Conducting an interview is one of the most difficult jobs for a journalist. Learning how to master this task first involves rectifying some illusions about what journalism can achieve, as Internal Voices’ latest seminar has shown.
The second edition of our magazine’s journalism seminars had just started and our speaker Andrew King found himself faced with a flood of ideas. Fifteen Brussels trainees had gathered for this seminar with the European Journalism Centre’s instructor. That makes fifteen aspiring insiders of the bubble, eager to mercilessly scrutinise the campaign for the upcoming European elections and to interrogate members of parliament on their plans for the next five years of EU politics. No rush, though. Interviewing is more than mere talk.
Who matters, actually?
Sure, it is an achievement to get some bigwig to answer your questions. But their world ends outside Schuman and Place Luxembourg. Beyond, there is the real world. “You also have to talk to real people”, was Andrew’s clear message. “As a journalist, you have to find concrete examples and leave the abstract stuff to the politicians.” Draw your picture from the local angle to depict the big issue. Confront the politicians with what is out there.
There’s no business like show business
And some of its virtues might be useful for journalists as well. Let’s face facts: No one likes to read through endless torrents of questions and answers. Like in any other piece of journalism, in an interview you have to tell a story. Entertaining one’s reader is key – yet this is an insight many EU correspondents lack, according to Andrew: “Journalists here do a bad job. Once they get to Brussels they become boring.”
Once you start doing an interview with a politician, you find yourself stuck in the net of elaborate communication strategists. “Their job is not to answer a question but to leave their message”, explained Andrew, who also trains politicians on PR strategy. To not fall into this trap, be aware of what you want to achieve in the interview, rephrase your questions if you have not gotten the statement you want. And of course: do your research! With the right facts and figures at hand, you can keep control over the conversation.
As “journalism is an art of manipulation”, getting the one quote that will make the headlines requires some drama. Play it dumb, and they will underestimate what you can do to them. Play it servile, make them feel special and they’ll forget self-restraint. Play it cosy, be their mate, lull them in with some chit-chat and they will relax and forget about all the PR talk.
Internal Voices will start a new section on the upcoming EP elections in May. We are looking forward to your contributions which should be stories about issues that matter for the vote and what politicians want to do about it. If you want to participate, share your article idea with us: firstname.lastname@example.org.