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Interview blunder: ‘Talk about…’

Much to my chagrin, I have witnessed several local television reporters over the past six months throw out this less-than-professional instruction to their source during live interviews: “Talk about…” As in, “talk about this” or “talk about that.” To interpret more clearly, the reporters really mean, “please explain…”

Broadcast journalism professors throughout the nation must be cringing!

In most cases the reporter’s instructions are pretty broad, not specific. For example: “Talk about why this is important,” or “Talk about why fire is so dangerous,” or “Talk about why this is such a good cause.”

It sounds very raw and primitive, and I’m not sure why this epidemic has caught on in this day. What’s even more astounding is that veteran newscasters are making this mistake just as often as rookie reporters. I know of one seasoned reporter in San Diego who takes great pride in his live reporting skills, yet he still makes this amateur error. He even starts many of his interviews in this manner: “Talk about…”

It’s hard to watch.

Live broadcast journalists should take pride in being able to ask clear and succinct questions about any subject at a moment’s notice. It’s a skill that can be a natural talent, and it can also be learned. Many reports are pre-assigned and journalists have time to prepare their introduction and questions. But in the case of a breaking newscast, reporters should rely on their improvisational skills which, hopefully, have been polished. A few practiced phrases containing a bit of intelligence and sophistication are preferable to blurting out: “Talk about…”

Here are some suggestions:

Instead of “Talk about why this is important,” try “Please explain the importance of this effort and its direct impact on the community.”

Instead of “Talk about why fire is so dangerous,” try “Tell us how quickly and how far fire can spread” or “Please explain how easily a youngster could be hurt when playing with fire.”

Instead of “Talk about why this is such a good cause” try “What aspects of this cause are most helpful?” or “Do you have any examples of how the efforts of this program have benefitted individuals?” or “What aspects of this program do you think are most beneficial, and why?”

Ask, but don't tell

If caught with a temporary mental block, ask your live sources to explain the subject of the interview: “Please explain…” But don’t tell your subjects to talk about anything.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject of conducting live broadcast interviews, but if you — as a reporter — feel you have a problem selecting questions instantaneously, please seek help from your news director or supervisor. As a news director, if you find any of your journalists with this type of difficulty, please put forth the effort to work with them and make suggestions to improve their interview skills.

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