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Review of  The News Interview: Journalists and Public Figures on the Air

Reviewer: Anne Violin
Book Title: The News Interview: Journalists and Public Figures on the Air
Book Author: Steven Clayman John Heritage
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 14.68

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Date: Mon, 6 Jan 2003 10:36:20 -0500
From: Anne Violin-Wigent
Subject: Pragmatics: Review of Clayman and Heritage (2002), The News Interview

Clayman, Steven, and John Heritage (2002) The News Interview:
Journalists and Public Figures on the Air. Cambridge University Press,
hardback ISBN 0-521-81259-3, x+372pp.

Anne Violin-Wigent, Michigan State University

The primary goal of this book is "to examine the inner
workings of the news interview in Anglo-American society" (page 7).
To achieve this goal, the authors contrast the rules of
conversation with what happens during news interviews. This
allows them to draw a framework for the analysis of news
interviews as well as to underline the specificities of news
interviews. Such elements are always illustrated by example
coming both from Britain and from the United States.

The book begins with a brief history of news interviews
in Britain and in the United States. This first section
shows that in spite of different developments due, in part,
to differing laws about broadcasting in these two countries,
the development of news interviews and their current state is
remarkably similar.
After this, the analysis of the specific phases of the
news interview begins, first with openings and closings
(chapter 3). Comparing these two elements in conversations
and in news interviews, the authors underline how they
differ. For example, news interviews typically do not
include greetings and closing statements are generally
"thanks" rather that "good-byes". Another element is the way
interviewee are introduced: interviewers normally mention in
what respect they are relevant to the interview. Unlike in
conversations, questions in news interview also tend to
include a preface before the question itself (the role of the
preface is analyzed here as well as in subsequent chapters).

Chapter 4 describes turn-taking in news interviews, in
other words, how does an interviewee knows that he/she has
been asked a question and that he/she should answer? How
does an interviewer knows that the answer is complete? In
this perspective, the authors describe various styles of
questioning that go beyond the straight forward syntactic
manipulation. They also explain various ways for the
interviewers to determine that an answer to a question is
complete and that they can ask another question. This
chapter also includes a very important element of interviews,
the importance for journalists of maintaining neutrality and
impartiality. This is followed by a description of
departures from these two elements as well as of cases when
the interviewee puts aside his/her role as a respondent to
become an attacker against the interviewer.

In this respect, chapter 4, by describing turn-taking,
lays the foundation for the following three chapters which
focus on questions and answers: defensible questioning
(chapter 5), adversarial questioning (chapter 6), and answers
and evasions (chapter 7). Chapter 5 examines various
techniques involved in the maintenance of interviewer
neutralism. Such techniques include, for example, speaking
on behalf of a third party (either an expert or public
opinion) which gives the interviewer legitimacy and
credibility for asking questions that could appear to violate
the rule of neutrality, or playing the devil's advocate. The
authors explain how this line of defensible questioning does
not in fact threaten neutrality as the journalist poses as
the voice of others' opinions, and not his/her own.

Chapter 6 pushes this line of questioning further as it
analyzes adversarial questioning during which interviewers
seem to shift away from impartiality and seem to exert
pressure on their respondents. The authors analyze how
interviewers manipulate questions to set an agenda or lead
the interviewee toward a preferred response. Such
manipulation include, among others, the use of a preface
before the question, negative questions (haven't you), the
inclusion of negative polarity items (any) in questions, or
tags at the end of what looks like a statement. All these
elements create a preferred answer for the question, and,
therefore, can be seen as a way for the interviewer to guide
or tilt the answer. This chapter ends with extreme cases of
adversarial questioning: hostile and accusatory questioning,
during which the interviewer steps outside the boundaries of
neutrality. As a conclusion, the authors state that "news
interview questioning cannot be neutral but only
neutralistic" (page 235).

Chapter 7 deals with possible reactions to the lines of
questioning described in the preceding chapters: answers and
evasions. After describing the cost for the interviewee of
trying to avoid answering a question, the authors give
different trajectories that are used to evade a question,
such as answering around the question (round-about
trajectory), providing a minimal answer to the question (such
as yes or no) with or without elaborating on another aspect
of it, etc. For the interviewee, these techniques are used
to shift the agenda or reset it to a topic that they prefer.
Interviewees sometimes overtly ask permission to do this or
try to justify such a move. Sometimes, however, this process
remains covert, though obvious for the interviewer and, most
of the time, the audience. This chapter concludes with two
cases studies (one with Dan Quayle and one with Bill Clinton)
which illustrate all the points made throughout the chapter
as well as previous ones.

Chapter 8 focuses on panel interviews, which are a
little bit different from news interviews but which
supplement the analysis undertaken by the authors. Whereas
the news interview tries to remain neutral, the panel
interview invites and promotes disagreement, and can even
escalate into confrontation. This chapter analyzes the
various levels of disagreement that can be found in this
situation and also the ways that interviewers have to channel
and control the situation, especially to return to neutrality
at the end of the interview. As in the previous chapter,
this chapter concludes with a case study which exemplifies
the case of a biased journalist in a panel interview. This
example includes linguistic elements discussed as well as a
note on body language and facial expressions that complements
the analysis.

The general conclusion of the book underlines the main
points. The authors also explain that the practices that
they describe are "shaped by the basic institutional
conditions of broadcast journalism in Western democracies"
(page 337) and that differences exist between program types, not
between countries. This gives their framework some
legitimacy and universality. They end the book by giving
directions for future research.

This book is a very interesting look at the behind-the-
scene, if not behind-the-mind, aspects of news interviews.
It is extremely well-constructed and developed, which allows
the naive reader to fully follow the arguments and
descriptions. This is done in part through the constant
comparison between conversations and news interviews. This
comparison makes the specificities of the news interviews
more explicit for the reader. At the same time, numerous
examples are given for every single point made. These
illustrations come after a preliminary explanation but are
also followed by a more detailed explanation, allowing the
reader to fully grasp what the authors are describing.
Another very good element about the examples is the fact that
they come both from Britain and the United States, allowing
for easy reading for a reader in or familiar with one of
these two countries. This also lends power to the idea that
the framework described here is not country-specific.
Finally, examples range over a period of 40 years, from the
early 1950's to the late 1990's, showing both the historical
evolution of the news interview and its current state.
The scope of this book and work involved in it is
already very important, but I wish the authors had used
examples from non-English speaking Western democracies.
Since they claim that the practices they describe are
characteristic of this area, it would have been interesting
to have examples from other countries. I hope that someone
takes up this venue for future research to see whether the
practices are the same in, say, Italy, but also whether they
are different in Japan, for instance. This comment, however,
does not take away from the quality and thoroughness of the
Anne Violin-Wigent received her Ph.D. in French from
Purdue University in 2001 and is currently an Assistant
Professor of French in the department of Romance and
Classical Languages at Michigan State University. Her
primary research interest is in French linguistics,
especially sociolinguistics and dialectology. She also has
an interest in language in the media, especially language
manipulation for political or economic reasons.