There are too many life-and-death things happening in the world to be concerned about trivial matters, but I love sports, and so I feel compelled to indulge my revulsion at too many broadcast interviews of athletes.
I sometimes conduct workshops in sportswriting and the craft of interviewing.
A cardinal sin in interviewing: instead of asking a direct question, the interviewer states the answer he is looking for, leaving the athlete an opportunity only to grunt, or lamely say, “Yes.”
Example: “You had to feel great when you made that catch in the seventh inning.”
This approach robs the athlete of a chance to tell his or her own story.
Instead, a reporter should ask: “Tell me what happened when you saw the ball come off the bat.” Now the athlete gets to communicate the experience. And the listener gets to feel it.
Why do so many interviewers cheat athletes and listeners out of feeling an experience? 1) they feel insecure and compelled to let the listener know how smart they are; and 2) they have adopted as models bad habits learned from elders in the business who have risen to high positions despite work that has been mediocre.
The latest version of this wrong-headedness oozed from my radio just this week.
A reporter previewing the football game between the University of MInnesota and the University of Michigan was interviewing the Minnesota quarterback, Philip Nelson, a sophomore who had started only a few games and who could still be considered a wide-eyed rookie.
The interviewer wanted to know how Nelson felt about playing at Michigan, in the biggest stadium in the country — 109,000 seats. Minnesota’s stadium seats only 50,000, and I doubt that Nelson ever played a high school game in front of as many as 5,000. But Nelson never had a chance to answer what was a very good question: the interviewer (as if he were the quarterback), instead of asking a question, laid out his own set of expectations, in great detail and at great length, leaving Nelson merely to agree with the interviewer’s premises and sound like a nonentity.
What I wanted was the raw feeling Nelson could have expressed if he had had to come up with his own answer. That would let us get to know him, instead of getting to know the interviewer.
Years ago I made a documentary film on the values in big-time college football, and the program was memorable, I believe, because it allowed players — without helmets obscuring their identity — to communicate their experiences and feelings.
A few years before that I interviewed the great athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who competed in the long jump at the University of Minnesota. After the meet, in a quiet moment when I caught her alone, I asked her to describe exactly what she felt from the moment her foot struck the take-off board.
She took a deep breath and said, with obvious delight, “No one has ever asked me that before.” She proceeded to explore her experience, moment to moment, and as she spoke she beamed with pleasure at having the chance to explain the passion she felt as she soared through the air.
Interviewers should understand and embrace the principle that they are not the story; the interviewee is. What we’re after is not good questions, but great answers.
I’ve been scrutinizing interviews since I broke into the business, always eager to learn from the best, and from the worst.
A final observation, from an example of the worst: During the Vietnam war a CBS News reporter covering combat was interviewing a an 18-year-old Marine whose buddy had just been shot and killed right in front of him. The reporter said, “How would you characterize your feelings when you saw him die?”
That young Marine may not even have known the meaning of the word characterize; if he did not, the very question may well have intimidated and inhibited him.
Why didn’t the reporter — instead of playing the sophisticate — simply say to the Marine: “Please tell me exactly what happened.” In that way, the Marine could have told his story, and his feelings would likely have become clear . . . and unforgettable.