Thursday, April 12, 2012

Non-confrontational journalism

Many times broadcast interviews of politicians by journalists are characterised by a playful antagonism, with the journalist demanding answers to awkward questions and the politician trying to avoid them and change the subject. Some people seem to view this as a kind of game or sport, with the journalist and politicians each - quite openly - trying to trick and manipulate one another so that they control the topic of conversation.

I presume this aggressive questioning really is an important part of journalism, and perhaps even by exposing a politician's unwillingness to answer a direct question journalists may be able to wring out some important truths. But I'm quite a polite person by nature, and the obnoxious squabbling that happens in some TV and radio political shows can be very, very off-putting. Little actual information gets through as all sides spend their energies trying to score points

Here is Conor Lenihan flipping out on Tonight with Vincent Browne after Browne subjects him to some aggressive questioning:

And Joan Burton behaving bizarrely on the same show:

No information coming out of this, just lots of arguing and noise and talking over one another. What a shambles! Lots of people enjoy this squabbling banter, with politics becoming another sport: political parties playing the role of favourite teams. It bothers me, though, and I have often wondered if there might be better ways to share information than broadcasted infantile bickering.

This year I have been studying qualitative interviewing techniques for social research. One method is to approach an interview with a loose structure in mind - a list of issues one wants to cover - but to let the interview flow naturally so that the interviewee can raise issues that they think important. The point here is to avoid having the researcher impose his or her expectations and values onto the interview.

For example I was involved in a project interviewing victims of crime about the impact this had on their lives. Without our prompting, several interviewees spontaneously identified likely criminals with slang terms about Dublin working class males ('skanger', 'scumbag') or drug-addicts ('junkie'). This was one unexpected result that may not have arisen had we used a tightly structured interview, with a list of preordered questions.

An important part of the interviewing process was to listen very carefully to our interviewees, so that we were ready to follow through on interesting points being raised. We also had to be very courteous and respectful, partly in the hope that such positive behaviour would help them open up on sensitive topics, but also because our lecturers had an obsession with ethics. (Coming from the journalistic background where consent to be quoted was usually presumed with a lot less care and concern, I was surprised by the focus on ethics in social research. Working for magazines or newspapers I never had to get signed consent forms or promise to stop the interview if my interviewee was feeling uneasy!) There was also a big focus on avoiding leading questions, asking respondents how they felt about events but not saying things like: 'Did that make you angry?'

This approach lets people tell their stories - and they were often fascinating stories indeed.

I've also been listening lately to some really good examples of non-confrontational interviews. Economist Russ Roberts of EconTalk has long chats - over an hour sometimes - with other economists, social scientists, journalists, political scientists and the like. Roberts has a strong libertarian perspective and this informs these chats as Roberts rambles on about what he thinks and then invites his guest to weigh in. When the guests disagree, however, Roberts is willing to back up, admit that he's not sure or hadn't thought of that point before. Most of all he is courteous, never making the disagreement into a personal argument.

Another good example is Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time series on BBC Radio 4, in which Bragg interviews historians or various other experts about some weekly topic like the collapse of the Aztecs, or the poetry of Christina Rossetti. It's not perfect - Bragg is so conscious of time that he hurries on the experts to fit everything in, which can be a little grating - but this is still a respectful way to interview, in which extracting interesting information is the point.

This kind of patient and polite interviewing may not work with much political journalism as politicians might be feared to take advantage of it to just get free propaganda. But it could compliment the present confrontational journalism. I would be quite interested to see major Irish politicians talked through their political beliefs. Why do they believe what they believe? This would focus less on the specific policies then being enacted and more on the political philosophies from which they arise. I wonder if this courteous approach might actually let politicians relax, drop their guards, and become more open and honest too. By backing us away from the vicious, defensive squabbling of much broadcast political discussion we might actually learn more.

A final example. I've been thinking recently that if a Western journalist was able to interview Vladimir Putin there would probably be an expectation that the journalist put challenging questions to Putin about Russia's human rights record. There would, that is, be a confrontational approach. Instead, I thought it might be more revealing to talk Putin through Russian history so that he might be able to ground his policies in a historical context. Instead of an aggressive questioning about Russian foreign policies and human rights failings I thought it might be very revealing to offer Putin this question: 'What do you think West European countries could learn from Russia?' This kind of polite and respectful question might just elicit a shallow response, but it might give us an insight into Putin's true beliefs and intentions by letting him project his ideas onto Europe. Sometimes, we might catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

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