that make them feel safe, look good and/or feel easiest to them.

    A relative topic needs an open query.

    An open query brings in a universe of possible answers.

    Let's see more how closed queries bomb when used on a relative topic.

    EX: Dan Rather gets the only interview of Mrs. Milosevic, the second most powerful person in Serbia during NATO bombing.
    Q: Is there no ethnic cleansing in Kosovo?
    [this is a closed query -- begins with a verb. his topic, ethnic cleansing, is relative because it happens over time. ]
    A: No
    q: none?
    a: no.
    q: Are there no atrocities committed by Serbs in Kosovo?
    a: No. The Serbs are defending their territory.
    [she goes to the safe place in the question, in the middle]
    q. I ask because many witnesses say that the Serbs were doing these things in Kosovo.
    a: I don't believe they did that, and I'm almost sure they didn't do it. I would like the tell the American people that....
    [so Rather doesn't get his answer, and gets scolded to boot. Later he's interviewed and complains that all she did was deny when they both knew she was lying.]

    Rather should have asked open queries, the who/what/when/where/why/how....for instance:

    a. how many civilians have been killed?
    q. how does the number of civilian Albanians compare to civilian Serbians killed?
    q. how did they die?
    q. who killed them?
  12. Sawatsky -- part 5 -- final take

    What poor interviewers such as 60 Minutes do: when they don't get answers, they blame the subject. But it's the interviewer's fault.
    Why not go for the confession? isn't that the best story to be gotten?

    Here's the danger of using closed queries with relative topics: The tougher the topic, the more your subject feels backed into a corner. You have given them only one extreme or the other. Morality is really good or really bad? No, there are many shades in between.

    If you are trying to understand someone, especially on a sensitive subject, you must use an open query to create a safe zone for your subject to explain their side.

    With a closed query, a subject often answers a closed query with one of the two extremes offered. But once they have chosen their extreme -- the yes or no -- they can't move. they'll lose face. They are are going to deny to protect themselves. They are not going to feel safe to explain themselves.

    This can even damage gathering information on a fluffy subject.

    EX: Brad Pitt is being interviewed. He's not accused of ethnic cleansing or anything.

    q. do you still believe in happy endings.
    [yes/no question about a relative topic: happiness]

    a. yeah, absolutely. No I believe in perfect moments... miserable moments ... another perfect moment.
    [he waffles between yes and no so you don't get his answer -- a bad question screws up an easy ]

    A closed query on a relative topic is asking someone to confirm or deny your hypothesis, which may be flawed to begin with. So you're compromising accuracy. Mismatched questions will always give you errors.

    EX: Lorne Michaels interviewed on why you fired Norm McDonald.
    q. were you forced to fire Norm McDonald
    [ he is asked a yes/no question about a relative topic: force]

    a. it was very very strongly suggested. i think we had , uh, yeah...

    [ after a series of poor questions, Michaels reveals it took them two years to fire McDonald. Force doesn't take two years. Coercion might. Pressure might.
    Michaels hemmed and hawed. He was trying to find an answer that was less wrong. ]

    q: how did the network influence the firing of Norm McDonald?

    We are professionals. We need to ask questions in professional way. You don't wear mismatched socks or earrings. Neither should your questions be mismatched.
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