Should Reporters Be More Polite?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 25, 2012 – 6:04 am

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Amanda Wokurka, MA, a Communications Professor at Missouri Baptist University and Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri. She teaches media law, media interviewing, PR, public speaking and crisis communications. Her email is

Brad usually writes about how media spokespersons can do better in media interviews. But today, I’m flipping the equation and looking at three ways interviewers can do better – and that means avoiding the sensationalism that too many of their media colleagues inject into their interviews.

Can Manners Exist in Media Interviews?

We are told when we are children to "always remember our manners" and to "be polite." However, when we grow up, this seems to be put on the back burner. This is especially true with media interviewing.  Many interviewers invite people to be guests on their shows and forget the one simple fact: that they are just that…guests. 

Whether on radio or television, interviews seem to lack manners. This is not a childish lost art but very much an application of professional courtesy. Following three simple rules could be the difference between entertainment sensationalism perceived as a YouTube joke and interviewing genius. 

Amanda Wokurka argues that reporters should be more polite.

1. Don’t Talk Over Each Other:  Interruptions are more common in media interviews than anything else. The interviewee agreed to be on your show to plug a new book or discuss his or her views on a policy. Even if a debate ensues, apply the Golden Listening Rule. In other words, listen to others as you would have them listen to you. Let them talk and try to hear what they are really saying. Don’t just wait to talk, but actually listen and frame your next question based upon their answers.

Nothing is more annoying for the viewer at home than to have two people trying to talk over each other and straining for the point of the question. As you’ll see in the interview with Rep. Joe Walsh and CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield (below), the interruptions and combative tone on both sides made the entire ordeal painful. 

The bottom line is this: If both the interviewer and interviewee are talking over each other to try to make their point clear, the audience will only see it as noise and not be interested in any of your points.

2. Remember That It’s Not About You:  Many times, the interviewer and interviewee will have different agendas. The interviewer may want to trap or ask question pitfalls to try to get a controversial guest to admit something while the interviewee just wants to plug their new book. 

If you are the interviewer, use pitfall questions wisely. Try not to get too personal or the interview may appear awkward. Try not to impress the interviewee with your range of intelligence by asking complex questions. Keep the questions simple, open-ended and to the point. Remember your goal. Are you anticipating a “media moment,” or are you trying to gather information? Pitfalls can generate a genuine response from the interviewee but may also create tension – and your guests may not want to answer future questions.

Many interviewers appear arrogant by putting words in the interviewee’s mouth and not letting them choose their own vocabulary when answering a question. If the interviewee feels that a justified response is necessary, they may be hesitant to answer future questions. Begin with simple questions about the present and then ease into controversial topics about the past or future. Do not blindside the interviewee as seen in this Quentin Tarantino interview. 

3. Leave Your Bias at the Door: If you have an opinion or a prejudice against each other, leave it at the door. Do not bring it into your interview. Avoid judgmental wording. The quickest way to lose professionalism is to allow negative emotions into an interview. Take a breath and pause.

There is no scientific formula that anyone must follow. The roles of interviewer and interviewee can sometimes switch from moment to moment and all interviews are different. However, the element of consideration is something that should be incorporated into all interviews. Interviewers that display a basic sense of manners will almost always have interviewees who comply more with requests.   

Think of your interviewee as a guest at a party. Would you yell at them in front of other people? Would you make them feel awkward and uncomfortable or would you treat them with respect? The same rules apply in an interview.

What do you think? Do you agree with Amanda’s view that interviewers should be more polite to their guests, or do you think it’s occasionally part of a reporter’s job to make guests feel uncomfortable? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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How To Be a Better Interviewer (Part Three)

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 6, 2011 – 6:31 am

The previous two articles (here and here) taught you how to become a better interviewer. Although this blog usually focuses on how to be a better interviewee, many of our trainees want to know how to become a better interviewer when they moderate panels or host podcasts.

Today, I’m going to show you an exercise you can use to become a better interviewer.

The great news is that you can practice this exercise with your friends, family members, and co-workers – and they’ll never even know you’re doing it.



Let’s start with the usual, boring interview. When I ask a client to interview another co-worker, the interview typically goes like this:

Interviewer: “How are you?”

Interviewee: “Good.”

Interviewer: “So, where did you grow up?”

Interviewee: “Boston.”

Interviewer: “How long did you live there?”

Interviewee: “Five years.”

I know, riveting stuff, right? The problem is that the interviewer only asked closed-ended questions, which didn’t allow for any interesting answers.

Good interviewers know to use open-ended questions instead, which tend to elicit much more interesting answers. Words and phrases such as “How,” “Why,” “What do you think,” “What was it like,” and “Tell me about” are good open-ended question starters. Here’s another example:

Interviewer: “Tell me about where you grew up?”

Interviewee: “I grew up just outside of Boston in Newton Center, Massachusetts. We lived in a two-family home – we had the bottom floor, and the owners had the top floor. It was a great place to grow up – we had a backyard to run around in and a big, spooky basement where we played for hours.”

Interviewer: “What was it like to have your landlords living above you?”

Interviewee: “I didn’t think anything of it at the time. I guess my parents knew they had to be on their best behavior – the Furmans were an older couple and liked it when things were quiet.”

Interviewer: “Why did your family leave Boston?”

Interviewee: “My Dad got a promotion, so we moved to Washington, DC when I was 11.”

Interviewer: “What was that like for you, entering a new school when you were at that age?”

 Better, right? So here’s your exercise. Have a conversation with someone and begin every question with “How,” “Why,” “What do you think,” “What was it like,” or “Tell me about.” Please let me know how it goes by leaving your comment in the comment section below.

In the words of The Cardigans, the 1990s one-hit wonder, love me, love me, say that you love me. Show me your love by liking my Facebook page at

Related: How To Be a Better Interviewer (Part One)

Related: How To Be a Better Interviewer (Part Two)

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How To Be A Better Interviewer (Part Two)

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 5, 2011 – 6:32 am

Many of our trainees moderate panel discussions or host podcasts, so they’re usually eager to become better interviewers.

In part one of this series yesterday, Katie Couric shared five tips to help you become a better interviewer.

In part two today, I’ll offer you an additional five tips to up your game as an interviewer.


Use these techniques the next time you moderate a panel discussion.


1. Don’t Give Questions to Your Interviewee in Advance: Doing so often leads to an interviewee over-preparing. Plus, a good interview consists of many unplanned follow-up questions that react to the interviewee’s answers. Instead of sharing questions, just give the interviewee a broad sense of the interview topic.

2.  An Interview Should Sound Like a Conversation: A good interview sounds like an informal chat. If it sounds like the interviewer is reading off a list of pre-planned questions, the interview will sound stilted. By listening closely and asking thoughtful follow-ups based on the interviewee’s answers, you can remove some of the unhelpful formality from the interview.

3. Remember That Your Guest (Not You) Is The Star: John Sawatsky made his name as one of Canada’s top investigative reporters. The American Journalism Review captured his views on interviewing as follows: “The best questions are like clean windows. A clean window gives a perfect view. When we ask a question, we want to get a window into the source. When you put values in your questions, it’s like putting dirt on the window. It obscures the view of the lake beyond. People shouldn’t notice the question in an interview, just like they shouldn’t notice the window. They should be looking at the lake.”

4. Shut Up: Writer Matthew Stibbe offers this blunt advice: “Shut up! Talk 10-20 percent of the time, at most. Listen hard….Interviews aren’t scripted Q&A’s – they are intense professional conversations, and you need to concentrate.”

5. Play Back a Key Word or Phrase: Great interviewers listen carefully to what interviewees say, and often play a key word or phrase back to glean more information.

HOST: “What do you think about President Obama’s performance in office?”

GUEST: “Well, he can be a bit too cautious at times.”

HOST: “What do you mean, cautious?”

One of my favorite interviewers is PBS host Charlie Rose, who always expresses a sense of excitement about his guests. In the below clip from 1995, Mr. Rose plays back a few words to the late writer Michael Crichton.

Tune in tomorrow for the final part of the series, which will offer you an interviewing exercise you can practice with your friends and family – without them even knowing it!

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Click here to read part three of this series.


Posted in Media Training Tips | 2 Comments »

How To Be A Better Interviewer (Part One)

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 4, 2011 – 6:27 am

Media trainers usually coach spokespersons how to become better interviewees. But over the past few years, an increasing number of our clients have asked us to help them become better interviewers.

Some people want to become better interviewers because they moderate panel discussions. Others host podcasts which require them to interview outside experts.

Over the next three days, this blog will help you learn how to become a better interviewer.

There are many effective styles of interviewing: Ted Koppel is known as a tough interrogator, Tim Russert was known for being direct but affable, Charlie Rose is known for being chummy and curious, and James Lipton is known for being well-researched and sycophantic.


The late Tim Russert was known for being friendly but tough.


Four men, four totally different styles. As I said, there’s more than one effective style of interviewing. For now, build upon your innate personality traits. If you’re naturally warm, be a warm interviewer. If you’re naturally skeptical, play the devil’s advocate.

Regardless of which style of interviewer you become, some traits are common to almost all good interviewers. In this video, former CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric offers some terrific interviewing advice:

Here are five of the most important things Katie Couric teaches you about interviewing in this video:

  1. 1. Interviews aren’t about you. You’re there to serve the audience, not to demonstrate your impressive knowledge.
  2. 2. Ask short questions.
  3. 3. Avoid yes/no (and other dead-end) questions. Ask open-ended questions instead, since they elicit open-ended answers.
  4. 4. Anticipate the interviewee’s likely answers before the interview so you can form smart follow-up questions in advance.
  5. 5. Most importantly, listen. As Ms. Couric said, good interviewers “use questions as a template,” but are willing to veer off in a different direction if the guest says something interesting.

Click here to read part two of this series.

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

    Brad Phillips

    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

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    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

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