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Public editor: These are the ingredients of a good interview

Soledad O Brien, seen in 2006.

Jennifer Graylock/Associated Press

There is a great television interview featuring CNN's Soledad O'Brien talking to New Hampshire Governor and former Mitt Romney adviser John Sununu where you see first hand the value of great journalism and good research. The interview about Obamacare gets hot pretty quickly but Ms. O'Brien keeps the upper hand by returning to the facts and by not letting Mr. Sununu bully her. At one point, Mr. Sununu scolds her saying: "Soledad stop this. ... You should put an Obama bumper sticker on your forehead."

She goes back to the independent research that shows Mr. Sununu's spin is not correct.

In an article from the Poynter Institute, she says her experience as a mother helped. "Having four children is good training when people are getting hysterical," she said. "Anybody's who's had a small child knows this. You slow it down, your keep your voice calm, you repeat yourself. I don't get sucked into other people's hysteria, whether they are throwing a tantrum at home or having a meltdown at work."

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Looking at the video and the Poynter article, it tells me that there is much we can learn from great television journalists. The hosts and their research staff are prepared for interviews. The best of them are ready not just to probe the statements made by the subjects but also to question their bias and their spin by understanding what their opponents or critics believe. A good interview should be a little uncomfortable at times for someone trying to sell something.

The best television interviewers stick to the facts and verifiable information from independent sources, and they keep asking the questions. They know the subject area as well as the person they are interviewing and they keep pushing in a polite way to get beyond the superficial platforms and talking points. They don't get drawn into personal attacks or debates but they keep to the facts at hand.

Newspaper and news website journalists have advantages and disadvantages. We also need to understand the facts, the biases and the other side of an argument before we interview our subjects and we need to stay polite and focused on the facts.

However, while television journalists are lucky to get a five-minute interview, we usually get longer. As a result we can ask more open-ended questions and take the time to understand.

Globe and Mail investigative reporter Greg McArthur says the goal has to be getting information and that we shouldn't use the facts to embarrass anyone. It might be difficult or at least very dramatic for an interview subject to hang up on a television report or storm out of an interview, but it's not difficult for someone being interviewed for a print story to say "Sorry I have to go" and hang up. So staying polite and returning to the facts is more important for us.

"The most important thing to do is listen. The best information comes from a good follow-up question," Mr. McArthur said.

If you want to comment on this please do so below. If you want to send me an e-mail on this or any other question please do so at publiceditor@globeandmail.com

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You can also follow me on twitter: @SylviaStead or on Facebook: facebook.com/PublicEditorGlobe

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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