REPORTER: Mr. President, when you were briefed as you were today on yet another shooting, do you believe that this has just become something fundamental in American life, or is there something that can be done to alter the dynamic?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think there are a lot of things that can be done.
NARRATOR: Asking a question like that may work in Washington...
THE PRESIDENT: You have to put more community police on the street, you have to...
NARRATOR: where government officials or experts have quick and ready answers for reporters.
More often, however, journalists interview ordinary people who have little or no experience with the news media. These people don't think in terms of policy initiatives and they don't speak in sound bites.
PARENT: I'm concerned for them having the same opportunities I had when I was growing up to have a safe, quiet, neighborhood.
NARRATOR: Because interviewing a parent is different than interviewing a president, the questions a reporter asks a parent should be different, too.
People in a community have a certain knowledge of issues and events. But they usually won't express it in a sound bite the way politicians might.
For journalists, understanding this can mean the difference between getting a good quote or getting a good story.
(MUSIC AND PRODUCTION OPEN)
INTERVIEWING: New Questions, Better Stories
NARRATOR: There are certain kinds of questions reporters can ask to better grasp the reasoning behind the quotes they write down.
That's important because people don't always say what they think or, more likely, are not used to putting their thoughts into quotes.
Knowing the thinking behind a quote enables reporters to write with more accuracy. Stories "ring truer" because issues and events are explained in the same terms readers and viewers use.
In the next few minutes, we'll demonstrate ways to get better stories by...
The first question a journalists asks, of course, can be the most important because of the tone and boundaries it sets. Consider the following example:
- Asking better questions...
- Listening for patterns of thought instead of just quotes...
- Asking more questions to increase the chances of finding the real story...
- And using the question: "What do you make of that?" to improve almost every interview.
REPORTER (QUESTION): I have just one simple question. As a parent, as a resident, citizen, what would you do about school violence? What's the answer?
ROBERT LANE, PARENT (ANSWER): Boy...that's a big question...ummmm...
RICHARD HARWOOD, PRESIDENT, THE HARWOOD INSTITUTE: Think about this question. What's your position on crime? Now for those who are watching this I suspect that you had a physical reaction to that. Maybe you tensed up. You sat back in your chair.
NARRATOR: Richard Harwood studies citizens and their communities and has helped news organizations develop new ways to cover both.
RICHARD HARWOOD: That question, by its' very definition, puts you on the defensive. Why? Because you're asking people to give you an answer right now that encapsulates everything you think and, more importantly, everything you believe.
NARRATOR: Reporters, says Harwood, need to be more patient in interviews, to give people time to "try on" different answers before asking which one "fits." They need to allow people to talk at their own speed instead of forcing them into rapid-fire responses that journalists so often demand.
Robert Lane, the father of two school-age children, agreed to an unrehearsed interview to demonstrate the difference between questions which "close down" a conversation and those which "open it up."
REPORTER (QUESTION): Do you think society's just too lenient on kids?
ROBERT LANE (ANSWER): (long pause) I don't know.
RICHARD HARWOOD: Now think of this question. This is the most simplistic version of this that I can give you.
What do you make of what's going on with crime in this area?
What does that do to you as you think about that question? What kinds of things do you say? Do you say all of a sudden I think we need more prisons, we need stronger parole, we need to get kids off the street? Or do you start to say, you know, I'm concerned about crime and I see crime in these ways?
RICHARD HARWOOD (QUESTION): What do you make of what's going on with violence in schools. What do you think is happening? What do you make of all that?
ROBERT LANE (ANSWER): Well, something's clearly out of whack.
RICHARD HARWOOD: What happens is the word "crime," much like Apple software, becomes an icon. And the person who's being interviewed clicks it on. And as they click it on, it looks, like in Windows or Apple software, a whole, long line of things, a web, what we call a web of concerns, unfolds.
HARWOOD (QUESTION): You know, you hear a lot of different things about why people think all this stuff is happening. What do you make of what you think some of the causes might be?
ROBERT LANE (ANSWER): Well, I think certainly violence in the media, in movies and in video games, has something to do with it. I think overall permissiveness in society has something to do with it. Single-parent families have something to do with it. Two income families have something to do with it.
I don't think there's an easy answer but I think there are a lot of things that piece together to allow this type of situation to exist.
RICHARD HARWOOD: And what you see as it unfolds is the relationship between things that people are concerned about and the context from which people are coming from.
RICHARD HARWOOD (QUESTION): When you struggle with the question of what do we do next, what do you find yourself struggling most with? What's sort of at work there for you?
ROBERT LANE (ANSWER): I guess I would like my kids, you know, and all young children, to have the same educational experience that I had.
RICHARD HARWOOD: Now that doesn't mean that's what you're going to write about. But it's important to know. Because from that point, I can start asking you questions that help you articulate what it is you're really concerned about and eventually what you think ought to be done about that.
KIMBERLY KIMBY, REPORTER, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER: I'm finding very often that when I say, "Tell me more about that" or "What do you mean by that," that they didn't mean what I thought at all. And I'm wondering how many times I changed people's minds by the way I asked the question?
NARRATOR: Kimberly Kimby is a reporter at the Orange County Register.
KIMBERLY KIMBY: A really good exercise for reporters to do would be to kind of pull back. When you're not clear about what they're saying, don't ask them: "Do you mean this?"
Ask them: "What do you mean?"
And sometimes you have to ask them the question three or four times. So you have to be very disciplined. "No, I didn't mean that. What did you mean about this? Tell me more about this?" And you have to keep kind of coaxing them in.
But the reward is that you really do learn what it is that they mean. Not what you think they mean.
RICHARD HARWOOD: A lot of times when we've seen people do better, different kinds of interviews, they become much more like a talk show, a nice talk show, host. It's very civil, very polite. There's no tension in the interview. But if you really open it up you then have the opportunity to create lots of tension.
Squaring contradictions. "Why do you believe that? I've heard other people say this. How do you respond to that? I was just down the street and saw X, Y and Z. Come on, give me a break. What do you make of that? How does that square with what you're saying? What does that mean about what you're saying? Why do you think so many other people are saying something the opposite of you?"
All of those things begin to give you much more knowledge, not just information, meaning sound bites, but knowledge that you can use to turn a story.
And if you do that a few times you'll start to see patterns. And as you see the patterns, you've got your story in some cases.
NARRATOR: Often those patterns can be found by asking the type of open-ended question government reporter Ken Koehn of the Tampa Tribune uses to help uncover new stories:
KEN KOEHN, GOVERNMENT REPORTER, TAMPA TRIBUNE: What are the issues that are concerning you about your neighborhood or profession, whatever it may be? It doesn't have to be a neighborhood. Especially when you're immersing yourself in a new area, that's invaluable because you're going to get five or six story ideas from each person, as opposed to starting out with an agenda and telling them what you're writing about.
NARRATOR: At the Charlotte Observer, city hall reporter Dan Chapman sometimes uses silence to help "open up" interviews.
DAN CHAPMAN, CITY HALL REPORTER, THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER: One of the things we all do and we all do poorly is we talk too much, as I'm sure I'm doing now. To shut up. To sit there and go, well, I don't need to open my mouth now because if I sit there another ten minutes we'll come back to this. [TALK LESS. LISTEN MORE.] You know, you can steer it that way if you're looking, if you think that's the kernel of what's going on here. But give people enough rope and they'll tell you what's really on their mind.
KAREN WEINTRAUB, BUSINESS REPORTER, THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT: You have to kind of let people say what they came there to say first. Get that out of the way. Get the speechmaking out of the way. And then keep talking to them a little longer. [KEEP THEM TALKING.] And hear what's behind the speech somebody else told them to make.
NARRATOR: During a strike of 7,000 shipyard workers, Virginian-Pilot business reporter Karen Weintraub got beyond the speechmaking and discovered themes and tensions she never imagined existed:
KAREN WEINTRAUB: I had a conversation with a bunch of guys hanging outside the gates a few weeks ago and I think I was thinking that: "Weren't your lives miserable now that you're not at work?" And all these people were telling me: "Hey man, it's spring break. I've been to the Eastern shore. I'm hanging out at the beach. I'm loving this." And I was standing there saying, "Well, this isn't my story. What do I do now? You know, this isn't what I came here to get. But I realized what they were telling me was far more interesting.
I mean, they've spent their whole workday in a small, in a submarine, you know, welding. Under water and it's a miserable life and they've come up for three months now and had lives and have not had to work fifteen hours overtime to make ends meet and been able to take their kids to school and make dinner.
And they've suddenly realized that there's a lot more to life than they had before. And that's really interesting. And that's not what I went to get that day at the shipyard. But I think it's a better story.
RICHARD HARWOOD: What journalists tend to do is to look for the anecdote and then build a story around the anecdote. What I would argue is that we've got to look for patterns and then find the anecdote that helps explain the pattern.
But you're really building a story around the pattern. That's a very different kind of work. And it takes different kinds of sensibilities and fundamentally different kinds of listening.
NARRATOR: Pension benefits for retired workers was one of the issues raised by the shipyard strikers. Reporter Weintraub explained the company's offer and the union's demands. She used the story of 82-year old James Hamlin, a retired shipyard worker, to provide depth and perspective:
KAREN WEINTRAUB: Instead of just saying one side wants one thing, one side wants the other, or anecdotal lead, poor guy. I feel like I've gotten a little bit beyond that. And I did the poor guy anecdotal lead but I didn't stop there.
He was the story. He wasn't just tacked on to the top of the story. He wasn't just an intro and here's a real face, but he was the thread. He was, the reason to do the story was this, how it affected his life. That he was only earning after 56 years as a rigger at a shipyard, he was earning 300 dollars a month and what that meant to his self respect and his feeling like his life was worth something and I tried to get into that.
NARRATOR: Whether walking a picket line or walking down their street, average people, like Bob Lane, recognize the differences in how journalists conduct interviews and appreciate a more conversational approach.
ROBERT LANE: Certainly it was two different styles. Yours (the Narrator) was short and to the point. I answered the questions that you asked me.
Rich's approach was substantially different. The questions that you asked were smaller questions that could be answered, at least from my point of view, easier than the big question. Why we have this problem?
NARRATOR: And it doesn't have to be a long conversation. It took Bob Lane just thirteen minutes to respond to Rich Harwood's nineteen questions about violence in the schools. That's only ten minutes more than Lane took trying to answer two, "man-on-the-street" type questions.
KAREN WEINTRAUB: I went on an interview for the strike story with another reporter and he churned through several people while I was still talking to the same ones. But I would argue I got more by staying with the same people than he got by moving. So it was the same total time but I think I felt better about what I had. I didn't get a quote. I got a story.
TRANSCRIPT: TAPE 1
Interviewing: New Questions, Better Stories >>
TRANSCRIPT: The Robert Lane Interviews >>
TRANSCRIPT: TAPE 2
Framing a Story: What's It Really About? >>
TRANSCRIPT: TAPE 3
Finding Third Places: Other Voices, Different Stories >>
TRANSCRIPT: TAPE 4
Tapping Your Community: What Don't You Know? >>
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