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The hidden agenda inside the questions fired off by a journalist

31 March 2017 - By Nick Butcher

A man taking notes

As a lawyer it’s quite likely you may need to talk to the media at some time in your career. Some practitioners do it all the time and are experts in dealing with tricky questions. Others might find it a worrying experience. Here are some tips “from the other side”.

I was a mainstream journalist for a decade and one of the best tools I quickly learned to take to an interview is to act like you want to be the friend of the person about to be interviewed, because friends always tell you their secrets.

It’s a bit like sitting beside a stranger on a long-haul international air flight. The ensuing conversation that takes place becomes so vividly honest if you put that person hunched up beside you, who is likely to pass out on your shoulder in the dark of night at a height of 10,000 metres, at ease from the beginning of the journey.

Here’s a list of ten questions you could be asked during an interview:

1. The opening gambit

You agreed to talk about a particular legal subject or issue of the day but the journalist starts the interview with “something completely different” and not in the Monty Python way. This style is common particularly in fast-paced commercial radio where the presenters tend to be light on knowledge of the meatier side of the subject. But it can also be a tactic to throw you off-guard and it’s an excellent way of getting a spontaneous answer.

2. The chatty, friendly question

It’s all about warming you up and appearing to be on your side but it may not be as innocent as it sounds. Perhaps it could be a compliment on how well and relaxed you are looking and asking “Have you recently been on holiday”. You might then divulge information about a recent trip to a tropical paradise in a remote and expensive to get to part of the world. Later you see a story about how your firm has not given staff pay rises in two years because of a slow economy yet the journalist also includes a line or two about the lavish holiday you recently took.

3. Putting words into your mouth

Journalists love to celebrate what’s wrong with the world so they’ll often use negative phrases in their questions. It works well because often the person being interviewed will repeat their language. You might be asked a question along the line of “Aren’t you disappointed with the outcome in this case”. You might reply with something like “I wouldn’t say it’s disappointing but…”

The journalist can now use your negative language and attribute it to you because you essentially repeated their statement and then added your analysis.

4. Speculation

You live in the present but you can be assured the journalist is constantly looking at the future obsessively. Journalism could be described as the “relentless pursuit of the new”. If a journalist doesn’t know the answer to something then why not get an expert on the subject to speculate. What would happen if aliens landed on planet Earth and waged war, and would a legal treaty need to be drafted? I can see the headline now: “Lawyer says peace treaty needed if aliens invade.” And the story you came to tell is suddenly lost in the woods.

5. The two-headed question

Some journalists prepare for an interview in the same way you might prepare for a case.

They’ll make a statement during a question. The journalist might say “So you have six women lawyers in your firm and none of them, I understand, are partners, yet Bob Smith who you’ve just hired is tipped to become a partner over the next 18 months?

If the statement that six women are indeed not partners is true, then that is fine but if one or more are about to be made partner, don’t for a second ignore that fact. Celebrate it because an interview is also an opportunity to gain free PR exposure.

Journalists employ this tactic to test waters or fly a kite and see which direction the interview heads. You should always challenge their knowledge of so-called facts.

6. The personal question

You’ve successfully defended a legal case of a former criminal being released into an area of a family-orientated community. The man has done his time and you’ve upheld human rights.

But then the journalist asks: “Would you like Charlie Ransom living in your neighbourhood, you live in Herne Bay don’t you?”

It’s the Not In My Backyard question and is designed to incite a defensive answer. It’s best to reply with something along the lines of, “Everyone has a right to live somewhere.” Then mention the checks and balances that are in place for the release of the person and the parole conditions that are in place.

7. Just for background

You’ve prepared for the interview and you have a good idea of the line of questioning that will be asked of you, but then the journalist asks you before the interview formally takes place a few questions they say is just for background. Remember, this may not be quoted verbatim but it will likely be used as a foundation somewhere in the story, so be 100% certain that what you are providing “just for background” is correct.

8. Repeating the same question; only worded slightly differently

It can be frustrating feeling like you are being asked the same question again and again. It feels like being interrogated but if you give into this game you will most likely give a different answer, so it’s best to stick to your original response and simply say “I’ve answered that question but you keep rewording it to provoke a different answer.” Remember, a journalist is looking for content and copy and angles.

9. While you’re here…

It’s always towards the end of the interview, just when you’re feeling like things went well and you’re about to make a beeline for the door. The journalist has you feeling good and appears to be sympathetic to your viewpoint and possibly even agrees with it. Then fires the off-hand, loosely speculative question related to your sector, and you answer it with a speculative reply. Be prepared for this because it too will likely make the copy in the style of “When asked about the tipped resignation of the Justice Minister, he or she said…”

10. That final question

Do you think Bill English will win the next general election and what’s your thoughts on his U-turn about gay marriage? You’re paid about 300K a year, so do you think you are worth the salary your company pays you? Where will you be in a years’ time?

These questions are considered the final hit and remember that journalists are like elephants in that they never forget what you said and will bring it out as fact when the time arises. Plus, they don’t know if they’ll ever have you in their studio or newsroom again as it took forever to arrange so it’s a case of fire every shot until the chambers are empty.

After all that, you might be even more worried about facing up to a journalist’s recorder. But don’t: if you have the knowledge and have prepared readily beforehand it will all go swimmingly.

Last updated on the 31st March 2017