Sunday, March 12, 2006

Researching for the interview

Recently I was given an assignment to examine the techniques employed by interviewers and how they conduct an effective exchange.

I decided to listen to “The Journalist Who Wouldn't Write Straight,” which can be found at NPR online.

The interview is with Marc Weingarten, the author of “The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight,” a book that explores the journalistic style developed by the likes of Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, and Truman Capote. A style which threw out the conventional norms and celebrated the journalist as part of the story.

The interview begins with a very smart question. It’s related to Capote’s novel that inspired the recent film, a topic that is introduced before the interview begins and a topic that is very timely and familiar at the moment. The interviewer correctly assumes that this is an easy question that will help the interviewee and the listeners get deeper into the topic of discussion.

The interviewer knew a bit about the subject matter and introduced it nicely before delving into the bigger discussion. During the interview, the interviewer drops bits of knowledge and it comes across that they have done much research in preparation. They don’t just ask the interviewee for more information, but engages him in an actual discussion. She references parts of the book, which gives the impression that she has read it and jotted down some notes. She also references things outside the book, such as the history of the time and of the subject, which must mean that some considerable research and preparation went into the interview.

After a bit on Capote, the interviewee steers the discussion towards other bits of “New Journalism,” an approach described as “novelistic” by the interviewer. I get the impression that the interviewer felt that enough time had been spent on dipping into the topic with Capote and now it was time to jump into the deep end with the larger topic.

Weingarten also refences blogs in the piece. In summery: we write too hastily and could use editors to polish our work. There’s a lot to be said for that. (An aside from myself, I really hate the term “blog.” It doesn’t even mean anything! Short for weblog you say? What’s a weblog, it’s nothing as well. We have a shortened term for a term that makes no sense to begin with. For all intensive purposes, SLR is my column. It’s a column, quit trying to be hip. Rant over.)

Towards the end of the interview the interviewer asks some questions about the state of journalism and what she thinks is going wrong and expresses some concerns. Only a person familiar with the industry and the state of journalism would be knowledgeable enough to ask these questions, and once again it becomes apparent how important research is. Not only to ask good questions and be knowledgeable, but I also realized that being informed will help you get your interviewee comfortable. The person being interviewed will feel like they are not wasting their time and also will be more at ease in a conversation with you, instead of a lecture.

It may be our jobs as journalist to inform the public, but it is also our job to learn a subject well enough that we can ask the right questions when we talk to the real experts.