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date: 24 September 2017

Conversation Analysis and News Interviews

Summary and Keywords

The news interview is a prominent interactional arena for broadcast news production, and its investigation provides a window into journalistic norms, press-state relations, and sociopolitical culture. It is a relatively formal type of interaction, with a restrictive turn-taking system normatively organized around questions and answers exchanged for the benefit of an audience. Questions to politicians are sensitive to the journalistic norms of neutralism and adversarialness. The neutralism norm is relatively robust, implemented by interviewers adhering to the activity of questioning, and avoiding declarative assertions except as prefaces to a question or as attributed to a third party. The adversarialism norm is more contextually variable, implemented through agenda setting, presupposition, and response preference, each of which can be enhanced through question prefaces. Adversarial questioning has increased significantly in the United States over time, and in some other national contexts. Adversarial questioning creates an incentive for resistant responses from politicians, which are managed with overt forms of damage control and covert forms of concealment. News interviews with nonpartisan experts and ordinary people are generally less adversarial and more cooperative. Various hybrid interview genres have emerged in recent years, which incorporate practices from other forms of broadcast talk (e.g., celebrity talk shows, confrontational debates) within a more loosely organized interview framework. These hybrid forms have become increasingly prominent in contemporary political campaigns and current affairs discussions.

Keywords: news interviews, news conferences, questions and answers, neutrality, objectivity, press-state relations, journalism, broadcast journalism, broadcast talk

Introduction

The broadcast news interview has attracted substantial attention within conversation analysis. This is due to its intrinsic prominence in contemporary media, as well as its relevance to a range of theoretical issues at the interface between human interaction, social institutions, journalism, and politics. It is a prime example of “formal” interaction (Atkinson, 1982), organized by a specialized and relatively confining turn-taking system, and conducted for the benefit of an “overhearing” audience. These properties depart from ordinary conversation, while sharing a family resemblance with certain other varieties of institutional talk such as courtroom examinations, classroom lessons, and debates. Within the family of formal and public modes of talk, the news interview is also a distinct species. Its organizational form is specialized and adapted to various context-specific communicative functions and institutional arrangements. The broadcast interview is a prominent vehicle through which news is conveyed to the populace. It is an arena for the enactment of journalistic professionalism and the norms that bear on it. It is a forum for expressions of opinion and perspective from various societal interests. And it both reflects and constitutes relations between journalists, government officials and other elites, as well as the institutions they represent.

Before reviewing news interview research, some definitional preliminaries are in order. The news interview is a familiar and readily recognizable genre of broadcast talk, one that differs from other genres in its distinctive conjunction of participants, subject matter, and interactional form. In a prototypical news interview, the interviewer acts as a professional journalist rather than as a partisan advocate or celebrity entertainer. Interviewees are public officials, experts, or others whose actions or opinions are newsworthy. The discussion normally focuses on current events and is relatively “formal” rather than “conversational” in character. Prototypical examples include Meet the Press and Nightline in the United States, and Newsnight and The World at One in the United Kingdom. Although this chapter focuses primarily on research into the prototypical news interview, less prototypical hybrid forms will also be discussed.

Turn-Taking Within a Question-Answer Framework

Opportunities for talk and action within a news interview are organized by a distinctive system for taking turns that is quite unlike the default system for ordinary conversation. Conversational turn-taking is locally managed from within the conversation as it unfolds. Thus the content and length of turns at talk is neither scripted nor predetermined; and upon the completion of each sentence (or other turn constructional unit), the participants must negotiate who will speak next (Sacks, Schegloff, & Jefferson, 1974). In the news interview, by contrast, turn-taking is partially predetermined in accordance with a simple rule: interviewers (henceforth IRs) should restrict themselves to asking questions, and interviewees (henceforth IEs) should restrict themselves to answering such questions. The question-answer framework is both an empirical regularity that typifies news interview talk (Heritage & Roth, 1995), and a social norm that the participants are obliged to uphold (Greatbatch, 1988; Heritage & Greatbatch, 1991).

Most research on turn-taking in this context has focused on how interview participants understand the question-answer rule and, correspondingly, orient to it in practice (Clayman & Heritage, 2002b). A characteristic feature of news interview talk, from a turn organizational point of view, is the elaborateness of both questions and answers. Questions are often prefaced with declarative statements. These may be brief and innocuous, as in excerpt 1 wherein a single statement (lines 1–2) provides background information establishing the relevance of the ensuing question (line 3).

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Conversation Analysis and News Interviews

Question prefaces can also be lengthy and aggressive, as in the following question to the South African ambassador to the United States, from an interview conducted when the apartheid regime had instituted new repressive measures. Not only does the preface encompass multiple declarative statements (lines 1–13), but these serve to counter the ambassador’s previous remarks while roundly attacking the apartheid regime that he represents.

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Conversation Analysis and News Interviews

The question-answer rule is thus interpreted in a way that allows for non-questioning units of talk by IRs, provided they can be understood as leading up to an eventual question.

This understanding is displayed not only by IRs through the routine production of prefaced questions, but also by IEs in receiving them. IEs generally withhold speaking while multi-unit turns are unfolding, and the previous example illustrates the pervasiveness of this withholding. Each arrow (after the first) marks a place where the IR has completed a sentence or other turn constructional unit and moves on to the next unit of talk. In ordinary conversation, these would constitute possible transition points where the recipient could choose to take the floor, and the aggressive substance of these particular statements provide ample motivation for a defensive response. But here, and in news interviews generally, IEs avoid coming forth with a substantive response at such points, and they generally avoid even minimal acknowledgment tokens (mhm, yeah, oh, okay, etc.). This pattern of self-restraint can be understood by reference to the question-answer rule. To respond at such points would both inhibit the IR’s capacity to complete a question and would show the IE to be doing something other than “answering.” Conversely, by withholding any response until a recognizable question has been produced, IEs display their understanding that each statement is intended to be prefatory rather than a self-sufficient action in its own right, while also tacitly collaborating with the IR’s effort to arrive at a question that can be appropriately answered.

Answers tend to be correspondingly elaborated and collaboratively produced. For instance, yes/no interrogatives, as in the next example, normally receive an initial item of affirmation or rejection (“but definitely” in line 2) followed by further elaborative talk. And as the arrowed points illustrate, IRs generally avoid speaking across successive statements and thereby collaborate in the realization of the elaborated answer as an accomplished fact.

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Conversation Analysis and News Interviews

Such withholding by IRs does not last forever, although precisely when the IR should take the floor is not always obvious. Unlike prefaced questions, which often become recognizably complete with the arrival of a grammatical interrogative, the completion of elaborated answers is often less clearly marked and hence more open to negotiation. One method of marking completion is the repetition of lexical items from the original question (Schegloff, 2011). Thus, when the IE above asserts, following several lines of response, that “police should definitely be armed” (line 11), this resurrects the phrasing of the original question (1) as well as the first component of the answer (2). It is at this point, just as the sentence containing the lexical repetition is winding down, that the IR comes forth with the next question (12).

The norm that answers should be elaborated is so strong that minimal answers tend to be treated as both unexpected and inadequate. In the following excerpt from an interview with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, a yes/no question about government censorship (completed at line 9) receives a flat “no” from Reno (line 10). That the IR is caught off-guard by this unelaborated response is apparent in the ensuing silence (line 11) and extended inbreath (line 12) preceding his next question. That he regards the minimal response as inadequate is apparent in the substance of that next question, which probes for further elaboration.

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Conversation Analysis and News Interviews

Correspondingly, the very next exchange involves a remarkably similar sequence of events—a yes/no question yields a minimal response (12–15), followed by a hitch in the forward progress of the talk (note the micropause in 16 and subsequent cut-off and restart), and then a follow-up question seeking elaboration (17).

Minimal responses, precisely because they depart from the norm of elaboration, are manifestly uncooperative. They address only the action agenda set by the grammatical form of the question, while declining to address the broader substantive agenda that the question is pursuing. Thus, they often follow adversarial questions, and in this context can be understood as registering a tacit objection to the course that the interview is taking.

More substantial departures from the question-answer framework may also occur, but such moves tend to be treated as “out of turn” by the participants themselves. Those who launch turn-taking departures often treat them as sensitive or problematic, while others may respond with negative sanctions. One recurrent type of departure occurs in panel interviews and involves one IE taking a turn immediately after a previous IE without waiting for a question from the IR, as in the following.

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Conversation Analysis and News Interviews

Such departures are often preceded by requests for permission to speak, or “token” requests wherein the IE does not actually wait for the request to be granted (as in this example, “Can I make a point about that which is …”) before proceeding. Or at the very least, such departures may be addressed to the IR (e.g., “I disagree with the Senator”), and are thereby packaged as if they were “answering a question.” Through all of these practices, IEs display a continued orientation to the question-answer framework even as they depart from it.

Another type of departure involves an IE speaking interjectively in response to the IR’s prefatory statement and hence before a question is completed. A striking instance of this sort occurred during Dan Rather’s infamous 1988 interview with Vice President George Bush (arrowed):

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Conversation Analysis and News Interviews

As an early harbinger of the trouble to follow, Bush twice produces acknowledgment tokens (“yes” in line 3, and “exactly” in 5) in response to the IR’s prefatory remarks. Beyond their incongruity in the news interview context, they assert a right to speak at junctures that are normally treated as off-limits to IEs. Thus, while they are normally pro-social signs of attention and interest in ordinary conversation (cf. Jefferson, 1984), they take on an aggressive character in the restructured turn-taking framework of the news interview.

Bush’s subsequent and more substantial interjection is preceded by a request for permission to speak (“may I answer that” in line 7). Moreover, within this request he prospectively—and rather disingenuously—characterizes what he seeks to do under the rubric of “answering.” He subsequently reinvokes this normatively sanctioned label as he battles for the opportunity to respond (13, 15). So here again, an orientation to the normative question-answer framework persists even as it is breached.

In summary, relative to ordinary conversation, turn-taking in the news interview entails a massive reduction in the density of opportunities for action, and in the repertoire of actions available to the participants. Although the question-answer framework is superficially similar to other forms of institutional talk—for example, courtroom examinations and classroom lessons—it takes a discriminably different form here. The elaborated questioning and answering turns contrast with the more minimal turns of courtroom examinations (cf. Atkinson & Drew, 1979), while the absence of third-turn receipt tokens contrasts with the evaluative responses found in classroom lessons (cf. Mehan, 1979). These differences can be traced to setting-specific tasks and constraints, such as the journalistic norms of neutralism and adversarialness and the production of talk for an overhearing audience (Heritage, 1985). Thus, while the rule that summarizes this framework is concise and shared by other forms of talk, its realization is highly particular and is a distinguishing feature of journalistic interviewing in a mass communication context.

Question Design and Journalistic Norms: Neutralism

The design of questions has been the most thoroughly researched area within the field of news interview research. Researchers have examined a wide range of recurrent questioning practices and explored how those practices are intertwined with journalistic tasks and the professional norms that bear on them, most notably neutralism and adversarialness.

Consistent with the ideal of objectivity, broadcast journalists are supposed to remain impartial and thus avoid actions that are biased or express their own points of view. Although absolute neutrality is an unattainable ideal, news interviewers strive to maintain a formally neutral or “neutralistic” posture in a variety of ways. A semblance of neutralism is achieved through the turn-taking system sketched above—that is, by IRs adhering to the activity of questioning and avoiding other actions that are not accountable as “seeking information.” As noted above, even third-turn receipt tokens (e.g., uh huh, yeah, oh, okay, right), which may indicate acceptance of or agreement with prior speakers’ remarks, are systematically absent in news interviews.

A neutralistic posture is further maintained through the design of questions themselves (Clayman, 1992, 1988; Clayman & Heritage, 2002b, ch. 5). This process is most conspicuous whenever journalists depart from the safety of interrogative syntax (which as the default method of questioning is normally neutralistic) to produce declarative assertions that could be taken as expressing a point of view. Recurrently at such moments, journalists work to separate themselves from the expressed views by attributing them to a third party. This neutralistic footing (Goffman, 1981) is exemplified in the following exchange where Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain is accused of spreading fear of Islam and Sharia law in the United States (lines 1–11). This attack is not expressed by the IR on her own behalf; it is attributed to U.S. Governor Chris Christie through a video clip (7–8), and also through prior and subsequent assertions (4–5, 10­–11) that explicitly underscore the third-party origins of the attack (“Governor Christie has said …,” “he’s saying that …”).

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Conversation Analysis and News Interviews

Not only does the journalist make a special point of indicating that this view belongs to Christie, but she also refrains from endorsing, rejecting, or commenting on that view. In this way, she casts herself as impartially invoking the opinions of a third party. Furthermore, this attack is not advanced as a self-sufficient action in its own right. The IR proceeds to deliver an interrogatively framed question (line 12) soliciting the IE’s response, which retroactively casts the prior material as preliminary “background information” for an ostensibly information-seeking question.

The salience of neutralism as a concern is apparent in cases where IRs shift footings selectively over the course of a turn at talk. Consider this excerpt from an interview with Senator Robert Dole, then the Senate majority leader for the Republican Party:

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Conversation Analysis and News Interviews

The initial statement beginning at arrow 1—that Reagan was elected “thirteen months ago” in “an enormous landslide”—reports a concrete historical fact and a matter of public record, and this fact is asserted straightforwardly. In contrast, the subsequent claim that Reagan’s programs are “in trouble” (beginning at arrow 2) and the suggestion that Dole is to blame for this (beginning at arrow 3) are by comparison matters of judgment and interpretation. Correspondingly, the IR distances himself from these latter assertions, first by means of the passive voice with agent deletion (“it is said”), and second by attribution to “some people at the White House” (arrow 3).

IRs may also change footing selectively over the course of a single sentence, such that a contentious word or two is singled out for attribution. In the next example, although the IR begins (at lines 1–2 below) by attributing an upcoming viewpoint in its entirety to a third party (“the ambassador”), this footing is later renewed in subsequent talk (line 6, arrowed) just prior to a specific term (“collaborator”), which is reattributed to that party.

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Conversation Analysis and News Interviews

The term collaborator, used as a way of characterizing black leaders who negotiate with the South African government, has strong negative overtones. It is precisely this contentious term that the IR disavows, in addition to the overall viewpoint of which it is a part, and this stance is subsequently validated by the IE (“The ambassador has it wrong” in line 8).

Quantitative studies indicate that the overwhelming majority (>90%) of interviewer contributions in both U.S. (Heritage & Roth, 1995) and U.K. (Tolson, 2012) news interviews are neutralistically framed. Although the norm of neutralism is very broadly relevant in Anglo-American news interviews, it may not be universal. One possible boundary condition for the applicability of this norm is the domain of mainstream politics and “legitimate controversy” within which journalists are compelled toward routine procedures of objectivity (Hallin, 1984). Beyond this domain, in areas seen as consensually admirable or deviant, journalists may be less bound by neutralism and more willing to offer unvarnished assertions of praise or condemnation (Liebes, Kampf, & Blum-Kulka, 2008). A similar orientation to societal consensus may license interviewers to correct factual errors and obviously false statements by interviewees (cf. Montgomery, 2011).

Finally, it bears emphasis that adherence to a formally neutralistic posture is no guarantee of absolute neutrality. Efforts to test for partisan bias in the distribution of questioning practices have met with some success, with bias documented in Dutch (Huls & Varwijk, 2011) and Italian (Gnisci et al., 2013; Gnisci, Van Dalen, & Di Conza, 2014) but not in Swedish (Ekström et al., 2013) national contexts.

Question Design and Journalistic Norms: Adversarialness

No question is neutral in an absolute sense. Inevitably, questions set agendas for response, focusing the media spotlight on certain topics and issues rather than others and thereby treating those as relevantly “question-able.” They can also (as noted earlier in the discussion of question prefaces) assert propositions and encode presuppositions. And they can even display expectations or preferences about the type of answer that will or should be forthcoming. These three dimensions of question design (setting agendas, proposing and presupposing, displaying response preferences) are exploited by IRs to address another journalistic norm, which is to be adversarial in the treatment of politicians and other public figures. Consistent with the ideal of the press as an independent watchdog and a counterweight to official power, public figures should not be permitted to speak without constraint or transform the news interview into their own personal soapbox. This ideal—providing an adversarial counterweight to their powerful guests—is implemented through the aforementioned dimensions of question design (Clayman & Heritage, 2002b, ch. 6).

Setting Agendas

Questions set agendas that recipients are obliged to address. The agenda set by a question encompasses two analytically distinct components: (1) the topical domain raised by a question, and (2) the action that is called for in response (yes/no or their equivalent for yes/no questions, statements of who, what, when, etc. for wh-type questions; see Raymond (2003)). The topic/action distinction is highlighted in the following example, where British Prime Minister Edward Heath is asked whether he likes his political rival, Harold Wilson (line 1). Heath’s response (3–8) addresses the general topic of the question—Wilson—but does not address the action it solicits, namely, confirmation that he likes (or doesn’t like) Wilson. This prompts two follow-up questions pressing Heath for a more responsive answer:

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Conversation Analysis and News Interviews

As this case illustrates, recipients may sidestep either the topic or the action agenda set by an initial question, but they can be held accountable for not answering in subsequent follow-up questions.

The question’s agenda may be further narrowed and tightened by means of question prefaces, which may be formulated so as to reduce the IE’s freedom to maneuver. Consider this question to Margaret Thatcher on the circumstances under which she would have England join the European exchange rate mechanism.

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Conversation Analysis and News Interviews

The preface (lines 1–4) prepares for this question by contrasting prior remarks by Thatcher concerning entry “when the time is right” with an unflattering interpretation of that statement as meaning “never.” This portrays Thatcher’s prior remarks on this matter as designedly vague and indeed misleading regarding her true intentions. As a context for the ensuing question (5–6), this preface works to disallow any response along the lines of “when the time is right” by prospectively casting such a response as evasive. Here, then, the preface helps to set the agenda in a particularly confining way.

Encoding Presuppositions

A second vehicle for enacting adversarialness involves incorporating presuppositions—propositions that are not the primary focus of inquiry but are nonetheless assumed to be true—into the design of a question (Clayman & Heritage, 2002b, pp. 203–208; Harris, 1986; Stivers & Hayashi, 2010). These may be asserted explicitly in the prefatory lead-up to a question (e.g., example 1 above), or they may remain an entirely tacit presumption of a question. Consider this question from an interview with Arthur Scargill of Britain’s National Union of Mineworkers. By asking about “the difference” between his Marxism and the views of a political opponent, this question presupposes that Scargill is indeed a Marxist.

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Conversation Analysis and News Interviews

Unlike questions seeking to establish that Scargill is a Marxist (e.g., “Do you consider yourself to be a Marxist?”), this question takes that as an already established fact. And since that fact is undesirable to the IE, the question that presupposes it is clearly adversarial in its import.

When such information is presupposed and sufficiently embedded, then any response that actually addresses the agenda of the question would also confirm the undesirable presupposition. Conversely, countering the presupposition can be difficult because doing so requires departing from the question’s agenda. It is this dilemma—having to choose between two problematic lines of response—that makes presuppositionally loaded questions awkward for public figures. In the preceding example, the recipient chooses to sidestep the question’s agenda in order to counter its premise, and he finesses the maneuver by framing his response (“the difference is”) as if it were a straightforward answer.

Response Preferences

Finally, questions can invite or “prefer” a particular answer. This can be seen most clearly in the case of yes/no questions, which are unavoidably tilted in favor of either a yes- or a no-type answer, as indicated in Table 1.

Table 1. Question design and preference

Format

Example

Preferred answer

Straight interrogative

Do you support that policy?

yes

Positive assertion + tag

You support that policy, don’t you?

yes

Negative assertion + tag

You don’t support that policy, do you?

no

B-event statement (pos)

You support that policy.

yes

B-event statement (neg)

You don’t support that policy.

no

Negative interrogative

Don’t you support that policy?

yes

Among these various grammatical forms, the negative interrogative—that is, those incorporating a negative into the copula—stands out as most powerful in its push for a particular answer (Heritage, 2002). For instance (arrowed):

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Conversation Analysis and News Interviews

This grammatical form leans so heavily in favor of a yes answer that it is recurrently treated as embodying a viewpoint to be agreed/disagreed with (e.g., line 6: “I do not agree with you …”) rather than a question to be answered.

A pronounced level of preference can also be encoded in question prefaces. Consider the following question to President Reagan on defense expenditures in Excerpt 14:

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Conversation Analysis and News Interviews

Here the preface (lines 1–12) presents a very long list of weapons failures, all of which strongly favor a “no” answer to the subsequent question about whether a large arms buildup is money well spent. Question prefaces, like negative interrogatives and allied practices, exert pressure on the public figure to answer in a particular way, and when that pressure runs contrary to the public figure’s interests—as in Excerpt 14, where the president is being pushed to admit that huge defense outlays have not been well spent—such practices are also adversarial.

The adversarialness norm has boundary conditions that are narrower than the conditions for neutralism. The norm is activated when the independent watchdog ideal becomes salient, hence in interviews with politicians and other elite newsmakers. Political candidates receive particularly vigorous interrogative scrutiny, and campaign interviews have played an important gatekeeping role in recent U.S. elections (Clayman & Romaniuk, 2011). Conversely, the norm appears to be less relevant in interviews with nonpartisan technical experts and ordinary persons (Montgomery, 2007, 2010).

Even when it is situationally relevant, adversarialness is more variably enacted than neutralism. In the U.S. context, it characterizes only a plurality of questions asked in presidential news conferences (Clayman et al., 2006), and tends to be deployed disproportionately under certain conditions. Specifically, questions to the president are more adversarial on domestic issues as compared with foreign affairs or national security, during downturns in the business cycle, and during presidents’ second terms in office (Clayman et al., 2007). From a historical vantage point, vigorous questioning has grown substantially more commonplace since the early 1970s (Clayman et al., 2006, 2010; Heritage & Clayman, 2013), a pattern strongly indicative of a more adversarial relationship between press and state. Similar trends, albeit within different historical time frames, have been documented in Israel (Kampf & Daskal, 2011) and Saudi Arabia (Alfahad, 2015b). Nevertheless, in the broader context of journalistic work practices, adversarialness may be less prominent in news interviews than in subsequent story-based news coverage that interviews receive (Eriksson, 2011a; Eriksson & Östman, 2013).

Designing Answers: Responsive and Resistant

Relative to research on question design, research on the design of answers is less fully developed. Substantial attention has been devoted to resistance—that is, responses that decline to fully address the topical or action agenda of the question, or shift to a different agenda, or both (Bull, 1994; Bull & Mayer, 1993; Clayman & Heritage, 2002b; Ekström, 2009; Greatbatch, 1986; Harris, 1991).

Resistant responses are attractive to interviewees because they enable them to exert agency and stay “on message” in a context where interviewers normally control the discussion agenda. But they are also risky, because they subvert the question-answer norm and usurp the interviewer’s role and prerogatives. The risks include attracting pointed follow-up questions from interviewers (Greatbatch, 1986; Romaniuk, 2013b), negative inferences from audience members about ulterior motives underlying the “evasion,” and later unfavorable publicity should the act of “evasion” live on in quotations, soundbites, and hostile news commentary (Clayman, 1990).

Against this backdrop, resistant responses tend to be designed in such a way as to minimize these various risks (Clayman & Heritage, 2002b, ch. 7). The resources for managing resistance vary depending on the overtness or explicitness with which it is undertaken.

When resistance is overt, the interviewee can take explicit steps to minimize the damage that it might otherwise cause. Various forms of damage control may be distinguished.

Showing Deference to the Interviewer

Resistant responses may be launched with requests for permission, as well as “token” requests (examined earlier in the discussion of turn-taking departures). For example, in a 1993 interview concerning health care reform, the IE—an insurance industry executive—is asked whether anti-reform TV ads disclose the fact that they were paid for by the insurance industry (Excerpt 15, lines 1–4). She answers this question in the affirmative (5–9), but she then goes on (first arrow) to seek permission to comment on an issue raised earlier in the program by a reform proponent (“Ron”). When the IR grants permission (second arrow), she proceeds to address this other issue.

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Conversation Analysis and News Interviews

Whether they are “genuine” or “pro forma,” such requests openly acknowledge the fact that a departure from the question’s agenda is being pursued. At the same time, they mitigate the threat to the IR’s prerogatives by deferring to the IR as the de facto discussion leader.

Minimizing the Departure

Requests for permission often have an additional mitigating feature: they contain formulations that downplay the departure by portraying it as insubstantial or insignificant. Requests often contain minimizing characterizations, such as reference to a “very quick” or “just one” point (see Excerpts 16 and 17).

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Conversation Analysis and News Interviews

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Conversation Analysis and News Interviews

Thus, in the course of deferring to the IR, IEs often take steps to portray what is to follow as a minor digression from the framework of the question, and by implication an insignificant encroachment on the IR’s prerogatives.

Justifying Resistance

IEs may also take steps to explain and justify their resistance (Clayman & Heritage, 2002b; Ekström, 2009). Justificatory accounts may target either the failure to fully address the question’s agenda, or the pursuit of a different agenda, or both. Both account types appear in this exchange regarding nuclear waste. When a pro-nuclear expert is asked about the failure of waste disposal efforts (lines 1–3), the expert first justifies her refusal to address the question (5–6) citing inadequate time to answer “all these scientific questions.” She then justifies her pursuit of a different agenda (7–14), namely, the Three Mile Island accident, on the grounds of correcting misinformation from earlier in the program. The latter justification, which also embodies an attack on the news program and the IR himself (“there was one horrible thing that happened tonight that you have in addition extended”), prompts an emphatic denial from the IR and a brief defense that he had merely “raised the question” (12–13), and then a resumption of questioning (line 15).

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Conversation Analysis and News Interviews

Accounts for resistance, which almost always supply “good reasons” for departing from the agenda of the question, are geared to circumventing negative inferences and sanctions that might otherwise be forthcoming.

Overt forms of damage control have their counterpart in practices for resisting a question covertly: that is without any explicit acknowledgment of the fact that a shift away from the question’s agenda is under way. IEs may take steps to obscure the resistance by giving it at least the outward appearance of an “answer.” For instance, they may repeat specific lexical items from the question (e.g., Excerpt 12), or they may paraphrase the question as a whole (i.e., The premise of your question is …) in a way that both enables and conceals a shift in the agenda (Clayman & Heritage, 2002b, ch. 7).

Fuzzy Boundaries and Hybrid Interview Genres

It is increasingly commonplace for politicians to be interviewed on non-journalistic talk shows. As these “infotainment” programs have become an important source of news and information especially for viewers who are less politically engaged (Baum, 2005; Baum & Jamison, 2006), officials and candidates have been strategically exploiting the talk show format with growing frequency (Baym, 2013a). This trend is part and parcel of a much broader development in the media landscape, namely, the blurring of the traditional boundary between news and entertainment (Williams & Delli Carpini, 2011).

Unlike the formal news interviews discussed to this point, celebrity talk shows are characterized by a less formal and more conversational interview style (Ekström, 2011; Loeb, 2014). The participants are seen chatting on couches and armchairs, and adhere only loosely to a question-answer framework. Hosts often ask questions, but they also make statements and use responsive acknowledgment tokens. Humor is a frequent resource for adversarial questioning (Ekström, 2011). Guests answer questions, but they may also tell jokes and stories that are only loosely tied to the question at hand, and at times they may ask questions of their own. This greater repertoire of action is paralleled by a greater density of interaction, with relatively short turns and a more frequent back-and-forth that is a signature of the conversational style of such talk (Loeb, 2014).

In addition to its distinctive turn-taking structure, the celebrity talk show interviewer’s conduct enacts a distinct set of norms. The norm of personalization (Loeb, 2015), which contrasts with the norm of journalistic neutralism, obliges the host to display interest and investment in the interview (Horton & Wohl, 2006[1956]; Langer, 1981). This norm is manifest in the tendency for hosts to portray their questions as personally motivated, and to intersperse the guest’s responses with receipt tokens (e.g., mhm, yeah, oh, etc.). In a larger sense personalization is also manifest in topics of discussion, which often come to focus on guests’ personal lives and experiences (Eriksson, 2010; Lauerbach, 2010).

A second norm of celebrity talk show interviewing is the norm of congeniality (Loeb, 2015), which contrasts with the adversarialness of the political news interview and generates a predominantly friendly environment that features the guest and their work in a flattering light. Many of the practices that work to build personalization are also implicated in the norm of congeniality. For instance, receipt tokens not only portray the host as interested in what the guest has to say, but they simultaneously affirm and support the guest by treating their remarks as unproblematic and engaging. Other practices are distinctively associated with the norm of congeniality, such as directly praising guests and their books, recordings, performances, or other products.

The celebrity talk show interview is thus characterized by a distinctive turn-taking framework and distinct interviewing norms. However, when politicians appear on such programs, as is increasingly commonplace, the result is a hybrid of the journalistic and celebrity interview forms. Excerpt 19 illustrates this hybrid form with an exchange between comedian and Tonight Show host Jay Leno and Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who was then a presidential candidate. Here Leno asks Bachmann about the Christian reparative therapy clinic she owns with her husband, and relatedly her attitude toward gays, lesbians, and same-sex marriage. Bachmann sidesteps the initial question with a joke (lines 3–5, 7), but Leno pursues the matter at considerable length (8, 10–13, 15–19).

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Conversation Analysis and News Interviews

Practices characteristic of both news and talk show interviewing may be observed in this excerpt. Consider, first, turn-taking in the exchange. Both of Leno’s main initiating actions (lines 1–2, 8–19) may be understood as questions, and the follow-up question has a lengthy preface as is typical in a news interview. However, just prior to this pursuit Leno departs from the activity of questioning to offer receipt tokens (6, 8), and he also receipts Bachmann’s subsequent response (22). One of his receipt tokens (“oh” in line 8) proposes that he has been informed by her answer (Heritage, 1984), something which news interviewers systematically avoid (Heritage, 1985). Correspondingly, Bachmann receipts Leno’s prefaced question (14). The overall exchange is thus more densely interactive and adheres more loosely to a question-answer framework.

In terms of interviewing norms, Leno’s questions are adversarial in their treatment of Bachmann, but they are also highly personalized. Leno invokes his own ignorance as grounds for the first question (lines 1–2). For the follow-up question, he draws on his childhood experiences (10–13) and his marriage (17–18) as resources for challenging Bachmann. Leno’s more personalized stance also carries over into the aforementioned receipt tokens (6, 8, 22).

This single case illustrates the hybrid form of talk show interviews with politicians (see also Ekström, 2011; Eriksson, 2010), but how prevalent are these practices? In a large-scale quantitative study, Loeb (2014, 2016) compares the structural and normative features of (1) prototypical talk show interviews with celebrities, (2) prototypical news interviews with politicians, and (3) the non-prototypical form of talk show interviews with politicians. This study confirms that when politicians appear on celebrity talk shows, the resulting interaction is indeed a specific and describable hybrid of the news interview and talk show forms, with statistically significant differences from both prototypes. The turn-taking structure is, in general, more conversational than a news interview but more formal than a talk show interview, and it shifts toward the news interview end of the continuum when the topic of discussion turns to politics. In terms of interviewing norms, the questioning is more personalized than neutralistic, and somewhat more adversarial than congenial, but in both respects the normative orientation of questioning falls somewhere in between the news interview and talk show prototypes.

These various patterns suggest that talk show hosts do not entirely abandon their usual norms and practices when dealing with government officials and political candidates, but their conduct does tend to become discriminably more “formal” and “journalistic” for such guests, and this tendency grows more pronounced when the topic of discussion shifts to matters of political substance.

Celebrity talk show interviews with politicians constitute one hybrid genre in the news interview area. Another prominent hybrid is the partisan political interview conducted by hosts with a recognized ideological slant. This form incorporates the intense confrontation of a topical debate show within a news interview framework. Bill O’Reilly’s interviews on The O’Reilly Factor are a prominent case and a subject of substantial research (Baym, 2013b; Hutchby, 2011a; Hutchby, 2011b, 2013). This work demonstrates that O’Reilly’s interviewing recurrently departs from neutralistic questioning in the service of highly assertive, personalized, and at times belligerent style of interrogation.

Hybrid genres of various sorts are playing an increasingly important role in political campaigns and current affairs discussions (see also Ekström, 2009, 2011; Higgins & Smith, 2016; Lauerbach, 2010; Thornborrow, 2010). Accordingly, the study of such hybrid genres is an emerging focus in broadcast talk research, one that captures something of the complex and evolving character of the contemporary media landscape (Thussu, 2007; Williams & Delli Carpini, 2011).

Historiography

Conversation analytic research on broadcast news interviews initially began with contemporary English and American data, and focused primarily on what makes the news interview distinct as a form of institutional talk (Clayman, 1988, 1989; Greatbatch, 1988; Heritage, 1985). The field has since expanded geographically to encompass various other national contexts in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia (Alfahad, 2015a, 2015b; Du & Rendle-Short, 2016; Ekström, 2009; Ekström & Patrona, 2011; Eriksson, 2009, 2010, 2011a, 2011b; Femo Nielsen, 2006; Fetzer & Lauerbach, 2007; Filliettaz & Burger, 2002; Gnisci et al., 2013; Huls & Varwijk, 2011; Ikeda, 2009; Kampf & Daskal, 2011; Liebes, Kampf, & Blum-Kulka, 2008; Patrona, 2011; Rendle-Short, 2007a, 2007b; Zhang, 2012), and analytically to encompass the design of specific interview genres and practices (Clayman & Heritage, 2002b; Clayman & Romaniuk, 2011; Emmertsen, 2007; Harris, 1986, 1991; Hutchby, 2011b; Lauerbach, 2010; Montgomery, 2007, 2010; Romaniuk, 2009; Roth, 1998, 2002, 2005; Thornborrow, 2010). Increasingly, researchers are undertaking comparative research, sometimes incorporating quantitative techniques to chart the distribution of interviewing practices across social contexts and historical eras (Banning & Billingsley, 2007; Clayman et al., 2010, 2006; Clayman & Heritage, 2002a; Clayman et al., 2007; Du & Rendle-Short, 2016; Eriksson, 2011a; Heritage & Clayman, 2013; Huls & Varwijk, 2011; Montgomery, 2011; Tolson, 2012). With comparative initiatives, the news interview becomes a revealing window into press-state relations and political communication systems, and the various structural and cultural factors that bear on them.

Various issues regarding the news interview remain unexplored or underdeveloped, including the key area of answers and their construction. Beyond the fundamental divide between “answering” versus “resisting” are a variety of stances that may be taken toward a question and its relevances, presuppositions, and preferences for response. In opposing any of these, interviewees may bring to bear a variety of resources ranging from response tokens (Heritage, 1998) and address terms (Clayman, 2010; Rendle-Short, 2007b) to facial expressions (Hualpa, 2012) and laughter (Romaniuk, 2009, 2013a).

Given the generalizing thrust of most extant research, varying genres of the news interview have only begun to receive attention (e.g., Montgomery, 2007). Much remains to be discovered about the inner workings of interviews with technical experts, partisan advocates, candidates, eyewitnesses, heroes and villains, victims and perpetrators, and so on. Also underexplored are the “fuzzy boundaries” of the news interview as an institutional from, and the proliferation of closely related forms in which the interviewer role, once the exclusive province of the professional journalist, is now also performed by partisan commentators (e.g., Hutchby, 2011b), celebrity entertainers (e.g., Ekström, 2011; Loeb, 2014, 2015, 2016; Martinez, 2003), and satirists (Baym, 2005, 2007, 2010, 2013b).

Further Reading

Clayman, S. E., Elliott, M. N., Heritage, J., & McDonald, L. L. (2006). Historical trends in questioning presidents, 1953–2000. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 36(4), 561–583.Find this resource:

Clayman, S. E., & Heritage, J. (2002b). The news interview: Journalists and public figures on the air. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Clayman, S. E., Heritage, J., Elliott, M. N., & McDonald, L. L. (2007). When does the watchdog bark? Conditions of aggressive questioning in presidential news conferences. American Sociological Review, 72(1), 23–41.Find this resource:

Ekström, M., Eriksson, G., Johansson, B., & Wikström, P. (2013). Biased interrogations?: A multi-methodological approach on bias in election campaign interviews. Journalism Studies, 14(3), 423–439.Find this resource:

Ekström, M., Lundell, A. K., & Nylund, M. (Eds.). (2006). News from the interview society. Göteborg, Sweden: Nordicom.Find this resource:

Ekström, M., & Patrona, M. (2011). Talking politics in broadcast media: Cross-cultural perspectives on political interviewing, journalism and accountability. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Find this resource:

Ekström, M., & Tolson, A. (2013). Media talk and political elections in Europe and America. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Eriksson, G. (2011a). Adversarial moments: A study of short-form interviews in the news. Journalism, 12(1), 51–69.Find this resource:

Eriksson, G., & Östman, J. (2013). Cooperative or adversarial? Journalists’ enactment of the watchdog function in political news production. International Journal of Press/Politics, 304–324.Find this resource:

Heritage, J., & Clayman, S. E. (2013) The changing tenor of questioning over time: Tracking a question from across U.S. presidential news conferences 1953–2000. In M. Broersma, B. den Herder, & B. Schohaus (Eds.), The changing dynamics between journalists and sources, special issue of Journalism Practice, 7(4), 481–501.Find this resource:

Heritage, J. C., & Roth, A. L. (1995). Grammar and institution: Questions and questioning in the broadcast news interview. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 28(1), 1–60.Find this resource:

Huls, E., & Varwijk, J. (2011). Political bias in TV interviews. Discourse & Society, 22(1), 48–65.Find this resource:

Loeb, L. (2015). The celebrity talk show: Norms and practices. Discourse, Context & Media, 10, 27–35.Find this resource:

Loeb, L. (2016). Talk show talk: The practices of interviewing on daytime and late-night. PhD diss. Department of Sociology, University of California at Los Angeles.Find this resource:

Montgomery, M. (2007). The discourse of broadcast news: A linguistic approach. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Romaniuk, T. (2013a). Interviewee laughter and disaffiliation in broadcast news interviews. In P. Glenn & E. Holt (Eds.), Studies of laughter in interaction (pp. 201–220). London: Bloomsbury.Find this resource:

Romaniuk, T. (2013b). Pursuing answers to questions in broadcast journalism. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 46(2), 144–164.Find this resource:

Thornborrow, J., & Montgomery, M. (Eds.). (2010). Special issue on personalization in the broadcast news interview. Discourse and Communication, 4(2), 105–123.Find this resource:

Tolson, A. (2012). ‘You'll need a miracle to win this election’(J. Paxman 2005): Interviewer assertiveness in UK general elections 1983–2010. Discourse, Context & Media, 1(1), 45–53.Find this resource:

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