Improve your chances of getting meaningful answers during an ambush interview. By Kaye Luistro
You open your door and voila! Your porch is swarming with reporters, recording your every word, facial expression. Remember what Julia Robert’s and Hugh Grant’s characters did in the box-office hit “Notting Hill?” Will you also throw tantrums and storm out of the house with escorts by your side? I won’t blame you. But that is what an ambush interview looks for: sensational comments and reactions worthy of primetime news, and tomorrow’s headlines.
What an Ambush Interview is All About
Television reporters have used, abused it through time. Radio and print reporters have their share too. Though the interviewee says “no comment,” the reporter still had him! Just listen to the terror, anger in his voice; coupled with remarks on how frightened and guilty he looked, writes Clarence Jones, author of the Defending Yourself chapter from the book “Winning with the News Media.”
Why do reporters use the ambush interview so much? They count on it when they want their source to look bad. Think antagonist in a “telenovela.” (soap opera) The more irritated he appears, the better it would be for their story. Sounds rough, right? But if reporters do feel an ounce of guilt, they completely shrug it off, and mutter “It’s for the service of the Filipino people for they deserve to know the truth.”
At times, “journalists are also plain lazy,” write Jeff and Marie Blyscal, authors of ‘PR: How the Public Relations Industry Writes the News.’ “They didn’t have enough knowledge about the subject to ask probing questions, so he or she played it safe and wrote a laudatory ‘puff piece.’”
No matter what they say, this technique is still unfair and unreliable. Mike Wallace, reporter of one of the most influential news programs in America, “60 Minutes,” seems to think so. “He now uses the ambush technique only if the target refuses to give him an interview,” writes Jones.
Developing a conscience is clearly not the only cause for this change. The audiences have become more matured, observes Jones. There’s a higher percentage of being switched off when you pick on a defenseless guy in a news story. The audiences now believe that television holds enormous power to make, destroy a person. If newsmen abuse their authority, the audience will definitely side with the underdog. Expect complaint letters to overflow in newsrooms when this happens.
We can’t deny that “television is words and pictures — mostly pictures,” writes Jones. “If they are to write words about you, they must have your picture.” That’s the lifeline of investigative journalism. They will hunt you down until they get a “sound bite.” (words, reactions worth airing)
Common Tracking Devices
The Dreaded Camera
You will be amazed on how experienced politicians, taipans try to wiggle out of interviews once the camera is turned on. Have you seen how business tycoon Lucio Tan evades the camera time and again? But it is fascinating to watch how a newspaper reporter can get comments armed only with a shorthand pad. Interviewees dread the camera to death. But is it the only reason?
Perhaps it is because “newspapers do much more investigative reporting than television,” writes Jones. “Their investigative teams spend months, sometimes years, on one story. Newspaper investigations are much more tenacious and persistent than those in radio and TV.” Television news does not have this luxury. Reporters go to their beats (assigned stories) in the morning; investigate until 3 in the afternoon; write the story on their way back; look for sound bites in the video; finalize the story, in time for the 6:30 news.
The Lethal Hidden Camera
Some reporters use it to track down a suspected law offender, just like what we usually see in the programs “Imbestigador” and “Magandang Gabi Bayan.” But TV news is not the only culprit. “Newspaper reporters usually don’t have a camera in their hands…but they have a camera in their heads,” writes Jones. “As they sit there, making notes, they’re often not writing what you’re saying. They’re writing what you’re showing. Body English. Eye contact or movement. Fidgets. Sweat. How you reacted to that last question. They will go back to their newsroom and create a picture of you with words. And that can be more distorted than videotape.”
Despite the bad press against reporters, they still have to talk to people to learn what's really going on. But is there a better way to do ambush interviews, when sources remain evasive?
Here is a starter kit on how to do an ambush interview that may generate positive feedback.
The Dignified Ambush
1. Choose unexpected sources, people who usually surround your target, or to get the usual suspects to say unexpected things, says Jones. Ask questions based on the following:
• Who is most directly involved in this story?
• Who is the central character?
• Who is most affected by what is happening in this story?
• Who is in conflict in this story?
• Who might have more information about this story?
• Who could help me find the right person to speak to for this story?
2. Tell a reluctant source that you’ll drive to work with them in the morning, and talk along the way. Limit the questions. Don't use the "interview" word. “Just say you want to talk to them, but be clear that it will be on camera,” writes Jones.
3. Appeal to a source’s sense of importance. Explain how much his comments will make your story look and sound balanced.
4. Ask yourself: What is your end goal? “Do you need factual information, or the person's reactions to a situation, or are you looking for a deeper understanding of the person?” writes Jones. These questions will help you get an ambush interview that sparkles!
It’s Your Turn
It’s your turn to do an ambush interview. Below is an excerpt from a piece of information that your school editor wanted you to follow through. It involves the case of one of your school faculty. Make a list of possible sources, and interview questions to prepare you for the exhausting ambush interview. Apply what you learned about the Dignified Ambush.
Danielle David filed a suit against the Department of Education three months ago after it ruled that she had to quit work because she was pregnant. Current rules state that women must leave their jobs after they reach their fifth month of pregnancy. They may return to work after a six-month leave of absence. Mrs. David filed a suit against the Department, demanding the right to continue teaching as long as she was physically able. Her case was scheduled for a court hearing at 10:15 am today. She did not appear in court, and her case was postponed indefinitely. Her legal counsel explained that Mrs. David had been admitted to the Makati Medical Center at 10 PM yesterday and gave birth to a 6 pound boy at 3 AM today.
Defending Yourself chapter of Winning with the News Media by Clarence Jones
Jeff and Marie Blyscal, authors of “PR: How the Public Relations Industry Writes the News.”
Footnote: This article was published in Magica, a publication of the Diwa Learning Group in 2005.