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The subtle art of the interview

Voices are never quite as powerful when they are heard in absence of a body and its expressions. Ask a journalist: Through a phone, they become tiny remnants of a human in a distant land.

There is some emotion, sure, but not the same caliber of emotion stirred when a voice is accompanied by a face, a frown, a smile, any expression. That is why I prefer interviews done in person, with the subjects in front of me.

I’m sure many of my colleagues would agree with this preference. Unfortunately such interviews are not always a plausible or practical option. Face-to-face interviews are like treasure troves waiting to be taken.

And here’s why. There are times when people answer a question without ever answering the question; maybe the truth is extracted through the subtle glance at a clock, an uncomfortable resettling in a chair, or in the case of George Tenet during an interview with 60 Minutes in 2007, taking a moment to sip on some water.

Go to minute 2:21 to see the exchange.

“Anyone ever die in the interrogation program?” correspondent Scott Pelley asks.

“No,” replies Tenant, before picking up a water bottle and taking a sip.

Tenant was the former Director of Central Intelligence for the CIA and was being asked about the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” implemented during his reign at the CIA. Many people felt these “techniques” were simply torture hidden by questionable phrasing.

Pelley is able to get Tenant to do something so revealing, it almost completely erases the legitimacy of Tenants previous answer. It becomes clear that the question may not have been answered with an honest tongue.

The irony of this incredible interview is that by asking Tenant such question, Pelley ends up interrogating Tenant with the help of the 60 Minutes cameras.

Man, journalists rock.

This is one of my favorite interviews because of Pelley’s presence and authority while questioning someone who at his peak had legions of federal agents at his disposal.

So how does this all relate to me? This week during my internship I conducted zero face-to-face interviews. However, I did get the opportunity to interview the Daily Camera’s executive editor Kevin Kaufman about Watergate for a class in his office (he gave very interesting responses, and with his permission I would like to publish them on my site soon).

Now, I’m not saying we all need to go all 60 Minutes on everyone we interview, especially if I’m doing stories about dog parks or schoolchildren or city council meeting (ex: Has anyone ever died during one of your city council meetings? Probably too much, right? ).

The point is simply that interviewing is an art, one we craft with great practice and subtle confidence.

So next time you’re picking up that phone, ask yourself, maybe we can do this in person. You might getter a better response. If the response is about the same, at least you get a trip out of the newsroom for a bit.

About Esteban L. Hernandez

Reporter in Connecticut.


2 thoughts on “The subtle art of the interview

  1. It is possible someone has died of boredom at a City Council meeting. Might be worth researching… 🙂 Nice post.

    Posted by juliepoppenen | September 27, 2011, 3:11 am
  2. You know that might actually make a good story! Also, 60 Minutes apparently just swept the News Emmys with seven wins!

    Posted by Esteban L. Hernandez | September 27, 2011, 3:54 am

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