The Question Man
Investigative reporter John Sawatsky has become a leading authority on the art of the interview. His conclusion: Too often we're asking all the wrong questions.
By Susan Paterno
Susan Paterno (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
AUTHOR JOHN SAWATSKY, Canada's premier investigative reporter and a foremost expert on interviewing, is taking me for a stroll down a busy Toronto street. We're coming from the Canadian Broadcasting Co., where Sawatsky has spent the last two days training veteran journalists to forget everything they know about interviewing‹because it's all wrong. As I try to keep up (his strides are nearly double mine), dodge traffic and ask questions, he keeps deflecting. At some point I realize this walk is leading somewhere else besides back to the hotel, to an understanding, to an epiphany, to a moment of sheer terror.
I'm trying on Sawatsky the tactics that he has been teaching me since we started talking several weeks earlier. I remain skeptical about his practices: Avoid making a statement during an interview. Avoid asking a question a source can answer with yes or no. Sound conversational, but never engage in conversation. The advice may be simple, but the execution is about as natural as walking on hot coals. It's hit and miss, hit and miss, until finally I come up with a question that seems to catch both of us off guard: me because I can't remember what the question is and him because he seems to have revealed something he is now attempting to sidestep.
He has mentioned that there are holes in his methodology, and those holes are preventing him from getting started on his latest book on interviewing, number six after five nonfiction best-sellers in Canada. To Sawatsky, holes are great, unanswered questions, a reluctant admission that after nearly a decade of inquiry, he still has some way to go in creating the definitive examination of the interview, journalism's fundamental tool.
Holes, huh? I think smugly. The master stumbles.
"What holes?" I ask, using an open-ended, neutral question beginning with "what"--a strategy that only one hour earlier Sawatsky had said produces the best results. A direct hit, but I follow with a misfire: "I didn't see any holes in what you did today." Ouch. I commit one of Sawatsky's deadly sins. I make a statement. The savvy source with something to hide uses an interviewer's statement as an exit ramp, an easy way out of a question. I try to recover. "Where are the holes?"
"Well, mostly the holes are in what we're doing tomorrow," he says. "There aren't too many holes in what we did today."
"But where are the holes in what we did today?" I repeat. He says nothing. I want to say more; the silence makes me uncomfortable. Sawatsky's eyes dart back and forth across the street, looking for a place to cross. Or maybe he's looking for an exit ramp. I want to give him one, because I like him and my natural inclination is to try to help out.
Uh oh. I'm doing exactly what he says gets journalists into trouble. I'm giving into my social instincts rather than remaining a disciplined gatherer of information.
"I guess mostly the holes are in what we're doing tomorrow. You know, it's like when you write a book. The reader never sees the holes, only the author."
"So where are the holes?" The question may be neutral, but my voice is demanding, almost hostile. The traffic roars; I strain to hear his response. No response. I want to qualify, to explain, to justify, to say something, but I resist, letting the traffic whiz by, the horns bleat, the wind rush between us. Finally, he speaks.
"See that?" he says, pointing to the street we're now crossing. "That's Yonge Street. It's the longest street in Canada." He proceeds with a mini-travelogue about Toronto. Forget it, I think. I'll drop it. He wins, I panic: How am I going to get him to answer the question? What am I doing wrong?
Clearly, he's on to me. But it's not just my problem. In Sawatsky's view, it's a problem for all journalism: Savvy sources are on to all of us, spinning back, all heat and no light, precisely because "we're asking the wrong questions," he says. Under attack, journalists are conceding defeat to well-oiled propaganda machines without really understanding why they're losing. In the last decade, media trainers have become such a growth industry, "you can even find them among small businessmen in Newfoundland," Sawatsky says, teaching politicians and executives "how to run circles around journalists."
"It's a sophisticated battle for control," he says. Despite New Yorker writer Joe Klein's recent declaration in The Guardian that "spin has become less effective," Sawatsky contends the "message trackers are winning," thanks to journalists who too often rely on outdated, conventional approaches to interviewing. Sawatsky denounces standard interviewing techniques as "the old methodology," often characterized as a power struggle between interviewer and subject, as a battle of wills, a game to be won or lost.
Sawatsky changes the framework, taking the mystery out of what many journalists have always believed is a mystical, serendipitous experience, likened to "lovemaking" by New York Times reporter Claudia Dreifus in a recent book on interviewing. The conventional method represents an irrational belief "in magic," says Sawatsky. "If an interview goes well, then we say it's magic. But it's not magic. It happens for an understandable reason. It's rational. It's a skill. It's easy to teach someone skills."
And he has, conducting workshops all over Canada, Asia and Europe, as well as at the Poynter Institute and several daily newspapers in the United States, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nashville's Tennessean and Spokane's Spokesman-Review.
Sawatsky applies the same discipline to interviews that E.B. White commended to writers--make every word tell. Using Sawatsky's approach, the journalist is no longer a sparring partner but more like a therapist, a professional listener who leads the source down a path toward a goal, staying in control, giving up nothing. He teaches how to focus questions, choose a strategy and assemble interviews using the same dramatic structure Hollywood screenwriters use to build movie plots.
"In Canada, John's a verb. We say: 'Have you been Sawatskyed?' Or, 'I'm getting Sawatskyed,' " says Steve Wadhams, one of the nation's leading radio documentary producers. Many who've been "Sawatskyed" speak glowingly of the results. CBC anchor Carole MacNeil holds Sawatsky largely responsible for her rise from covering local news in New Brunswick to hosting CBC's "Morning," the Canadian equivalent of NBC's "Today." Her recently launched interview show, "Newsworld Sunday with Carole MacNeil," debuted at No. 1 in its time slot. "I do nothing but the Sawatsky method," she says. "When I'm off the Sawatsky method, I'm in trouble."
Initially, though, she says she was skeptical, as was nearly every journalist attending Sawatsky's workshop. What Sawatsky teaches requires a certain amount of discipline, she explains, and it contradicts how journalists are initiated into interviewing. "We were trained to appear to be tough by asking accusatory questions," she says.
The rise of the prosecutorial method of interviewing is relatively new, having replaced the deferential manner of the '50s, derided since as the "What have you to say to a grateful nation, Mr. Prime Minister?" style. Major reportorial victories--Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, the My Lai massacre--empowered journalists, galvanizing them to ambush and grill unsuspecting sources, who responded with stonewalling or outright hostility. Oriana Fallaci, Mike Wallace and Sam Donaldson took center stage; the source became the enemy to defeat at any cost.
In 1990, Janet Malcolm unleashed a professional tempest when she compared the journalist to "a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse." Malcolm gave voice to conventional interviewing at its worst, Sawatsky argues, and it touched a raw nerve. Based on competition and coercion, the old way often leads journalist and subject to an impasse. And while most journalists eschew hyper-confrontation and ambush interviewing, many rely on a method that at best leaves information-gathering to chance, allowing spinmeisters to control what the public learns. In any case, Sawatsky says, the old way puts journalists in a defensive crouch, attacked by those who believe the media are biased, left-leaning and agenda-driven.
"People are pretty savvy. They know when they're being coerced. And they don't like it. With competition, the goal becomes winning. The more we win, the more they lose. That's a lousy way to get openness."
Textbooks and experts have long alluded to bits and pieces of the Sawatsky method, but no one has deconstructed, rebuilt and explained the interview as coherently and simply as Sawatsky has. "He is by leaps and bounds the most systematic thinker on interviewing that I've ever met, with a track record as a journalist to back it up," says Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute.
Instead of using questions like cattle prods, jolting sources with provocative queries until they squeal, reporters need to reverse the relationship, Sawatsky says. Resist the temptation to converse, sympathize, and add value or meaning to questions, he says; use short, neutral questions that repeat the source's own words. If the source makes a value-laden statement--for example, "Brian can be excessive at times"--follow up with: "What do you mean, excessive?"
By offering a new way, based on research about what works and why, Sawatsky sees himself "as pushing the frontiers," as significantly "changing the culture." He sees his method as the journalistic equivalent of judo. "When someone attacks us, our first instinct is to resist with force. This is not good news for small people. Judo teaches cooperation, to use the bigger opponent's size to our advantage. It's the same in an interview. We're playing on their turf. We're generalists interviewing people who know their subject, and we don't. If we fight them head-on, we lose. They know more than we do. If we turn it around, if we make them prove everything, we turn our weakness into strength. Don't fight their superior knowledge, use it."
SAWATSKY, 52, STUMBLED upon his mission quite by accident. He first started interviewing as a reporter for the Vancouver Sun while still a student in the '60s at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, the Canadian equivalent of the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated and was quickly promoted to cover Parliament in Ottawa, where he won prestigious awards for uncovering police abuses. In the '80s, he became known nationally for two best-selling exposés of Canada's secret police.
In the fall of 1982, the dean of one of Canada's leading journalism schools persuaded him to teach a class in investigative reporting. Five years later, Sawatsky turned his attention to controversial Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, a man who had never held public office before. Sawatsky began researching a Mulroney biography, using his students as free labor. He was reluctant to set the students loose on interviewing expeditions without road maps, so the group devised a list of standardized questions every week. Each student took the list, interviewed a different source with the same questions, and returned the next week with a transcript of the interview.
"What came back humbled me," Sawatsky says. Some questions consistently produced remarkable results, while others always bombed. The class became "a laboratory into interviewing." He repeated the exercise week after week, year after year, analyzing the interview as a scientist would a chemical compound. "The experience fundamentally changed me," he says. Bringing to his new project the same persistence and rigor that makes him a consummate reporter, Sawatsky discovered "very little original research done in journalistic interviewing."
After breaking down and rebuilding thousands of interviews, he saw patterns. "Interviewing is about people. They're not chemical compounds, and they don't always act predictably. But there is a predictable part." Ask a closed-ended question and sources "will confirm or deny 98 percent of the time. That's the science." The unpredictable part is what happens next. "Socially, people are taught to add a postscript to a confirmation or a denial. As journalists, we hope the P.S. will describe or explain the issue we've raised. That's interviewing by accident. If you get somebody who doesn't want to play, you're in trouble."
Most of the time, in friendly interviews, the source adds the P.S. "out of charity. Because our social instincts tell us to be nice. Their charity--not the question--delivers the answer. We're relying on them to help us out. Relying on people's charity to get answers is not a good practice. The ones we need charity from the most are the least likely to give it--the people who stand to lose something."
And certain people rarely give charity: "People who go by the book--cops, bureaucrats, lawyers--people who take questions literally, people who are nervous. The last thing fearful people do is open up. They shut down." Professional answer-givers, what Sawatsky calls sophisticated politicians and business executives, frequently defeat journalists by answering a closed-ended question with a curt "No, not at all" or a disingenuous "Gosh, I hope not!" before switching to a prepackaged "message track," their prepared response to uncomfortable questions.
Sawatsky's interviewing revelations were informing the Mulroney biography, allowing him to mine enough explosive material--allegations of deceit, misogyny, alcoholism and the like--to put Sawatsky back in the news. When the exposé was published in 1991, reviewers almost universally praised it. Maclean's, Canada's Time magazine, called Sawatsky "stubborn and dogged," the "best investigative journalist in Canada."
After the Mulroney furor abated, word was getting around about Sawatsky's research on interviewing. Reporters and editors began inviting him to share what he knew. He accepted a contract with the CBC to do a few months' worth of workshops, mostly in the provinces. Like a comedian with new material, Sawatsky tried out his incomplete methodology on the road, in places like Yellowknife, Regina, Halifax. During the workshops, Sawatsky would position himself between two video monitors showing tape after tape of journalism's elite making one boneheaded mistake after another. The reaction was universally hostile.
"It was a radical method," recalls Bob Allison, formerly a national reporter and senior producer for the CBC, now a university professor. "He was telling [TV reporters] to shut up at the very point you think you should open your mouth."
The journalists wanted none of it. "Some of them took it very personally," Sawatsky recalls. "It was constant, continual opposition. I was challenged at every step." It became a crusade. "When somebody tells me I'm wrong when I know I'm right, I need to get up and show them I'm right." He identified the weaknesses in his theory, digging deeper into his research, spending thousands of dollars out of pocket to analyze, refigure and repitch the methodology to new audiences. The resistance continued and was often so robust he wanted to pick up his videotapes and leave the room.
In Halifax he was nearly eaten alive by a band of "hard-bitten old journalists we were trying to turn around," recalls Allison, who as senior producer was overseeing the training effort. To a room "full of egos," Allison recalls, Sawatsky showed Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes" interviewing John Ehrlichman, a top Nixon aide during the Watergate era. After being asked a "nine-pound question," Ehrlichman responds:
" 'Is there a question in there?' " Allison recalls. "Some of the bad boys wanted to know: 'What's wrong with that?' They thought [Wallace] made Ehrlichman look like an asshole." In fact, Allison says, "it was clearly the other way around." ("We disagree with that analysis," says "60 Minutes" spokesman Kevin Tedesco. "Mike Wallace is the acknowledged expert at interviewing. In this case he did exactly the right thing.") By the end of the week, Allison says, Sawatsky's quiet intensity, firm grasp of the material, self-confidence and what he was teaching "won them over," says Allison. "He helped that TV newsroom immensely."
In 1994, the CBC invited Sawatsky to train journalists who do the "really big show," he says, the Canadian equivalent of network nightly news. At the end of the week, he came off the elevator and into the newsroom. "It was the size of a football field," he remembers. "I had walked about 10 feet into it when a producer came running up. 'It works, it works,' he told me, and he proceeded to explain what he'd done differently, how he'd tried it, and gotten much better clips. Then somebody else came up, 'It works, it works,' then another and another. I was being stopped every 20 feet by people telling me 'It works, it works!'... That's when it hit. I knew I was changing the culture."
Sawatsky says he no longer meets much resistance in Canada and Europe, mostly because his reputation precedes him. Because engagements keep him booked and overseas six months at a time, he says he has done few workshops in the United States. But he also knows what he'd face here. "In the U.S., I'd have to start all over again, proving myself."
IN TORONTO LAST JULY, there was no resistance among the dozen radio and television reporters and producers who gathered around a U-shaped faux-wood table in a CBC conference room. Sawatsky stands at the front of the room, flanked by TV monitors, and tells us cheerfully he's about to show a tape of Dan Rather that illustrates how journalists misuse questions "in a fundamental way."
Rather is interviewing Mirjana Markovic, the wife of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, hoping to confirm that the Serbs are behind ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Rather asks a series of closed-ended questions, and the woman runs over him like a truck squashing a bug. She answers each question with a curt denial, then reverts to her message track, which blames the United States for beating up poor little Yugoslavia. Rather appears flustered. He gains some control when he asks short questions--"How does this end?" "Why did you decide to do this interview?"--but loses it again with long, coercive statements, including allegations that Milosevic is "the new Hitler," for example, or asking "When will you stop killing Kosovar Albanians?" She beats him back with spin and denial. In the middle of the interview, Rather capitulates, telling her he sees her point when she compares U.S. troops in Kosovo to what she calls "the senseless war" in Vietnam.
Later, on "Larry King Live," Rather blames Markovic for delivering "one of the strangest interviews I've ever been through. Complete, total denial of provable facts."
But, Sawatsky argues, Rather's ineffectual interviewing wound up giving her a forum to deny what he had hoped to prove. For Rather to hold the president's wife accountable, he would have had to ask her specific questions about incidents and events--the provable facts he says he had. Then, he would have had her agreeing to those facts or requiring her to provide evidence to prove the incidents and events were false.
(Rather, through a CBS spokeswoman, declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this story.)
Without agreement, the journalist spars for control with the source, lurching back and forth between coercive questions and flat assertions. Sawatsky calls it "moving back and forth between 'outputting' and 'inputting.' " Outputting is any time you make a statement, interject a value, voice an opinion. Inputting is when you ask nothing but neutral, open-ended questions.
People, by nature, are either "inputters" or "outputters," he says. TV journalists, for instance, tend to leave their dial on output. Inputters are straight men, allowing sources to crack wise and showcase personality. "I can go into any newsroom and usually tell you who gets the best stories in the paper. It's usually the reporters with the blander personality. They're not the life of the party. They're amazingly consistent if you eavesdrop on them during interviews: You'll hear plain, neutral, bland questions. Colorless questions usually provide colorful answers."
Journalists get into trouble when they try to do both--showcase their personalities (output) and receive information (input)--simultaneously. "We feel this need to output; that's our instinct," Sawatsky says. "But the granddaddy of all rules is this: We must balance input and output." When the source "is outputting, we need to be inputting. The fact is, you can't suck and blow at the same time."
Tall and slightly bent from years of cycling, Sawatsky tends toward shirtsleeves and comfortable shoes, blending easily into crowds. He lives in the capital, Ottawa, where he lives and does most of his writing. He is modest to a fault, eating takeout Chinese from a brown paper bag in his hotel room, preferring walking or buses to cabs and limousines, even while on an expense account. Despite his fame, he is far from wealthy. His books, so narrowly focused on national issues, have little appeal outside Canada, where best-selling authors "sell about one-tenth the number of books you'd sell in the States."
He is, though, a journalist devoted to the story, and the story he needs to tell is about interviewing. And so he presses on, mostly in evenly moderated, well-reasoned and rational tones. But occasionally, with Mike Wallace or Sam Donaldson as foils, he works up the fervor of a Baptist minister preaching the gospel, railing against journalism's conventional interviewing techniques.
To illustrate his point, he shows a tape of CNN anchor Jeff Greenfield interviewing Sam Donaldson. Greenfield has accused the veteran ABC reporter and his White House correspondent cohorts of succumbing to the "Perry Mason syndrome," adding, "You guys think that if you ask the right question in the right way that they'll crumble, they'll admit something."
"They're not going to crumble," Donaldson replies emphatically. "The point is, you should ask a pointed question that hangs in the air.... You ask a pointed question and the audience can say to itself, 'Why didn't he answer the question?' Or they say, 'Why did he ask that question?' But the point is, it's there even if he doesn't answer it."
Sawatsky stops the video. "OK, now I'm going to start my rant."
Donaldson, he says, is "voicing the conventional wisdom. 'The question is not going to get an answer: It just hangs in the air.' This is an avowal of failure. Sam Donaldson doesn't use the question to gather information. He uses it to let...it...hang...in...the...air.
"Journalism is about directness, precision, clarity, about not confusing people," Sawatsky says, more worked up than he has been all week. "Sam Donaldson is saying: 'Let the audience figure it out. Let them read between the lines.' Basically, he's saying he can't do his job. Questions are supposed to get answers. Questions that fail to get answers are not tough enough. We have to redefine what tough is."
("How silly," responds Donaldson. "You can't always ask questions that are guaranteed to get answers." If a source refuses to answer a question, he says, "you press it to a point. But if they don't want to answer, you've got to stop. You can't keep going. At some point, you give up. No one likes to see a reporter badger past the point where [the source] is not going to answer the question. Then you have to move on to another question.")
But Sawatsky disagrees. His method is based on asking questions beginning with what, how, why and to a lesser degree, who, when and where. Not exactly a novel concept. But what Sawatsky succeeds in showing is how even the best-constructed questions will fall flat if laden with the interviewer's attitude. He shows various videos of Larry King grilling guests: "Are you bitter?" "No." "Angry?" "No." "Were you surprised?" "No." "Did you feel guilty?" "No." "Were you disappointed?" "Oh yeah, I guess I was disappointed."
King "takes a stab in the dark and finally he hits one. This," he says, "is where the coercion comes in." Leave the values out, he says, and problems solve themselves.
Instead of asking Sarah Ferguson, for example, "Is it hard being a duchess?" ask: "What's it like being a duchess?" Instead of asking Ronald Reagan, "Were you scared when you were shot?" ask: "What's it like to be shot?"
Effective interviewing requires "overcoming our social conditioning and instincts," he says. "The goal of a conversation is to exchange information; the goal of an interview is to receive information." In a conversation, two people compete to make a point, and "it becomes a contest for control." Since most sources decide before an interview how much they'll reveal, the challenge becomes "compelling people to go further than they normally would."
The best questions, argues Sawatsky, are like clean windows. "A clean window gives a perfect view. When we ask a question, we want to get a window into the source. When you put values in your questions, it's like putting dirt on the window. It obscures the view of the lake beyond. People shouldn't notice the question in an interview, just like they shouldn't notice the window. They should be looking at the lake."
"I get it," says a voice from the back of the room. "Mike Wallace is like a stained-glass window."
"That's right," Sawatsky says. "Stained-glass windows are beautiful to look at, but it's all about the window, not about the view."
THE DAY AFTER SAWATSKY dodged my question about holes in his methodology, he offered up an anecdote that answered it. It wasn't luck or magic that brought the answer, as I might have suspected a few days earlier, but his charity. The holes were bothering him much less, he said, than the frustration he felt from having no time to work out the few remaining kinks in his theory. He then told the story of a young reporter in Oslo, Norway, who approached him at a break during one of his seminars. ###
"She asked me: 'Don't you ever get bored doing the workshop over and over?'
"I get interviewed a lot, and I've been asked that question over and over, so I have a message track for it. I say, 'No, not at all,' then I go into spin: 'The methodology is not finished. I'm building it brick by brick. As long as I keep working on it, I'll never get bored,' et cetera, et cetera. She stopped me in the middle of my message track and blurted out: 'I just asked you a closed-ended question! You of all people! Let me start again, and do it properly: How do you feel about giving this workshop?'
"When she asked me, 'How do you feel?' I gave an answer I'd never given before. I told her: 'I'm always upgrading the methodology, and every time I try to put new stuff into it. Lately, though, the demand for the workshop has grown so much, I sometimes feel very frustrated, because I know I'm not doing the job I want to be doing.'
"My answer actually surprised me. I had never said 'frustrated' before. I had my message track. I thought I loved doing this. So why didn't I give that answer to the first question? Because she asked about being bored. The content of the second question changed from specific to basic. My answer," he says, "surprised even me."
And that's pretty hard to do.