Journalism101: The Dreaded Question

by

Reporter

Listening to old interviews this morning and heard one that made me chuckle.

Had been talking to the person for an hour. And quite abruptly, he said, “Can I ask you a question?”

First of all, I know from experience that if someone asks you if they can ask you a question, your answer should be NO.

So I was leery. But of course I said, “yes….”

The person said, “What’s the slant of this interview?”

My mouth went dry.

I hate when the subject asks this question. It immediately puts me on the offense.

What’s my slant?! I don’t know!

But the truth is, that’s a lie. I always go into an interview with a slant. I know exactly what I’m looking for and I ask questions to get what I want. I’ve never interviewed someone without a preconceived slant in my head. Particularly if they are an established celebrity.

There’s a certain level of manipulation and dishonesty that is a natural part of the interview process that some writers don’t want to talk about. The truth is, particularly when it comes to celebrities, we have to bring a dish of phony to the table. We have to smile. We have to be nice. We have to compliment records we don’t really like. We have to make the subject feel comfortable enough to give us juicy quotes.

So when the subject says, what’s your angle? I get all haughty. Angle?! Me? How dare you! I’m looking for truth and an honest conversation.

Lies.

I always have an angle.

Sidebar: This only pertains to celebrities. I don’t feel this way when interviewing “regular” folks or not-too-famous-yet celebrities who are still down to earth and accessible.

I’m also much more likely to have an angle if I know my time with the subject will be brief. If someone gives me a week to tag along, I will not have an angle. I will just see what I see.

But if I have an hour in a conference room. Or worse yet, twenty minutes on the phone while a publicist is listening in, hell yeah I’m gonna have an angle. And my questions will reflect that. (And sometimes, I am given an angle by my editor with no choice in the matter. That’s rare. But it does happen.)

But of course, I can’t admit to any of that. I can’t say: Yes, my angle is that you’ve always lived in the shadow of your mother-sister-wife-husband-producer and now you are scared you can’t make it on your own. Or whatever. That will taint the fake purity of the interview.

I’ve always wondered how other writers handle this. I know in my case, it makes for awkward pauses in interviews. (For this reason, and a few others, I want ALL my interview tapes burned when I die. You hear that TH, Tog and TG? Burn them!)

Ask a writer. If they say they don’t cringe when they listen to themselves on tape, they are LYING.)

dear readers, do you think you could interview a celebrity and be dead-ass serious about how you feel about them, (and their craft), and still get a decent interview? Do you have a certain amount of phony you have to bring to the table in your own jobs? Tell me about it. And for my writer friends, please co-sign. Tell me I’m not the only one bringing at least a tiny bit of fakeness to the interview table. And I’m not the only writer who always goes in with an angle…am I? (*gulp*)

I’d love to hear from you…

Oh! And a prize to the first reader who can tell me who is asking me the dreaded question in this clip… And peep how I straight up LIE to homeboy. Me? An angle? Never!

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21 Responses to “Journalism101: The Dreaded Question”

  1. la negrita Says:

    I tend to do the Can I ask you a question? thing, knowing full well it will cause the person to raise hairs. I do it as a warning really…so they can brace themselves for a potentially uncomfortable question.

    As for the rest, well…I’m pretty new to the game. I have only recently started freelancing so my history is with assigned stories, none of the “juicy” lot. Pretty run-of-the-mill, “you can find this in Any Publication, USA” kinda stuff. As a writer, I am uncomfortable “getting to the nitty gritty” right away when it comes to tough questions. A lot of it has to do with inexperience. The other part is…I know how I feel being put on the spot. I don’t like answering “nosy” questions from people I know well, so I’m DEFINITELY not going to answer them from journalists! I’d be Beyonce all day (re: her relationship with Jay-Z). I need to get over this quickly, though. Being a relationship builder makes this tough. I know that you have to earn trust. So how can I be skilled enough to earn the trust of someone I don’t know in the span of 10-15 minutes AND get the dirt…er, information I need?

    When I learn the answer to the above question, I will be a super starrah!

  2. Doug Moses Says:

    My angle is I’m always gamed when there is a prize involved….the answer is Damon Dash.

    As far as my business, I don’t have an angle…I actually want the customer/client to be happy. I figure they’re paying me, so they deserve the best!

  3. la negrita Says:

    p.s. I’m so mad I can’t listen to the contest clip right now since I *really* shouldn’t even be reading/commenting right now. Poo.

    Good luck to the rest of yous!

    ::closes window and goes back to work::

  4. nodfactor Says:

    I only had a slant going in for cover stories, had to. And honestly, if I haven’t developed some opinion of the subject before I do an interview, I shouldn’t be doing it. However, I try to let the interview answers dictated the slant as much as possible. Just because I went in with a “slant” doesn’t mean that is the “slant” that came out. So, my rebuttal to that question was somewhat honest: “I won’t know the slant until you’ve answered all of my questions.”

  5. nodfactor Says:

    oh and my guess is Diddy…

  6. Tanisha Says:

    Even though I am sick with the flu right now in bed, i had to laugh at this post. Of course you have to have an angle! You can’t just ask questions all willy nilly with no purpose in mind. I am always happy when I get to interview someone I like as an artist, but thats not usually the case. So based on my research on the person, I’m usually coming up with some sort of angle that will make the read interesting. Aliya, what about the phoners who tell you what a sexy voice you have? lol Or the ones that try to flirt while you are being professional?

  7. Dionne Says:

    It always get kind of hazy for me when it comes to the slant of my interview. Of course as any writer who does their homework, you will come in with some questions that are slanted, but the beauty of the interview is that one answer can lead to a totally different POV. I’ve had some answers that totally shifted the angle of the story, it’s like getting the money shot.

    When people I interview ask me what my angle is it gets kind of dicy. On one hand if I tell them then their answers will also be slanted, so they don’t come across as entirely honest. So I do just what you did – deny, deny, deny.

    Also, I find it best to ask all the need to know questions first and slide in a doozy towards the end of my interview, so that way if they get offended and just want to stop talking at least I have all my meaty questions answered.

  8. Dani B Says:

    my first guess was diddy.. but now i’m going to say donald faison. may be a shot in the dark, though ;P

  9. Tanisha Says:

    I forgot to add that sometimes the angle gets pushed to the side because the subject may surprise you with the unexpected. Sometimes an angle works, sometimes its best to just roll with it and see what comes out.

  10. Del Says:

    Definitely Diddy.

  11. Tremaya Says:

    LOL! That clip is priceless, especially considering that HE is the king of slant media. LOL!

    I think there are very few celebrities that you could step to “straight-up” and expect to have a longer than 5 minute experience, it’s just not happening, unless your name is Oprah or Barbara Walters (when it comes to mainstream celebs). However, I do believe that certain journalist can establish a repore instantly or over time with certain celebs that allows them to get the goods that no one else can.

    I personally feel like the only times celebrities really ever lay it all out is when the “ends justify the means”, i.e.: they are caught in a compromising situation, headed to Club Fed, writing a tell-all (still don’t believe most of those are 100% either), or dying.

  12. aqua Says:

    Definitely have a slant or at least an idea of where I’d like the final story to go so often times my initial questions will reveal that (only if I tell you the slant, I hope). From there I like to keep things conversational so the interview can flow and the well trained artist doesn’t slip into annoying “P.R.” mode [i.e. Yeah my motivation is…new album in stores March 24th, I got so & so on it, and I’m changing the game, yadda yadda yadda.]
    There have been a number of interviews where a significant time after we started the subject said, “Oh, the interview started already?” The story always came out great in those cases.
    As for bringing some phoniness or fakeness to the table…i prefer “craftiness.”

  13. clove Says:

    I like the term “craftiness”! I think only a couple of artists have asked me about the slant of the article and I usually try to focus on the positive: “oh, you know, album coming out. can you top the last one, etc…” I agree-having an idea of an angle is really important even if it doesn’t end up that way in the story. I feel like if you’re doing a cover story or long feature, then there’s a reason you’re doing it at that moment anyway so there’s usually some type of angle going in.

    I do think theres some degree of phoniness involved but it’s kind of part of the job. like TV entertainment hosts on TV who have to pretend to like everything (but not as hokey lol) Another related question that bugs me is when they ask how you like their music. cause you can’t just say “wow this is terrible” right in front of them or they’ll ego trip lol. usually if I don’t like it, I just go with “pretty good.”

  14. la negrita Says:

    @clove,

    The next time an artist whose music you’re not fond of asks your opinion, you should tell it to ’em (in the nicest way possible, of course!). I bet that would make for a very interesting interview…!

  15. clove Says:

    maybe I’ll try that. they’re so sensitive lol

  16. Kimmie Says:

    I’m not a writer but I can say there is a level of phoniness I have to bring to work. There are people here at my FT who straight up, get on my nerves. I’ve had to talk to them bc of my position so I try to always be polite but I swear, if they were in the same place as me after work, I would hide so that I could avoid talking to them, lol. But I think that comes with most jobs. In order for things to run smoothly, sometimes you have to put vaseline on your teeth to keep on smiling.

    If I was a writer and was asked that question, I would deny or answer like nodfactor did-I won’t know the slant until I’m done.

  17. ketchums Says:

    It’s definitely Damon Dash.

    And I’ve been honest about my opinions on artists; from what I’ve found, as long as you have a sincere tone, you’re good. For example: I interviewed T3 of Slum Village a while ago, and I asked why their most recent album (at that time, Trinity), was so wack. I’m like, “Yo, so what happened with the last album?” He’s like, “Mannnn….that wasn’t even our fault!” Then he proceeded to tell me *why* the album was wack, and why the new one was better.

    Usually, I explain to the artist that my question is something that people really wanna know, and that I’m giving them an opportunity to clear something up or to address something head-on. When you present it as an opportunity instead of an accusation, it’s usu. pretty positive results

  18. Aliya S. King Says:

    And the winner is…”nodfactor.”

    It was Puff/Puffy/PuffDaddy/P.Diddy/Diddy…

    nodfactor, hit me up at aliyasking@gmail.com to cop that prize.

  19. jay1 Says:

    i usually have an angle. i’ve tried not to though. and some time you have to be phony just to be polite. and i have been able to be dead ass with someone and still get an interview, i just pretend that what i’m saying is coming from a message board. like, “there’s a lot of talk on the internet that you’re wildly overated and untalented. how do you feel about that?”

  20. brrok Says:

    ha ha ha!
    this takes me back for real!
    b

  21. lchecks Says:

    Have you ever read The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm? It’s all the ethical relationship between journalist and subject and how it’s inevitably twisted. And how a guy took a writer to court in a famous case over acting like he was his friend while writing his book and then turning on him when he went to write it.

    I rarely have an angle going into an interview, I never know what to expect. I am as genuine and upfront as possible, and I think people who care enough to notice can tell the difference, and respond to it. I got into some strange, amazing arguments with Lil Wayne, we both got up and left the room a few times. But he kept thanking me later in the night for being so real. I told Ray J the magazine editors probably wanted me to show what a clown he is. “People see me as a clown?!” he asked with disbelief.

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