What you can learn from Akin’s interviewer
It might be the least controversial issue arising from Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment. But it’s a good reminder for journalists, whether they’ve done one or 1,000 interviews.
Charles Jaco, whose television interview with Akin produced the comment, told Talking Points Memo he “dropped the ball” by failing to ask a follow-up question to Akin’s now-famous assertion. Jaco frankly explained the oversight:
“When you’re not 100 percent fully engaged, and you’ve got anything else on your mind, you’ll miss stuff.”
What did Jaco have on his mind? The same kind of things you may have on your mind in your next high-pressure interview.
Talking Points Memo reported:
“The nearly 20-minute interview went 14 minutes without touching on the economy. Jaco’s producer informed him that time was running low, and Jaco moved on. Before the ‘rape’ comment, Akin made comments against federal money for student loans and school lunches and said the Voting Rights Act of 1965 deserves a second look. ‘At this point, I don’t know if I was inoculated to odd things that might have been said,’ Jaco said.”
Multiple story lines running in his head. Time pressure. Even when your interview is not on television, these are powerful distractions. And I bet the biggest was the need to ask the next question.
In workshops I’ve done with experienced reporters, I’ve asked, “What’s in your head while the interview subject is speaking?” The answers always include, “I’m thinking about my next question.”
I think Jaco is being a bit tough on himself. But had he been fully focused on what Akin was saying, I’m sure he would have followed up. He could have asked, “Where exactly did you get this information about the relationship between rape and pregnancy?” Or just, “Please elaborate.”
How do you stay fully engaged during the interview? First, remember the goal is to understand the source and his/her story. It’s not just to “get quotes.” Second, recognize that this is going to take a lot of practice.
I love this blunt advice from ex-Los Angeles Times editor and writing coach Bob Baker in a gem of a book called “Newsthinking: The Secret of Making Your Facts Fall Into Place:”
“… in interview situations, the finest reporters are able to devote 90 percent of their attention to the question at hand, requiring only the remaining 10 percent to place that new information in perspective. Can you perform at that level automatically? Hell no. You have to put more effort into the latter chore — into figuring where your next question is coming from, into strengthening the links between incoming information from the interview subject and the storehouse of information in your memory.”
Sounds tough. But pay attention to this skill and watch your own improvement.