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The art of the interview
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The art of the interview

“The secret of successful journalism is to make your readers so angry they will write half your paper for you.” – Journalist C.E.M Joad

What happens when the person asking the questions becomes the story? This week, a study in an interview gone wrong. And what it says about journalists and their interview subjects.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett, Columnist

Dan Lett

The Macro

The art of the interview. In my profession, the ability to get to the truth of a matter, or produce new and illuminating information, through the simple act of asking a question is a valuable skill, indeed. Probing, confronting, clarifying, grinding; you need to be able to put someone on the spot and get them to tell you exactly what’s going on.

All that having been said, you should try to avoid having the interview — how you asked the questions — become the story. That is, however, what happened to veteran journalist Jim Matheson, whose angry exchange with Edmonton Oilers’ star Leon Draisaitl went viral last week.

The 72-year-old Matheson is a charter member of the Hockey Hall of Fame who has covered the Oilers for 40 years, from the team’s inception in the WHL to its NHL years. In other words, Matheson is a bit of an institution. And on the day in question, he was pushing Draisaitl to talk about a current losing streak that has the team teetering on the edge of a train wreck of a season.

I won’t go through the entire exchange, but Matheson grew unhappy with Draisaitl’s curt and petulant, often one-word answers, and asked the hulking superstar if he could “expand” on his answers.

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“Nope,” a clearly angry Draisaitl chirped. “You can do that. You know everything.”

Then, Matheson asked Draisaitl why he was being so “pissy.” Draisaitl bristled at the use of that term. Matheson continued pressing, Draisaitl shut down.

The commentary on the Matheson-Draisaitl exchange in the hockey world fell along pretty predictable lines, where ex-players and coaches collaborate with actual journalists to cover sports.

On Hockey Night in Canada’s Saturday first-intermission panel the ex-players sympathized with Draisaitl and suggested Matheson was out of line; Ron MacLean, the host, offered a somewhat tortured commentary that sort of acknowledged that athletes need to make themselves available and share in the responsibility of maintaining a good relationship with journalists.

During a media availability, Edmonton Oilers centre Leon Draisaitl’s short responses prompted an angry exchange that went viral. (John Locher / The Canadian Press / AP / File)

Outside of that panel, however, the view was that Draisaitl — a wealthy athlete living a life of excess — had been appropriately and summarily put back in his place by Matheson. “Draisaitl started this thing channelling Dirty Harry,” wrote Globe and Mail columnist Cathal Kelly, a personal favorite. “By the end, he looked like a kid who’d just got pantsed in gym class.”

In part, the truth of this incident can be revealed by listening to the questions Matheson asked prior to the whole thing turning, uh, pissy. Matheson’s questions were totally legitimate: after the team struggled the last two seasons, did you expect things to be different this year? And, can you pinpoint the main reason why the team is struggling? In my view, those are good, solid questions, on point for an opinion-leading player on an underperforming team.

Unfortunately, interview subjects — whether they are star athletes, politicians or public health officials — are too often allowed to get away with saying nothing, or not answering questions. Part of this is due to the nature of news conferences in general, which are often the place where good journalism goes to die.

Open to anyone with an ID badge from a news organization, the quality of questions at the average news conference — whether it’s a daily COVID-19 briefing at the Manitoba Legislature or a post-game exchange at an arena — are routinely woeful. It has made the ability to resist the temptation to roll your eyes at inane questions a critical skill for anyone in the public eye.

And with limits on the number of questions and follow-up questions, good journalists are simply unable to practise their craft. It’s very rare that you get to the truth of the matter in “one question, and one follow-up,” as is the case in many news conferences including Manitoba’s COVID-19 briefings. Not when the journalist behind you is only concerned with asking a stupid question and not following up on a non-answer.

In this instance, Draisaitl was being petulant, and Matheson called him on it. Although ex-players are more sympathetic, journalists do need to defend their right to get answers to their questions. “If I walk away and just take what he said, then I don’t look very good, so I was just standing up for myself,” Matheson said later in an interview.

I would agree that there are times, particularly when someone is clearly trying to avoid answering the question, when you have to “call” them out. How you do that can vary, but the point is that asking a good question and not getting an answer should be like waving a red flag in front of a bull. In other words, you need to charge back in and ask the question again and if you still don’t get an answer, you need to point out to the subject that they are not, in fact, answering the bloody question.

This is all easier done when you are in a one-on-one interview. News conferences are showcases for second-rate journalism, pathetic substitutes for a solid one-on-one interview. And with a pandemic still raging, we get fewer and fewer of those.

I should note as well that the dogged determination to get an answer should not be limited to non-answers. Personally, I try to apply the “three-strikes” rule in interviews. If a prominent person says something really newsworthy — and that can mean illuminating or controversial — I make them say it two more times, or three times in total. Sometimes, you can do that just by asking a follow-up question, (“Just to be clear…”) and repeating the original question. Other times, you can read them back a quote and ask them to confirm or expand on what they originally said.

Sometimes, doing that gives the interview subject the opportunity to backtrack. However, if they do that, then you go back in and press on why they said what they said the first time. Either way, getting people to say newsworthy stuff more than once ensures that both you and the interview subject know exactly what was said.

And isn’t that really the whole point of a good interview?

 


 

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