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Friday, 17 July 2015

Interviewing:Boxing or Surgery?

(This is an excerpt from earlier post titled "Raising the standard of public broadcasting" . I have posted it in response to some Twitter interaction.)

Journalistic aggression

With all the encouragement from their supporters, and indeed their colleagues, it is not surprising that many a journalist has taken taken a pugnacious stance against those 'on the other side'. Interviewing is perceived by many a journalist, as a 'blood sport'. Journos and their audience each baying for the 'gotcha moment', seeking that telling bead of sweat on the brow, or even the odd broken glass. These are hailed as measures of success and receive general acclaim from journalists and the twitterati alike. 

Indeed some of these aggressive interviews have become icons of reportage, heralded long after their normal use-by date. Consider the Alberici interview on Lateline with the Hizb ut Tahrir representative, or Sarah Ferguson's interview on ABC 730 report with Joe Hockey on budget night.

Boxing or Surgery?

I have always found this rather distasteful for a couple of reasons. Primarily, our journalists, are the first line of our public discourse, a demonstration of how professionals deal with each other even when they may have differing views. By their large audience our media set the standard for all our behaviour. Aggressive questioning, clearly intended to attack the individual, interrupting them while they are talking, talking over them, or signs of enjoyment of another's discomfort, does not set a good example.  It is not how we want people to treat each other.


And secondly, it is also counter-productive.When a journalist takes an aggressive attitude, the interviewee, usually a politician, will 'clam up'. When they reluctantly appear for battle, they become guarded, mechanical, limiting their discourse and offering less information. Often they will avoid the interviewer altogether. The consequence is we are all the losers.

Journalism, professional journalism, should be about content not about style. The professional journalist should be more surgeon than boxer. With good knowledge of the topic and a quick wit they should be able to cut through the defensive shields of even the most capable politician. 

If a politician refuses to answer a question, that is his prerogative. You can ask a couple of times, but if he doesn't answer he has certainly demonstrated his unwillingness to do so, and he has shown this to the whole viewing audience. If a politician makes long-winded answers and you cannot get your questions in, that is also his prerogative. Again he has demonstrated his unwillingness to converse, in other than sloganese, to the viewing public.


PBS Newshour as the paragon

Whereas 'Gotcha journalism has become fashionable, especially on our public broadcaster, great journalists rarely have had to resort to overt emotions or aggressive questioning. The Frost/Nixon interviews come immediately to mind, but there are many others.

PBS Newshour, televised each day on SBS is the template I wish would be followed by all our Australian news media, and especially our public broadcaster. Its success is founded on the editorial guidelines (see table below) created by Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, the creators of the program.

PBS Newhour Editorial guidelines
(also called MacNeil / Lehrer journalism.)
"Do nothing I cannot defend."
"Cover, write, and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me."
"Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story."
"Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am."
"Assume the same about all people on whom I report."
"Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise."
"Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything."
"Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions."
"No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously."
"And finally, I am not in the entertainment business."

Some characteristics stand out; -
  • Strong debate on topics of political and general interest
  • all journalists top of their game ( regular presenters include Gwen IfillJudy WoodruffHari SreenivasanMargaret WarnerJeffrey Brown, Paul Solman
  • all interviews focused on a topic, interviewers always polite, questions however are sharpened to clearly highlight every aspects of the topic
  • most interviews have the journalist as an independent moderator with two interviewees representing each side of the argument
This last point is perhaps the most pertinent and should be used more often in Australia.
SkyNews does do this quite often, but could do more. Our ABC mostly fails to do this. If the ABC went out of its way to ensure both sides of an argument were presented by articulate and knowledgeable advocates, a lot of the criticism of the ABC for bias, would be dissipated.

How do we fare?

How do I rate our Australian networks and shows? Let me stick my neck out. No doubt you will tell me where you disagree.

As far as networks are concerned I think PBS Newshour is Gold, SkyNews is Silver and our own ABC is bronze.

With regard to News debate I believe SkyNews' Sunday Agenda comes closest to the high quality professional interviewing of the PBS Newshour. A straightforward panel discussion with pollies and journos asking questions, sometimes very probing questions, and sufficient time to subvert the 'pollie-waffle' escape.

SBS' Dateline and Four Corners do a creditable job on specific topics, but often strongly advocate for one side of an argument without adequately presenting the alternate view.

These are weekly programs, the dailies don't fare as well. Sky News' PM Agenda, ABC's AM and PM radio prgrams do a creditable job. Sky's PM Agenda goes out of it s way to have two advocates in debate format. ABC's 730 Report and Lateline rarely do this and often take adversarial, and patronising approach in their interviews.

I know I have left many out, but these are my regulars, and prefer not to comment on those I do not follow.


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