A former mentor of mine, my old journalism lecturer Gerry Kreibich, has been writing his memoirs online.
One of his posts includes an excellent reminder of the need to stay “Clean” when interviewing – that is, to avoid guesses, presuppositions and speculations, to ask simple, open questions in a logical sequence – and how difficult many people find this apparently simple task.
Describing trainees’ performance in a mock interview with a man whose house has durned down, he writes: “I have heard inventive reporters come up with every possible speculation as to what he did when he woke up – Did you phone the fire brigade? . . . Did you knot sheets together? . . . Did you think you were perhaps dreaming? . . . Did you bang on the wall to alert the neighbours? Some, making the story up as they go along, have asked, Was there a ladder in the room, y’know, from decorating, that you used for your escape? And then, clearly with decorating still in mind – Was there anything particularly inflammable in the house, like cans of paint, that you were frightened might make it worse? A simple ‘What did you do then?’ would have sufficed in all but the last of those examples.”
I remember participating in this activity. You had to do several things at once: establish and maintain rapport, listen carefully, ask sensible questions, take good notes…
And there was one task that Gerry doesn’t mention, but which he was certainly aware of – you needed to construct your own mental picture (or other representation) of what had happened, and to use it to notice whether any salient points were missing. In the jargon, you needed to ‘model’ the story. Only then could you be sure that you wouldn’t be caught out by an editor or sub-editor’s question when you returned to the office.
It was essential to get the names of everyone involved, and check the spelling. It was important to include people’s names. But most of all, it was important to get the story by asking good modelling questions.
In the exercise, it turned out that the family all escaped the blaze because they were woken by the family pet. And that meant there was one important question to be asked.
It’s a question that has stayed with me in the twenty-odd years since I was a spotty teenager at Richmond College in Sheffield, reminding me of the importance of modelling and the need to get the full picture. It still amazes me that I was the only member of my class to ask it.
“What happened to the parrot?”