I admire the skills of accomplished interviewers. The ability to formulate a logical set of questions that tells a concise, interesting story while cutting to the heart of a complex issue is truly an art. Add to this the interviewer’s role as an active listener who must be able to veer from a planned narrative direction when the interview subject reveals something unexpected or presents a complex or questionable set of data. Of course there are also those uncomfortable moments when an interviewee ducks a direct question entirely and the job of the journalist becomes even more worthy of superhero status. When I think of especially talented and effective public radio interviewers I’ve heard over the years, I think of Terry Gross, Robert Siegel, Scott Simon, Steve Inskeep, David Greene, Rachel Martin and JPR’s Geoffrey Riley.
One challenge which has become increasingly difficult for journalists conducting live interviews with politicians or government officials, is when these newsmakers intentionally use data or unsubstantiated claims to spread misinformation. While establishing true facts has always been part of the dance between journalists and live interview subjects, the job has grown more challenging in the current political climate where questioning the very existence of “facts” has become a widely used political strategy.
I’ve begun to notice how NPR news is adapting to this new reality. Since it’s very difficult for an interviewer to consistently fact-check all claims within an interview, NPR has been using beat reporters as fact-checkers in segments that immediately follow some live interviews on complex subjects. These beat reporters also clarify and provide context to assertions made during the interview. I think this model has been a real improvement to the journalistic process, freeing interviewers to pursue broader, more diverse angles of stories while not letting erroneous, untrue or unsubstantiated claims go unchecked or corrected long after original interviews take place.
Other listeners have heard this new approach as well. In a recent “Mailbag” column on npr.org, NPR Ombudsman, Elizabeth Jensen, shared this feedback from a Mount Vernon, Iowa Morning Edition listener: “I heard for the first time today, a news organization, in real time, fact check a political or elected official’s statements in a way that was effective, simple, non-confrontational and added to the knowledge base of the listener. Morning Edition did not put the interviewer in the position of both fact checking the interviewee’s statements and mentally phrasing the next question. A second factual reporter did that job and did it well … I hope that this approach is not an anomaly.”
This listener was referencing an interview between NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep and Republican Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania about Iran’s nuclear program, which was followed by a brief conversation with Peter Kenyon, an NPR correspondent who covered the deal.
In response to using this journalistic technique, NPR Ombudsman Jensen pointed out: “There’s nothing that will replace a well-prepared host who pushes back against a misstatement when it happens or asks for a clarification. But hosts can’t be expected to know everything. Of course, these fact-checking follow-ups should be used consistently across the political spectrum. And interviewees should not feel that they have not been given a chance to defend themselves with the later fact checks. With these caveats, ... Morning Edition has found what can be an effective solution to a potential problem, since it keeps the facts and context in a bundle with the original interview.”
Many journalists have correctly pointed out that covering the news today is different than it’s been in the past. Providing the public with consistently reliable, fact-based news will continue to require journalists to remain true to the traditions, ethics and values of their profession. But it will also require experimentation with new ideas, techniques and methods so that new ways can be developed to help citizens sift through the noise of the information age. NPR and member stations will remain at the forefront of that effort.