Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Mastering the Motivated Interviewee

Part 4 of this series ...

If someone approaches you and asks you to do a certain story about them, their issue or the person they're representing, it's important that you examine their motive.

Sometimes this type of interview is really quite innocuous. You're covering the local school district, and the PR person requests a story about a kindergarten class that is learning Spanish by emailing pen pals in Peru. Puff pieces like that are no-brainers. Of course, the motive is to garner public support, but the copy is good filler for your publication and a fun story to write at that.

But what I'm talking about are those stories where the motive is a little more fuzzy and where ascertaining it is akin to snatching at vapor.

In those cases, you actually have to work at the article for a while before you really find out what lies beneath the story request. Sometimes, the person does have a valid reason for approaching you: A social injustice has been done, or they really are in the midst of a personal plight that needs to be exposed.

On the other hand ... beware of the glad-hander, the enthusiastic smooth-talker. If you've been a journalist for a while, you know the type of person to which I'm referring. But if you're a novice, the best advice I can give you is to trust your gut when you meet a person like this.

OK, so ... let's look at one example.

When I was at the AP, I covered the state House in Pennsylvania. A politician who was known for his family values platform and was generally well-regarded came into my newsroom one day, personally looking for me. Now this was a red flag. For a politician to seek out a reporter openly? They were hard up to get press. Usually they had "people" to do that for them.

Anyway, this guy was launching an "investigative committee" into organizations that had in the past received strong support from the Legislature.

I have to admit that I was intrigued. Anyone who tosses around the word, "investigative" is either a pit bull looking to expose wrongs -- or someone with a hidden motive to use their power for personal gain.

I started covering these "hearings" and discovered that the "investigation" was on groups like The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. As I listened to more and more of the testimony, it became very clear that this was a Republican legislator who was bent on pursuing his own agenda and using his party's political strength to harass legitimate groups with whom he disagreed.

So I continued to cover the hearings, but behind the scenes I did interviews with those who had been targeted -- and with legislators who disagreed on the premise behind the "investigative committee."

After I wrote up my story, the committee was disbanded.

Now ... was I duplicitous? Yes, I admit it. I was. When interviewing someone who comes to you for a story, sometimes it is necessary to keep your own questions to yourself and mask your skepticism. If you start barraging them with things like, "Why are you doing this?" or, "This smacks of impropriety," you're not going to get anywhere in finding out the truth.

So here's my advice on mastering the Motivated Interviewee:

Play along.

Cover the story.

Don't commit to writing the story, though. Just cover it. See what's going on. Allow the person to lead you through it. If they have people they want you to interview, interview them. Give everyone as much face time as possible. Be enthusiastic when talking to them. Let them go on about whatever it is for as long as they like. You know the phrase about giving someone enough rope to hang themselves? In this case, unfortunately, it applies.

And then ... go find the people who don't agree with what's going on. Find out from them the reason behind the story request.

Always be vigilant about hidden motives. Sometimes, the Motivated Interviewee will be extremely convincing about the justness of their cause. If you're a novice reporter, make sure you discuss all of this with your editors before diving in.

Then trust your gut.

You got into this business for a reason, and if you're like me, it was probably to unearth untruths.

So listen to your instinct.

If, after interviewing the naysayers, you decide this is a worthy cause after all, then pursue it with rigor.

But 9 times out of 10?

You'll discover that the Motivated Interviewee is after one thing:

Personal gain.

And after that, the story will look nothing like the one you thought you were getting.

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