Monday, November 2, 2009

Tips for Interviewing Politicos (from Media Helping Media)


There is a fine art to interviewing politicians. You need to understand their motivation, realise they will have a script, not allow them to complicate matters, refuse to be sidetracked, retain an open mind, know your subject, avoid a slanging match, and remember that you are only there to uncover information to inform the public debate. The most important rule is never do deals; there must be no agreement on the outcome.

1: Interview for the benefit of the audience

Remember you both have a constituency. Yours is the

audience, who you are committed to inform with balanced, impartial, objective and accurate information. Theirs is the electorate that they represent, made up of people who may or may not have voted for them. You are not there to look smart or win a battle, You are there to ask questions on behalf of your audience and uncover information in the category of "had it not been for you the world would never have known." A political interview doesn't not have to become confrontational and heated. A good interviewe

r will draw out the information he or she is seeking without the need for raised voices.

2: Understand the politician's motivation

Your motivation should be to inform the public debate with robust journalism offering verified and sourced facts that enables the audience to understand better what is going on around them and make educated choices. However ambition, personal interests, activism, personal gain, revenge and other personal bagga

ge could get in the way. You have a responsibility to deal with this. This is about integrity. You can’t conduct a meaningful political interview without integrity. Their motivation should also be to inform the public debate, and to ensure that the needs of all in the community they serve are represented and accounted for. However, party loyalty, fear of l

osing their seat/position, ambition, ideology, and a host of personal issues could cloud this. Your job is to see through this and cut to the facts of the matter in hand.

Politicians are public servants. They have been elected to do a job on behalf of those they represent. Their professional performance is open to scrutiny. You as a journalist have a unique role to sit with these decision makers and ask them the telling questions that your audience is not able to ask. You are operating on behalf of you

r audience. It is your job to dig deep and to uncover facts about professional conduct, how the politician is executing his or her responsibilities, and any personal issues that might prevent them from doing so.

3: Keep it Simple

Politicians love to complicate matters when it suits them. They like to make the journalist feel inferior by suggesting they d

o not understand the situation. Phrases like ‘well it's complicated’ and ‘you need to understand the background to this’, are common ways of trying to reduce the effectiveness of the journalist. Stick to the core journalistic questions of who, why, when, where, what and how. Questions should be short and to the point. Do not be afraid to continue to ask the same question repeatedly until you get a clear answer; having a couple of different ways to phrasing it helps reduce the likelihood th

at the politician will get annoyed. However, if they do become angry, don't let that bother you.

You will not be expected to be expert in everything a politician is involved in, but it is important that you have a solid understanding of the issues you are going to be pressing them on. You certainly need to know your history. You need to make sure that you know what you are talking about and that the questions you ask are well researched and backed by intelligence.

4: Don't be sidetracked or derailed

It is so easy to be steered away from the crucial question. Once the journalist has lost his or her cool, they have lost the interview. A politician who is on the ropes may lash out in order to force you on the defensive. They may be trying to guide you into a discussion they want to have, rather than discuss the issues you want to address (or which you agreed to tackle when arranging the interview). Do not be taken in by that, it's a trap. Return to the question you want to ask.

Always steer clear of personal insults and never enter into a slanging match where you end up shouting at one another.Once that happens, the interview (although probably highly entertaining for the audience and likely to end up on YouTube and be virally marketed globally) has lost its power as a tool for informing the public debate. You and the politician will have probably damaged your integrity. It will reflect badly on your news organisation, too.

An interview with a politician should be a sincere attempt to uncover information to help your audience understand more about current issues. It's not a battle of wits between you and the politician. It's not about point scoring. Nor is it about making you look smart in front of your peer group and friends.

5: Don't do deals

It may seem obvious, but you must never go into an interview with a politician with any form of agreement, explicit of implicit. There must be no mutual undertanding that both sides will get something out of the interview. This is corrupt and goes against the core elements of journalism. It is fine for a politician to try to do this in order to ensure that they achieve what they set out to achieve; that's what politics is all about. But you have to be above this. It is an integrity issue. There must never be any suggestion that the course of the interview can be mapped out in advance. The only things you can agree beforehand is the length of the interview.

6: They will have a script

As you prepare for the interview you will have thought through the areas you want to cover and may have written down the questions you want to ask. The politician will probably have done the same. It is likely that they will have had several working sessions with spin doctors and will be briefed on exactly what ‘message’ they want to broadcast via your interview. Political organisations spend a fortune on hiring media training consultants who train politicians in how to avoid answering questions and ensuring they get their message and points across no matter what questions are asked. There is a big business in manipulating the media. Often this training is carried out by former journalists, so the politicians will be well briefed.

You can be fairly sure this has happened when you hear the answer to your questions starting with, ‘Well that is an interesting point, but the main issue here is...’ or, ‘I am glad you asked me that, but you have to remember that the real reasons behind this are...’ These and many other answers suggest that the politician is primed and ready to use your interview as a party political broadcast and not as a vehicle for informing the audience. There will be no doubt that the politician has a script in their head. They will know the end result they are required to achieve that will reflect well on them and their party. They will have a final line (the last word) that they will want to push, regardless of the questions you have asked. Remember, you are not there to take down a list of statements like a secretary taking dictation. You are not a scribe helping them with their PR campaign. You are a journalist whose job is to get to the truth.

All political parties will have spin doctors, those public relations people and political backroom staff whose job it is to ensure that the party message gets out no matter what the opportunity; and remember, your interview will be viewed by them as just that --- a political opportunity. Never think you will be more prepared than them, this is naive and foolish.

You need to go into a political interview knowing that sitting behind the politician is a news management team who will have done this hundreds of times and will have used journalists like you to achieve their ends.

7: Keep an open mind

Although it is important to know what you are going to ask (as explained above) it is also important to go into the interview with an open mind. It's a delicate balancing act to go prepared with a set of questions and yet still retain the flexibility needed to be alert to some new information that you didn't know before. You should aim to discover something new through the process. You can't do that if you doggedly stick to your script.

8: Don't let them dodge the question

There are many ways for a politician to avoid the question being asked. A couple have been mentioned above. It’s important for the journalist conducting the interview to know when this is happening. The interviewer needs to know when it is right to hold back. It is often clear to the audience that a question is being avoided. You may not need to keep pressing. Make sure you have a number of key questions to ask. You will probably not get to ask them all, and you will almost certainly not get clear answers to all. Decide which are the most important so that if you run out of time, and broadcast interviews are far more likely to suffer from this than print interviews, you can be sure to ask the key questions. Never leave the best to last, just in case you run out of time.

9: Try to understand the politician's motivation

Despite the news management issue, the politician remains a human being and an individual with one particular need --- retaining the support of the public in order to continue to do his or her job.

So, no matter how prepared and primed they are for the interview, they will also be vulnerabe on some points. They will be keen to make a good impression. The journalist needs to understand this because, with careful wording of questions, by following up on some of the leads they give you, by exploring some of the topics they seem to want to explore, and by engaging them with an understanding tone and approach, you may be able to dig deeper in the areas that you feel the audience needs to know about.

You may get a lot further with a softer, sympathetic approach than with a hard, confrontational approach. This all depends on the situation and the politician. But the key is to be flexible. Remember, the point of the exercise is not to make you look great and the politician look small, it’s to uncover essential information that informs the public debate so that the audience can make educated choices.

10: Ensure the last word informs the public

Do they get it, or do you? Do you allow the politician, at the end of the interview, to sum up, or do you take responsibility for that? They will want the last answer to be a party political broadcast. One way round this is to ensure that you sum up at the end with the key points.

To do this you need to listen to all their answers, take notes, keep a bullet point summary and repeat it at the end. It is also a good idea to jot down key quotes that you can return to at the end in order to illustrate your summary.

Good luck and stay strong. And always keep at the front of your mind that you may uncover a fact that 'had it not been for you, the world would never have known."

Note: This training module is the copyright of Media Helping Media.