News Interview Research Paper

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The news interview is a central means by which journalists gather information that will later be worked up into finished news stories. It is also employed as a finished news product in its own right, a basic form in which news is packaged for public consumption. The latter usage is particularly important within contemporary broadcasting, as a substantial proportion of news and public affairs programming now takes the form of a journalist interviewing one or more public figures before the media audience.



1. The News Interview As A Genre

The news interview is a familiar and readily recognizable genre of broadcast programming. Its basis in comparatively spontaneous interaction distinguishes it from the fully scripted narratives that comprise most traditional news programs. The news interview also differs from other interaction-based genres of broadcast talk (e.g., talk shows, panel discussions, etc.) by its distinctive constellation of participants, subject matter, and interactional form. In a prototypical news interview, the interviewer is known as a professional journalist rather than a partisan advocate or celebrity entertainer. Interviewees are public officials, experts, or others whose actions or opinions are newsworthy. The discussion normally focuses on matters related to recent news events, is highly formal in character, and is managed primarily through questions and answers. The closest relative of the news interview is the press conference, which shares all of these features, but involves a large number of participating journalists and is held at the behest of the public figure rather than the news media.

2. Origins And Institutionalization

The news interview prototypically involves the confluence of representatives of two important societal institutions—journalism and politics. Accordingly, the history of the news interview is deeply intertwined with the co-evolution of these institutions.

Although it now seems quite natural for journalists to interview elected officials and other prominent public figures, it has not always been so. In the US, interviewing was virtually nonexistent for the first half-century of the nation’s existence. Institutions of national government only gradually became publicly accessible, and even as journalists were granted access first to the House of Representatives and later the Senate, verbatim quotations normally were prohibited (Leonard 1986). The aloofness of government officials was matched by the disinterest of most journalists. Newspapers during this period were financed by political parties and were vehicles for editorial opinion rather than reportage in the contemporary sense.

The practice of interviewing can be traced to the rise of the American penny press in the 1830s; the first papers to devote themselves primarily to ‘news rather than views’ and to employ reporters devoted to the task of newsgathering. But published interviews with public figures did not become common journalistic practice until the late nineteenth century. This new form of journalism first expanded rapidly in the US, and then more slowly in England and other European countries in part at the prompting of American journalists in Europe. This expansion did not occur without controversy—interviewing frequently was attacked as an artificial and unduly intrusive journalistic practice (Schudson 1994).

Although these criticisms would not disappear entirely, the news interview became increasingly accepted as normal journalistic practice in the early decades of the twentieth century. This development roughly coincides with the growing stature and professionalization of journalism, and the shift within government from backstage intragovernmental negotiations to public relations as tools of governance. Accordingly, the three US presidents most responsible for institutionalizing the presidential press conference—Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt—were each progressive reformers with ambitious political agendas who used such conferences to build public support for their policies. The advent of television further increased the prominence of news interviews and press conferences, as weekly and eventually nightly news programs were devoted to journalistic questioning of public figures.

In short, what used to be regarded as extraordinary has become standard practice across the political spectrum. Just as journalists were once criticized for questioning public officials, now public officials are subject to criticism if they fail to make themselves sufficiently accessible to journalistic interrogations.

3. Contemporary Norms And Practices

The news interview is not merely a reflection of journalistic and political institutions; it is also a social institution in its own right. Conduct within the news interview is organized around the roles of interviewer and interviewee and is governed by a complex matrix of social norms and conventional practices.

The most fundamental and pervasive characteristic of news interview interaction is that it unfolds as a series of questions and answers. This is both an empirical regularity that typifies news interview talk (Heritage and Roth 1995), and a social norm that the participants are obliged to uphold (Greatbatch 1988). The question–answer framework may seem obvious, but its very obviousness makes it constitutive of the news interview as a recognizably distinct form of interaction. Moreover, underlying this normative framework is a far less obvious substrate of practices that are necessary to produce interaction in manifest compliance with the question–answer norm (Heritage and Greatbatch 1991). These practices include the systematic avoidance of a wide range of acknowledgement tokens and other responsive behaviors (e.g., uh huh, yeah, right, oh, really) which are absolutely pervasive in ordinary conversation but which become incongruous in a context where the parties are supposed to restrict themselves to the actions of questioning and answering. Both the question–answer norm and the practices that underlie it usually are taken for granted by interview participants, but they may become more fully conscious of the ground rules at problematic or contentious moments, when those rules may be appealed to explicitly as a means or complaint or self-defense.

In building questions, interviewers are sensitive to two further journalistic norms which are difficult to reconcile. On the one hand, they are supposed to remain formally neutral in their conduct. While absolute neutrality is an unattainable ideal, interviewers do strive to maintain a ‘neutralistic’ posture by restricting themselves to just asking questions, avoiding all forms of acknowledgement, and avoiding flat assertions except as prefaces to a question (Clayman 1988) or as attributed to a third party (Clayman 1992). On the other hand, interviewers are supposed to be adversarial in their treatment of public figures and should not allow the latter to use the interview as a personal soapbox. Interviewers pursue the ideal of adversarialness in part through the content of their questions, raising matters that cut against public figures’ own interests, and subjecting their previous responses to challenge. Adversarialness is also pursued through the underlying form of such questions (Clayman and Heritage in press b)—for example, by designing questions in ways that narrow the parameters of an acceptable response, by ‘tilting’ questions in favor of one particular response over others, and by encoding presuppositions that are difficult for the interviewee to counter or refute. An important resource for these various forms of adversarialness are the preliminary statements that interviewers often make when leading up to a question. Such statements are justifiable as providing ‘background information’ necessary to render the question intelligible to the audience, but they can be mobilized in ways that allow the interviewer to maximize control over the discussion agenda and exert pressure on recalcitrant interviewees. The balance that is struck between the ideals of neutrality and adversarialness is a signature that distinguishes individual interviewers, the news programs on which they appear, and historical periods characterized by dominant styles of interviewing.

Interviewees, in responding, face a different set of cross-cutting pressures. Adversarial questions create an incentive for evasive responses, encouraging interviewees to be less than forthcoming or to shift the discussion agenda in a more desirable direction. However, the normative question–answer framework obliges interviewees to answer straightforwardly, so that failure to do so can be costly. Interviewers often counter such maneuvers with probing follow-up questions and negative sanctions; audience members may infer that the interviewee has some ulterior motive for avoiding the question; and acts of evasion are often singled out in subsequent news coverage (Clayman 1990). Accordingly, interviewees almost always design their evasive responses in such a way as to minimize these undesirable consequences (Clayman and Heritage in press b). They may choose to sidestep the question in an overt or explicit manner, which allows for equally explicit forms of ‘damage control’—for example, justificatory accounts and displays of deference to the interviewer. Alternatively, when evading the question covertly, they may take steps to obscure what is transpiring—for example, by giving it the surface form of an answer.

Many contemporary interviews involve multiple interviewees who represent diverse and frequently opposing viewpoints. The panel interview format is attractive to broadcasters, not only because it promotes varying degrees of dramatic conflict (Olsher in press), but also because it creates a division of labor that helps to reconcile the divergent ideals of neutrality and adversarialness. With partisan interviewees playing the role of adversary vis a vis one another, the interviewer is left free to act as an impartial catalyst.

4. Evolving Styles Of Questioning

Comparative research on the news interview remains underdeveloped, but styles of questioning appear to have changed substantially since the advent of broadcasting. Journalists’ questions to public figures have become less deferential and more adversarial during this period. In US presidential press conferences, this shift is apparent not only in the substantive issues raised within questions, but also the manner in which such questions are designed (Clayman and Heritage in press a). Simple one-sentence questions have given way to increasingly complex questions with extended prefatory remarks. Questions have also become narrower in focus, more blunt or direct, and more ‘tilted’ in favor of a particular answer. If this pattern reflects a more general trend in interviewing, then journalists have come to exert increasing pressure on interviewees to address inconvenient, unflattering, or incriminating topics.

The rise of adversarial questioning appears to have developed somewhat differently in America and Britain. In Britain, a robust tradition of government regulation of broadcast journalism, coupled the absence of competition prior to 1958, combined to foster a highly deferential style of questioning in BBC interviews of the 1950s. When the BBC monopoly was replaced by a duopoly in 1958, the resulting competition fueled a sudden and dramatic increase in adversarial questioning. In America, where government regulation of broadcasting has been comparatively minimal and where competitive pressures have been present from the outset, adversarial questioning has grown more steadily from a higher baseline. However, at least for the case of questions to the president, a sharp rise in adversarialness followed the revelations of the Watergate affair and continued to affect presidents in the post-Nixon era.

Whatever its causes, the rise of adversarial questioning has transformed the news interview into a formidable instrument of public accountability. It is now much more difficult for officials to make purely self-serving statements in the context of a news interview. However, this revolution has stimulated a counter-revolution by politicians and public officials—increasingly sophisticated strategies of evasion, aided by a burgeoning cottage industry of media advisors and consultants. Moreover, because adversarialness in news interviews is expressed to officials directly and in public, it may be contributing to a much broader development in Anglo-American culture: namely, a reduction in the social status accorded to agents of government and other institutional authorities, and a reduction in the social distance separating such elites from ordinary citizens.


  1. Clayman S E 1988 Displaying neutrality in television news interviews. Social Problems 35(4): 474–92
  2. Clayman S E 1990 From talk to text: Newspaper accounts of reporter-source interactions. Media, Culture and Society 12(1): 79–103
  3. Clayman S E 1992 Footing in the achievement of neutrality: The case of news interview discourse. In: Drew P, Heritage J (eds.) Talk at Work. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp. 163–98
  4. Clayman S E, Heritage J in press a Questioning presidents: Journalistic deference and adversarialness in the press conferences of Eisenhower and Reagan. Journal of Communication
  5. Clayman S E, Heritage J in press b The news interview: Journalists and Public Figures on the Air. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
  6. Greatbatch D 1988 A turn-taking system or British news interviews. Language in Society 17(3): 401–30
  7. Heritage J, Greatbatch D 1991 On the institutional character of institutional talk: The case of news interviews. In: Boden D, Zimmerman D H (eds.) Talk and Social Structure. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, pp. 93–137
  8. 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
  9. Leonard T C 1986 The Power of the Press. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK
  10. Olsher D in press Inviting interplay in panel format news interviews.
  11. Schudson M 1994 Question authority: A history of the news interview in American journalism, 1830s–1930s. Media, Culture and Society 16: 565–87
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