A world renowned Broadcast Trainer writes for The Journalist
Go in with something to say and say it — irrespective of the question. You can always say ‘that’s not the real question’ and then ask the one you want to ask.
Sir Humphrey Appleby KCB
- The Yes, Prime Minister satire by Jonathan Lynn & Anthony Jay
Anima n. (Jung’s psychol.) A figure symbolizing the feminine aspect of the human psyche [Mod. L. fr. L. — soul]
Animus n. animosity, hostility, (Jung’s psychol.) a figure symbolizing the masculine aspect of the human psyche [L. — passion.]
Any reasonably experienced and competent journalist can interview. Right?
All you have to do is find the interviewee, shove a microphone in the face, ask some questions roughly on the subject matter and get the hell out.
Off to the next interview.
It’s easy. After all, you have huge built-in advantages:
So interviewing should be easy.
Animus-interviewing is easy. You create two distinct, diametrically opposed, sides. The interviewer and the interviewee. Two solitudes. From the dominant solitude (after all, it’s your territory, your camera, your microphone), you as the interviewer interrogate the interviewee.
But interrogating produces lousy interviews. (Unless it’s that rare 60 Minutes kind of interview which climaxes when you pull out the pictures and ask “Can you deny that this is you with the Bulgarian stripper triplets on the nude beach in Jamaica?”)
Interrogating makes people rationalize. Makes them justify their behavior. And when people justify they close up, drop the portcullis down, fill the moat with crocodiles and pour boiling oil on visitors.
They automatically rationalize that whatever they’re being questioned about was the right thing for them to do, under the circumstances, at the time.
They go into protection-mode. Like tortoises. They’ll answer, but they won’t explore, won’t search inside. They won’t give anything of themselves. Certainly, they almost never confess.
They might be technically accurate in their answers. But they certainly won’t be open and honest.
So nothing happens in your average Animus-interview except avoidance. No light. No bringing of understanding. No human emotion. No exploring the human condition. No click of recognition for the viewer.
You’ve seen ten thousand Animus-interviews like this. It’s the norm. It’s the way it’s done.
The Animus-interviewer — the unhuman interrogator — usually chooses, quite deliberately, a like-minded, unhuman Animus-interviewee. Almost always it’s a bureaucratic spokesman (almost always male), a representative of some institution or organization who, because of his position, is supposed to be an expert.
(In John le Carré’s book The Russia House, Professor Yakov Savelyev warns about such people:
“Experts are addicts. They solve nothing. They are servants of whatever system hires them. They perpetuate it. When we are tortured, we shall be tortured by experts. When we are hanged, experts will hang us. When the world is destroyed, it will be destroyed not by its madmen but by the sanity of its experts and the superior ignorance of its bureaucrats.”)
Animus-interviewers cherish experts and bureaucrats and spokesmen and representatives of institutions and organizations. They keep their names and coordinates on their smartphones at all times.
That’s because experts and bureaucrats and spokesmen and representatives of institutions and organizations give reasonable, rational, sensible answers in 10-second segments at the drop of a lens cap.
They know what’s wanted. They know how to behave. They don’t confuse emotion with fact or the other way round. They don’t get mad when interrupted by the interviewer. As Sir Humphrey would say, they’re sound. Very sound. Or, his highest compliment, “they’re one of us”.
There’s a small problem, however. If you interview experts and bureaucrats and spokesmen and representatives of institutions and organizations it’s hard to get answers with any real and human meaning.
By the very nature of their profession, these people have nothing to say to touch the viewer. Nothing to bring that click of recognition that says “we share a common humanity.” Nothing to illuminate the exciting and dangerous world of human emotion.
That’s because experts and bureaucrats and spokesmen and representatives of institutions and organizations have nothing to be human or emotional about. Except pleasing whoever signs the cheques.
They’re observers. They don’t represent themselves. They represent other people.
They aren’t participants. They don’t take part.
All they can do is tell you what other people pay them to say.
Doesn’t have to be true, of course.
You can interrogate them as much as you want. But, mostly, nothing happens to — or for — the viewer. From the Animus-interviewer’s point of view, however, they give great, safe, lucid, professional interview. So everyone looks good.
Sometimes Animus-interviewers go so far as to turn perfectly legitimate participants — human beings — into experts and spokespeople and representatives of institutions and organizations.
Which is a terrible thing to do.
And should be severely punished.
Sports interviewing is worst of all.But, in fact, it’s merely the average news interview taken to extreme.
I’m running an interview workshop for sports reporters. At the end of the workshop I go out for a beer with Ron Lancaster, one of Canadian football’s most famous quarterbacks.
I ask Lancaster how many times he’s been interviewed.
“Thousands of times.”
“How many times have you been interviewed well?
He thinks. “Only once.”
He explains that he learned very early in his career that he can say anything he wants in an interview. Reporters have no interest in the truth. Or him as a human being. Mostly, the reporters just want to make statements about the game and/or the team and have him agree. So they — the reporters — look good.
The typical reporter’s question went something like (as I recall it today) “… so the turning point for the team came half-way in the third quarter … you dropped back … couldn’t complete the Running-Dog Reverse Red Inaudible … you considered, just for a moment the Lonesome Polecat … or even the Hail Mary … but that wouldn’t work … so you scrambled, lateralled to the nose guard and broke the game wide open …”
Lancaster grins. “What the hell am I expected to say to that sort of question? It just seemed easier to agree. So I agreed.”
Then what was his one good interview about?
“It came from a reporter who’d done his homework. He asked me a question about the one thing I care most about. Not football. My family. He asked me how my family — particularly my young son — handled seeing me beaten up by monsters every weekend. So I told him. It wasn’t easy and I got very emotional about it. It was the only good interview I ever gave.”
It was, of course, an Anima-interview. Not necessarily because of its subject matter. But because the reporter bothered to ask a human being a human question.
It’s occasionally possible to turn experts and spokespeople into participants in the story. To get them to talk on the personal, rather than the institutional level.
Sometimes, somewhere, lurking hidden under even the most institutional of experts and spokespeople, it’s occasionally possible to find a human being.
For instance. You’re interviewing the Minister of Agriculture about a proposed new farm bill. You ask the conventional Animus-reporter’s question like:
“How will the proposed new bill effect the socio-economic status of the agricultural sector — which is already petitioning against having quota exports to the European Community halved by the end of this quarter and has seen net profits fall by 22% over the trimester?”
No. No. No.
An interviewee almost always answers in the same language as the question is asked.
If you ask institutional, coded, power-speak questions you get institutional, coded power-speak answers.
Try this instead:
“I talked to this farmer, Fred Nurk, who works 500 acres of corn outside Maritzburg. Good farmer. He reckons the new bill could push him right over the edge. Might even have to sell the farm. What can you tell Fred about the new bill?”
There’s a chance — just a chance — that you might get a human answer. It doesn’t always work, of course. But when it does, you get an answer that means something. Even enlightens the viewer.
Of course, it’s an Anima-question.
One of the differences between Animus-interviewing and Anima-interviewing is that the Animus-interview relies on confrontation and conflict to get answers, while the Anima-interview uses cooperation and collaboration.
In fact, in the Anima-interview the roles of the interviewer and interviewee are pretty much complementary.
Which means you have to work a lot harder.
In the Anima-interview:
You’re a reporter. You go out on a story. You interview one of the people involved. You go back to the newsroom and screen the footage. Along with the editor, you make notes. And decisions. What part of the interview to use? What to leave out?
You’re an anchor. Mostly, the interviewee comes to you. The interview is taped. You screen it afterwards. Along with the producer and editor, you make notes. And decisions. What part of the interview to use? What to leave out?
Automatically, in both cases, you use the most human, most emotional parts of the interview. Because that’s the part which you sense provides the real meaning. That’s the part which communicates the best. That’s — almost certainly — the most honest part.
The part of any interview most likely to bring understanding to the viewer — and, not incidentally, make the best and most powerful TV — is always the most human and most emotional part.
So leave the unemotional, institutional, unhuman stuff back on the tape. Don’t waste time. Go for the human and emotional stuff from the very beginning.
(Not incidentally, the word emotional, in the sense I use it here, doesn’t necessarily mean extremes of emotion. Like crying and laughing. It does mean having and showing strong feelings — wonder, regret, fear, sorrow, shame, bewilderment etc. In an interview, emotional simply means speaking from the heart rather than the head.)
Anima interviewing calls for absolute minimum of experts, spokespeople or representatives of institutions and organizations.
Nothing laid on by the ubiquitous Public Relations people,
The Anima-interviewer wants to talk to people who were there. Participants. People who can speak for themselves and express their own feelings. From the heart. From the gut. Real people.
Which brings up a problem. Sure, real people give the best interview. But real people often need help to express their feelings publicly.
Just like experts and spokespeople and representatives of institutions and organizations, most would much rather just stick to the hard facts of the situation and be done with it. It’s a lot safer.
So how does the Anima-interviewer handle that?
First, the Anima-interviewer must understand that the interviewee is, like all of us, three people in one:
The Anima-interviewer starts the interview at the very moment of meeting the interviewee.
That’s when you start the giving.
That’s the time to show real warmth, real interest, real respect.
(If you can’t, you’re not interested in other people and shouldn’t be interviewing people in the first place.)
That’s when you set the caring, respectful tone for the rest of the interview. That’s when you start the seduction.
That’s when you start the cocoon.
This stranger you’re meeting is still the Public Person. But you’re not interested in interviewing the Public Person.
So in the pre-interview you work to turn the stranger into someone you know, someone you respect. Someone who, with any luck, respects you.
By giving generously of yourself, you work to turn the Public Person into the Personal Person.
That’s when the taping starts.
Now comes the hard part — turning the Personal Person into the Private Person.
The best interviews — journeys giving the deepest insights and the harshest truths — come, of course, from the Private Person. So how do you get to the Private Person in an interview?
The place of the Private Person is a dangerous and delicate place to go. So decide at the beginning how far, how deep, you can legitimately probe.
How far you’re prepared to intrude.
How much you’re prepared to give as well as how much you want to get.
Know from the beginning that if you decide you’re going for the Private Person:
It’s a matter of journalistic ethics.
Only if your cause is just are you entitled to go there.
Even then, you may go there only with the permission of the interviewee.
I’m working on interviewing with a CBC anchor in Calgary. I’ve asked her to bring in someone to interview.
The anchor does the interview. It’s on some fairly sensitive matter, probably sex. We play it back and I analyze it. My main criticism is that the anchor hasn’t gone far enough. Almost everything in the interview is in the area of the Public and Personal person.
The anchor hasn’t even tried to touch the Private Person.
She rationalizes that she doesn’t want to embarrass or intrude on the interviewee. She’s looking after her. Protecting her. Doesn’t want to push her into places that could be dangerous or painful for her.
The interviewee (who, by chance, is a psychiatrist) has her turn to say what happened in the interview. She says the anchor’s rationalization is pure bullshit. The anchor isn’t protecting the interviewee, she’s protecting herself. She doesn’t want to embarrass herself. She’s looking after herself.
The psychiatrist says a lot of interviewers do that. Then claim virtue for doing it.
The psychiatrist says most people really like, want and need to talk. Not just on the surface, but in depth, about matters they really care about. Even sensitive, touchy matters. Like the soul. And sex. And beliefs.
A self-censoring interviewer, she says, prevents the interviewee from giving the interview she actually wants to give — an interview that’s personal, meaningful, deep. And frequently cathartic.
So, when you interview, don’t censor yourself. Let the interviewee set any boundaries.
I work with another psychiatrist, Dr. Irvin Wolkoff, who has an interview program on Canadian TV.
Wolkoff talks of the “three-legged stool” school of interviewing. (All legs are vital if the stool is to stand).
Journalists who interview should find his ideas interesting.
Leg #1 — Accurate Empathy. Understand — and show you understand — the interviewee’s point of view. This doesn’t mean you take sides or make moral judgments. It does mean you find ways to accurately reflect the interviewee back to him/herself. It means you show the interviewee that the behavior under question is, at least, understandable in human terms.
Leg #2 — Unconditional Positive Regard. Show respect for the interviewee. Regardless of what she/he may or may not have done. Make clear that you understand the difference between the person and the person’s actions. That you value the other person as a fellow human being.
Leg #3 — Emotional Congruence. Never lie. Instead (always remembering that there, but for the grace of God, go you) try to find common ground. So you’re shocked by the other person’s actions? Show it. In the politest possible way, of course. But don’t judge it. You don’t have that right. Tell the truth. Don’t lie.
Being a shrink, Dr. Wolkoff feels the need to add a fourth leg to the three-legged stool.
Leg #4 — Be Innocent. Don’t be afraid to be seen as under-informed, even a bit ignorant at times. You don’t know everything. In fact, you can’t know as much about the subject in question as your interviewee. So make the interviewee teach you.
This technique (if truth can be a technique) will catch the other person off-guard, can even lead to simple, un-institutional language and human answers.
Frequently it even leads — lord help us all — to the truth.
Ok, so you’ve made the decision. You’re going to interview someone in depth, at the Private Person level, for all the right reasons.
You’re not exploiting. You’re not taking advantage. You’re genuinely trying to bring understanding.
The interviewee has agreed to talk. Even so, you can’t just dive into the other person’s soul, thrash around in the psyche until you get good quotes, and quit. However good your intentions.
For one thing, people won’t let you. Even when people agree to be interviewed, they’re naturally still reluctant to talk of things that matter, reveal emotions, to a stranger.
And you’re a stranger when you meet.
So you both need permission to stop being strangers.
All of us, one way or another, come from a particular tribal culture. So the interviewee needs permission from the tribe’s culture to talk to you (the stranger) from the heart, the soul.
You, (the stranger) need permission from the interviewee to even approach the heart, the soul.
How do either of you get those permissions within this relationship?
The first in a two-part Master Class. Next week Studio Anima Interviews are tougher. But you can — you must — still try to cocoon.
This column is adapted from Tim Knight’s book Everything you’ve always wanted to know about how to be a TV Journalist in the 21st. Century but didn’t know who to ask or STORYTELLING AND THE ANIMA FACTOR, now in its second edition. It’s available on Lulu and Amazon.
Tim Knight executive produced, co-directed, wrote and narrated the 3-hour wildlife documentary trilogy Inside Noah’s Ark, shot in South Africa and broadcast on Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, PBS and 15 European networks.BACK TO TOP