Within journalism, the interview is traditionally known as a tool for gathering story material, but it is also a finished news product in its own right, a basic form journalists use to package news for public consumption. This mode of news presentation was marginal in the newspaper era, when verbatim interviews only occasionally appeared in print, but has become more prominent since the advent of broadcasting and the emergence of public affairs programs organized around live or taped interviews. In moving from the backstage to the frontstage of journalistic practice, the interview has become a key component of the public face that journalism presents to the world.
The journalistic or “news interview” is a familiar and readily recognizable genre of broadcast programming. Its basis in comparatively spontaneous interaction distinguishes it from the fully scripted narratives and stories characteristic of traditional news programs. The news interview also differs from other interaction-based genres of broadcast talk (such as celebrity talk shows or panel discussions) in its distinctive mix of participants, subject matter, and interactional form. In a prototypical news interview, the interviewer is known as a professional journalist rather than a partisan advocate or celebrity entertainer. Interviewees are pubic officials, experts, or others whose actions or opinions are newsworthy. The discussion normally focuses on current events, is relatively formal in character, and progresses primarily through questions and answers. Close relatives of the news interview include the partisan interview, the celebrity interview, and the news conference.
Origins And Institutionalization
The news interview brings together representatives from two important social institutions – journalism and politics – and the history of the news interview intertwines with the coevolution of these institutions.
Although it now seems natural for journalists to interview elected officials, political candidates, and other public figures, it has not always been so. Interviewing for the record was virtually nonexistent in most societies prior to the mid-nineteenth century. In the United States, for instance, institutions of national government only gradually became publicly accessible, and even as the House of Representatives and later the Senate granted journalists access, verbatim quotations were normally prohibited. The aloofness of government officials was matched by the disinterest of most journalists. Newspapers during this period were financed by political parties and were vehicles for editorial opinion rather than reportage.
The practice of interviewing began with the rise of the American penny press in the 1830s, the first papers to devote themselves primarily to “news rather than views” and to employ reporters devoted to the task of news gathering. But published interviews with public figures did not become common journalistic practice until the late nineteenth century. This new form of journalism first expanded rapidly in the United States, and then more slowly in England and other western European countries, in part at the prompting of American journalists in Europe. This expansion did not occur without controversy; interviewing was frequently attacked as an artificial and unduly intrusive journalistic practice (Schudson 1994).
Although these criticisms would not disappear entirely, the news interview became more accepted as a journalistic practice in the early decades of the twentieth century. This development roughly coincides with the growing stature of journaliasm, and the shift within government from backstage intragovernmental negotiations to public relations as tools of governance. Accordingly, the three US presidents most responsible for institutionalizing the presidential press conference – Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt – were all progressive reformers with ambitious political agendas, aiming to build public support for their policies. The advent of television made news interviews more prominent, as regular news programs became devoted to the questioning of public figures. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, news interviews and news conferences expanded in the emerging democracies of eastern Europe.
In short, what was once considered extraordinary has become standard practice across a range of democratic societies. Just as journalists once faced criticism for questioning public officials, now public officials face criticism if they fail to make themselves sufficiently accessible to journalistic interrogation. This development has, in turn, displaced the traditional story form of news, yielded a new generation of reporters and politicians skilled at asking and answering – or at least responding to – questions, and made individual journalists into celebrities.
Contemporary Norms And Practices
The news interview is not merely a reflection of journalistic and political institutions; it is also a social institution in its own right. A complex matrix of norms and conventions govern conduct within the news interview, largely organized around the roles of interviewer and interviewee (Clayman and Heritage 2002a).
The most fundamental and pervasive characteristic of news interview interaction is that it unfolds as a series of questions and answers. This empirical regularity typifies news interview talk and is also a social norm that participants are obliged to uphold. The question–answer framework may seem obvious, but its very obviousness constitutes the news interview as a recognizably distinct form of interaction. Underlying this normative framework is a far less obvious substrate of practices necessary to produce interaction in manifest compliance with the question–answer norm. These practices include the systematic avoidance of acknowledgment tokens and other responsive behaviors (such as “Uh huh,” “Yeah,” “Right,” “Oh,” or “Really”), which pervade ordinary conversation but become incongruous in a context where the parties are supposed to restrict themselves to questioning and answering. Interview participants usually take for granted both the question–answer norm and the practices that underlie it, but they may become more fully conscious of the ground rules at contentious moments, at times appealing to such rules as a means of complaint or self-defense.
In building questions, interviewers are sensitive to two further journalistic norms that are difficult to reconcile. On the one hand, they are supposed to remain formally neutral in their conduct. Absolute neutrality is an unattainable ideal, but interviewers do strive to maintain a neutral posture by restricting themselves to the action of questioning, avoiding overt forms of agreement and disagreement, and avoiding flat assertions except as prefaces to a question or as attributed to a third party.
On the other hand, interviewers are supposed to be adversarial and should not allow public figures to use the interview as a personal soapbox. Interviewers pursue the adversarial ideal in part through the content of their questions, raising alternative viewpoints and subjecting interviewees’ previous responses to challenge. They also pursue this ideal through the underlying form of their questions – designing questions in ways that narrow the parameters of an acceptable response, tilting questions in favor of one particular response over others, and encoding presuppositions that are difficult for the interviewee to counter or refute. Interviewers can enhance these adversarial elements by including statements before a given question. Prefatory statements are accountable as providing background information necessary to render the question intelligible to the audience, but the interviewer can mobilize them in ways that enhance control over the discussion agenda and exert pressure on recalcitrant interviewees.
The balance struck between the neutral and adversarial ideals is a signature that distinguishes individual interviewers, the news programs where they appear, and historical periods in the evolution of journalism. These ideals also balance differently during panel interviews involving multiple interviewees with divergent or partisan perspectives. The panel interview creates a division of labor that helps to reconcile the ideals of being neutral and adversarial. Partisan interviewees can play the role of adversary with one another, leaving the interviewer free to act as an impartial catalyst.
Interviewees, in responding to questions, face a different set of cross-cutting pressures. Adversarial questions create an incentive for evasive responses, encouraging interviewees to be less than forthcoming or to shift the discussion in a more desirable direction. However, the normative question–answer framework obliges interviewees to answer straightforwardly, so that failure to do so can be costly. Interviewers may counter such maneuvers with probing follow-up questions and negative sanctions; audience members may infer that the interviewee has some ulterior motive for avoiding the question; and subsequent news coverage often singles out acts of evasion. Interviewees almost always design their evasive responses so as to minimize these consequences. They may choose to sidestep the question in an overt or explicit manner, which allows for equally explicit forms of “damage control,” the justificatory accounts and displays of deference to the interviewer. Or, when sidestepping the question covertly, they may take steps to obscure what is transpiring and thus maintain a facade of responsiveness.
Evolving Styles Of Questioning
Comparative research on the news interview demonstrates that styles of questioning have changed substantially since the advent of broadcasting. Journalists’ questions to public figures have become less deferential and more aggressive during this period. In US presidential news conferences, this shift is apparent not only in the growth of adversarial question content but also in formal properties that exert pressure on recipients (Clayman et al. 2006). Simple onesentence questions have given way to increasingly complex questions with extended prefatory remarks embodying greater initiative by the journalist. Questions have also become more blunt or direct, and more assertive in their propensity to favor a particular answer. If this pattern reflects a general trend in interviewing, then journalists have come to exert greater pressure on interviewees to address inconvenient, unflattering, or incriminating topics.
The rise of more vigorous questioning appears to have developed somewhat differently in America and Britain (Clayman and Heritage 2002a). In Britain, a robust tradition of government regulation of broadcast journalism combined with the absence of competition before 1958 to foster a highly deferential style of questioning in 1950s BBC interviews. When the BBC monopoly ended, the competition from a second channel fueled a sudden and dramatic increase in aggressive questioning. In America, where government regulation of broadcasting has been minimal and competitive pressures have been present from the outset, aggressive questioning has grown more steadily from a higher baseline. But for the case of presidential news conferences, the growth in vigor has been discontinuous. Questioning since 1968 has been substantially and consistently more aggressive than questioning in previous years, suggesting a paradigm shift in the White House press corps in response to the socio-political upheavals of the late Vietnam and Watergate era that has endured for several decades.
Whatever its causes, the rise of aggressive questioning has transformed the journalistic interview into a more formidable instrument of public accountability. It is now more difficult for politicians to make purely self-serving statements in the context of a news interview. This revolution has stimulated a counter-revolution among politicians in the form of increasingly sophisticated tactics of prevarication and evasion, as well as strategic use of alternative communicative forms and media outlets (Jones 1992).
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