Day #3: “Becoming a Student of the Interview”

January 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Phoenix, AZ: By Day #3 of the Campus Coverage Project, we students had already found that we had more than a few things in common despite our varied geography and backgrounds.

For one thing, stonewalling administrators are very much the norm and not the exception. And for another, we were all in general agreement when it came to the comfort of the Phoenix Sheraton’s lofty beds and the eccentric likability of Eric Nalder.

Nalder, a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter formerly of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Seattle Times, gave us his take on the art of the interview, or as he called it, “honest manipulation.”

According to Nalder, an interview should feel at once conversational and hypnotic, basically “a scientific penetration of the brain.” He explained to students that while the goal of any interview is to “penetrate levels of privacy,” he also stressed that reporters should not misrepresent themselves or deceive others in the process of procuring information.

“We’re in the truth business,” Nalder said. “This isn’t a business for people who are cynical, it’s for people who are skeptical.”

For someone who has cracked some of the most interesting cases in investigative journalism simply by interviewing people (often more than once and for longer than the typical lunch date), Nalder’s tactic of getting people to talk by first taking a simple chronology of their lives is much harder than it sounds.

The process involves a sort of finesse that can only be obtained by “silencing the ego.” But whose ego exactly? Well, as it turns out, yours.

It’s very much in the vein of ‘you’re your own worst enemy,’ which I can personally attest to.  I can’t remember my last interview that went “as planned,” let alone one where the person I was interviewing divulged more than I had expected—though apparently Nalder can, which is why he is the master and I am but a mere apprentice.

But as he pointed out several times over the course of his lecture, it took many years and many interviews before he “became a student of the interview.” But luckily for us, he did and the next time I have an interview you can bet that I’ll be trying out a few of his methods—albeit with varying levels of success. After all, Nalder also taught me that a little bit of serendipity is built into life, even journalism.


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