The Art of the Interview, ESPN-Style

John Sawatsky stands in front of question mark on office door

hide captionIf he were a comic-book villain, Sawatsky would be the Riddler; his office door illustrates his main professional focus.

David Folkenflik, NPR

How Did Folkenflik Do?

Sawatsky had this to say about David Folkenflik's interviewing technique on the first day they sat down: "Your questions are good, on the micro-level. There doesn't seem to be a huge strategy here, in terms of using questions to build off questions to get more, to get me to go further than my normal cautious self would normally go. That part isn't there — but of course, we haven't covered that yet in the workshop."

After their second interview (and after the seminar), Sawatsky has revised his opinion. Listen at the end to hear his assessment.

What Makes a Good Interview?

John Sawatsky says this CBC interview is one of the best he's ever encountered.

Veteran journalist Mike Wallace

hide captionVeteran journalist Mike Wallace, shown here in 2005, dismisses Sawatsky's criticism.

Getty Images

What Reporters Are Up Against

The old saying goes, "There's no such thing as a stupid question." But in the opinion of at least one major television network, there is such a thing, and some of the least effective questions are coming from top broadcast journalists.

ESPN's John Sawatsky is tearing down icons such as Larry King and Mike Wallace as he preaches his guiding principles about how to properly conduct an interview.

ESPN has become a multi-channel sports juggernaut, beaming games, talk shows and news programs into tens of millions of homes. Its nightly newscast, SportsCenter, features spectacular plays, slips and punchlines — but its interviews needed work, according to one executive.

"I felt that we were missing key questions," says John Walsh, ESPN's senior vice president and executive editor. "We weren't getting key moments ... so I thought we needed help."

Walsh read a journalism review article about a college professor's technique on the art of the interview. Two years ago, that professor, John Sawatsky, joined ESPN full time.

Now, every single editorial employee at ESPN is expected to attend a three-day seminar, where they encounter a lanky, slightly awkward 58-year-old man with little flash. In his efforts to illustrate what he considers the "seven deadly sins of interviewing," John Sawatsky methodically eviscerates the nation's most prominent television journalists.

"I want to change the culture of the journalistic interview," Sawatsky says. "We interview no better now than we did 30 years ago. In some ways, we interview worse."

For years, John Sawatsky was one of Canada's leading investigative reporters. He unmasked a spy, and exposed explosive stories about rampant police abuses. He later became a journalism professor at Ottawa's Carleton University.

Sawatsky says the big-name reporters are failing to plan meticulously how to extract information from their sources, calling their process "haphazard."

"You are hoping that the person being interviewed is a good talker," he says, "and knows how to do something with your inept question."

Sawatsky's rules are simple, but he says they get broken all the time: Don't ask yes-or-no questions, keep questions short and avoid charged words, which can distract people. In his seminar, Sawatsky points to Mike Wallace of CBS' 60 Minutes and CNN's Larry King as examples to avoid. In Sawatsky's illustrative clips, King favors leading questions that generate curt answers, while Wallace's rapid patter fails to get a subject to speak candidly.

Sawatsky says Wallace and the others are better at theatrics than journalism, and that they often trip up their own interviews — by thinking they should be the focus of attention.

Wallace brushes that aside, saying he asks indiscreet questions that yield compelling conversations. And he asks, if Sawatsky is right, why would ESPN have invited him to be the keynote speaker at a conference of its reporters and producers earlier this year?

King also doesn't think the criticism is valid.

"I pride myself on not getting one-word answers," he says. "That's really rare. [Sawatsky] may have picked out one or two [difficult] interviews."

King also questions Sawatsky's ability to make a fundamental change in the way ESPN staffers conduct interviews, "because you can't teach someone to be curious."

I had been pursuing Sawatsky since I first heard about him and his work 18 months ago. He kept putting me off, saying his teaching hadn’t taken enough root yet. Sawatsky felt comfortable enough this summer to invite me to Bristol and offer unfettered access to his seminar with six ESPN staffers — three producers, two reporters and an Olympic figure skater-turned-analyst.

And now, John Walsh says, Sawatsky's influence can be seen all around. He thinks it's not long before Sawatsky's name becomes a noun or a verb that comes up around the office in association with interviewing — doing "the Sawatsky," or saying, "I Sawatskied" an interview subject.

Every day, Sawatsky shows up at his office in Bristol, Conn., to review tapes of ESPN shows. It's only a matter of time before the rest of journalism tries to catch up to his method, he says. It's inevitable, like the tides. For Sawatsky, there's no question about it.

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