How to interview politicians

<a href="" target="_new">Image by U.S. Department of Agriculture</a> released via <a href="" target="_blank">Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0</a>
Image by U.S. Department of Agriculture released via Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

There is a fine art to interviewing politicians

You need to understand their motivation, realise they will have a script, not allow them to complicate matters, refuse to be sidetracked, retain an open mind, know your subject, and avoid a slanging match. You are there only to uncover information in order to inform the public debate.

1: Interview for the benefit of the audience

You both have a constituency. Yours is the audience, who you are committed to inform with balanced, impartial, objective and accurate information.

Theirs is the electorate that they represent, made up of people who may or may not have voted for them.

You are there to ask questions on behalf of your audience and uncover information in the category of “had it not been for you the world would never have known”.

You are not there to look smart or to try to win a battle.

A political interview does not have to become confrontational and heated.

A good interviewer will draw out the information she or he is seeking without the need for raised voices.

2: Understand the politician’s motivation

Your motivation should be to inform the public debate with robust journalism, offering verified and sourced facts that enable the audience to understand better what is going on around them and make educated choices.

However ambition, personal interests, activism, personal gain, revenge and other personal baggage could get in the way.

You have a responsibility to deal with this. This is about integrity. You can’t conduct a meaningful political interview without integrity.

Their motivation should also be to inform the public debate, and to ensure that the needs of all in the community they serve are represented and accounted for.

However, party loyalty, fear of losing their seat/position, ambition, ideology, and a host of personal issues could cloud this.

Your job is to see through this and cut to the facts of the matter being discussed.

Politicians are public servants. They have been elected to do a job on behalf of those they represent. Their professional performance is open to scrutiny.

You as a journalist have a unique responsibility to sit with these decision-makers and ask them the telling questions that your audience is not able to ask.

You are operating on behalf of your audience. It is your job to dig deep and to uncover facts about professional conduct, how the politician is executing his or her responsibilities, and any personal issues that might prevent them from doing so.

3: Keep it simple

Politicians might try to complicate matters when it suits them. They may try to make the journalist feel inferior by suggesting that they do not understand the situation.

Phrases such as “well, it’s complicated” and “you need to understand the background to this”, are common ways of trying to reduce the effectiveness of the journalist.

Stick to the core journalistic questions of who, why, when, where, what and how. Questions should be short and to the point. The more complex the question the more opportunities you offer the politician to avoid the main point.

Do not be afraid to continue to ask the same question repeatedly until you get a clear answer; having a couple of different ways to phrase it helps reduce the likelihood that the politician will get annoyed. However, if they do become angry, don’t let that bother you.

You will not be expected to be expert in everything a politician is involved in, but it is important that you have a solid understanding of the issues you are going to be pressing them on.

You certainly need to know your history, and you need to make sure that you know what you are talking about and that the questions you ask are well researched.

4: Don’t be sidetracked or derailed

It is so easy to be steered away from the crucial question. Once the journalist has lost his or her cool, they have lost the interview.

A politician who is on the ropes may lash out in order to force you on the defensive. They may be trying to guide you into a discussion they want to have, rather than discuss the issues you want to address. Do not be taken in by that, it’s a trap. Return to the question you want to ask.

Always steer clear of personal insults and never enter into a slanging match where you end up shouting at one another. Once that happens, the interview (although probably highly entertaining for the audience, and likely to end up on YouTube and be virally marketed globally) has lost its power as a tool for informing the public debate. You and the politician will have probably damaged your integrity. It will reflect badly on your news organisation, too.

An interview with a politician should be a sincere attempt to uncover information to help your audience understand more about current issues. It’s not a battle of wits between you and the politician. It’s not about scoring points. Nor is it about making you look smart in front of your peers and friends.

5: Don’t do deals

It may seem obvious, but you must never go into an interview with a politician with any form of agreement, explicit or implicit. There must be no mutual understanding that both sides will get something out of the interview. This is corrupt and goes against the core elements of journalism.

It is fine for a politician to try to do this in order to ensure that they achieve what they set out to achieve; that’s what politics is all about. But you have to be above this. It is an integrity issue.

There must never be any suggestion that the course of the interview can be mapped out in advance. The only thing you can agree beforehand is the length of the interview and even that introduces limitations that could prevent you getting to the truth.

6: They will have a script

As you prepare for the interview you will have thought through the areas you want to cover and may have written down the questions you want to ask. The politician will probably have done the same.

It’s likely that they will have had several working sessions with spin doctors (political advisors), and will be briefed on exactly what message they want to broadcast via your interview.

Political organisations spend a fortune on hiring media training consultants who coach politicians to avoid answering questions and ensure that they get their message and points across no matter what questions are asked. There is a big business in manipulating the media. Often, such training is carried out by former journalists, so the politicians may be well prepared, not necessarily for giving you the information you seek, but in ensuring they stay on political message.

You can be fairly sure this has happened when you hear the answer to your questions starting with, “Well that is an interesting point, but the main issue here is…” or, “I am glad you asked me that, but you have to remember that the real reasons behind this are…”

These, and many other answers that attempt to take the initiative for the interview away from the journalist, suggest that the politician is primed and ready to use your interview as a party political broadcast and not as a vehicle for informing the audience.

There will be no doubt that the politician has a script in their head. They will know the end result they are required to achieve that will reflect well on them and their party. They will have a final line (the last word) that they will want to push, regardless of the questions you have asked.

However, you are not there to help them with their PR (public relations) campaign. You are a journalist whose job is to get to the truth.

All political parties will have spin doctors, those public relations people and political backroom staff whose job it is to ensure that the party message gets out no matter what the opportunity; your interview will be viewed by them as just that – a political opportunity.

Never think you will be more prepared than them, this is naive and foolish. You need to go into a political interview knowing that sitting behind the politician is a news management team who will have done this hundreds of times and will have used journalists like you to achieve their ends.

7: Keep an open mind

Although it is important to know what you are going to ask (as explained above), it is also important to go into the interview with an open mind. It’s a delicate balancing act to go prepared with a set of questions, and yet still retain the flexibility needed to be alert to some new information that you didn’t know before. This will, of course, mean that you will need to be on top of the subject.

You will need to have done your research to the point where you are comfortable heading down a line of questioning that, although not planned or expected, will help uncover more information that will be of use to your audience.

If the politician feels that you are afraid of deviating from a rigid line of questioning, they may sense this is a weakness and try to exploit it. Once they do, they will have taken control of the interview and all your efforts could well be hijacked for the purposes of PR or, even worse, propaganda.

You should aim to discover something new through the process. You can’t do that if you doggedly stick to your script.

8: Don’t let them dodge the question

There are many ways for a politician to avoid the question being asked. A couple have been mentioned above. It’s important for the journalist conducting the interview to know when this is happening. The interviewer needs to know when it is right to hold back. It is often clear to the audience that a question is being avoided. You may not need to keep pressing.

Make sure that you have prepared questions that cover all the main issues. You will probably not get to ask them all, and you will almost certainly not get clear answers to all.

Decide which are the most important and ask them first so that if you run out of time, and broadcast interviews are far more likely to suffer from this than print interviews, you can be sure to have covered the main points.

Never leave the best questions for the end of the interview, just in case you run out of time.

9: Try to understand the politician’s motivation

Despite the news management issue, the politician is a human being and an individual with one particular need – retaining the support of the public in order to continue to keep his or her job. So, no matter how prepared and primed they are for the interview, they will also be vulnerable on some points. And they will be keen to make a good impression.

The journalist needs to understand this because, with careful wording of questions, by following up on some of the leads they give you, by exploring some of the topics they seem to want to explore, and by engaging them with an understanding tone and approach, you may be able to dig deeper in the areas that you feel the audience needs to know about.

You may get a lot further with a softer, sympathetic approach rather than with a hard, confrontational approach. This all depends on the situation and the politician. But it’s important to be flexible.

Remember, the point of the exercise is not to make you look great and the politician look small, it’s to uncover essential information that informs the public debate so that the audience can make educated choices.

10: Ensure that the last word informs the public

Does the politician get the last word, or do you? The last word is a precious element to any interview. A politician will want to sum up at the end of the interview. They will want the last answer to be a well-rehearsed sound bite.

One way round this is to ensure that you sum up at the end with the main points. To do this you need to listen to all their answers, take notes, keep a bullet-point summary and repeat it at the end. It is also a good idea to jot down relevant quotes that you can return to at the end in order to illustrate your summary.

Good luck and stay strong. And always keep at the front of your mind that with focused, non-confrontational, patient and well researched questions you just might uncover a fact that “had it not been for you, the world would never have known”.

Related training modules

The relationship between journalists and politicians

Preparing for and carrying out an interview

David Brewer
The author of this piece, David Brewer, is the founder and editor of Media Helping Media. David has worked as a journalist and manager in print, broadcast, and online. He was the managing editor of BBC News Online when the site launched, the managing editor of International EMEA setting out the editorial proposition, hiring staff and overseeing the launch, the managing editor for the launch of CNN Arabic in Dubai, and a launch consultant for Al Jazeera English in Qatar. He has spent many years delivering journalism training worldwide, mainly in transition and post-conflict countries. He is currently mentoring journalists and editors of refugee and exiled media and helping train journalists in countries where the media is still developing.