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Home > Publications > Quill > Speech communication for the working journalist


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Saturday, September 1, 2007
Speech communication for the working journalist

John Patrick

We all know there is more to reporting than putting pen to paper and churning out a story.

Getting information is the most important part. That can be difficult when getting the info requires dealing with folks who might be uneasy around the press, or have agendas that fail to align with the free flow of information.

When it becomes evident that your sources aren’t going to bubble over with the information you need, myriad speech communication techniques can help get the well flowing.

To begin, in any interview setting it is important to use what speech theorists call the two-step process. This involves developing a rapport with the interviewee and orienting the person to the interview process.

You probably already do this to some extent by introducing yourself and your press affiliation, and identifying why you want to interview your subject and how long it should take. This step may seem self-evident, but it is an important one to remember.

Once the interview is under way, it is important to use the proper levels of interactions in the right sequence to get to the info you want. All interviews should start with Level 1 interactions, the basic “Nice weather,” and “How’s the office?” type stuff.

Once the interviewee feels comfortable, you can move on to Level 2 interactions, a level that will suit most interviews.

Here’s where you’ll start to get the type of information you’re probably looking for. “What do you think of the senator’s immigration policy?” and “Do you support the restructuring of the police department?” are good examples of Level 2 interactions.

But when you need to ask someone about really personal thoughts or what he or she did with the bloody money, you are moving onto Level 3 interactions.

These interactions are the hardest on interviewees because they might reveal information they might not normally reveal.

When you need to get to this level of interaction, it might be useful to use a few persuasion tactics to soften up your interview.

Pregiving and creating cognitive dissonance for the interviewee can be really useful for getting them to comply with your agenda.

Simply taking the interviewee to lunch or dinner psychologically puts them in your debt. If they feel like they owe you, they will be more likely to share information with you.

It should also be pretty easy to create cognitive dissonance if your interviewee has been cooperative up until the Level 3 interaction.

This is because he or she has most likely begun to see himself or herself as a helpful individual who has a good rapport with you.

Pointing out that his or her attitude has changed and that you thought he or she wanted to help you could easily create dissonance in his or her mind.

The reason that dissonance works is because the human mind seeks to resolve conflict. If it is pointed out to an individual that he or she is acting inconsistently, it is likely that he or she will alter the behavior that is creating that conflict.

A lot of persuasion techniques can be useful when trying to get information from a source, but there is a fine line between persuasion and manipulation.

Remember that the SPJ Code of Ethics states that journalists should avoid “surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public.”

The code also states that such methods be explained as part of the story.

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