Interviewing interviewers about interviewing

In daily life we are exposed to a range of interview types through public media and entertainment. For example, we see suspects interviewed by detectives in television shows and films. We learn about well-known people and celebrities when broadcast interviewers interview famous guests for news programs, documentaries and podcasts. We gain information about world events, politics and daily life through interviews conducted by journalists on location. In the 1970s Skip Blumberg (b. 1947) took a camcorder on the road to conduct interviews for the purpose of documentary film-making in the 1970s. In the 1980s, he interviewed a range of professional interviewers to learn about how they understood the craft of interviewing and what they took to be “good interviews” (Blumberg, 1985). For his documentary “Interviews with interviewers … about interviewing,” Blumberg interviewed a psychoanalyst, a detective, and several famous broadcast interviewers. In this blogpost I’ll share some of what his interviewees said about interviewing.

A detective interviewed by Blumberg explained that he used interviews to interrogate suspects to determine guilt. Interrogating suspects can involve playing a “game,” using trickery and deception to elicit confessions (David et al., 2018). Thus, what interviewees say in interrogations is what interrogators use as evidence to assist in criminal investigations. People’s accounts are used to determine guilt. In contrast, the psychoanalyst described the art of interviewing as “more listening than speaking.” For the psychoanalyst the interview process involves “emptying oneself” to be present for another person. The psychoanalyst shows empathy by mirroring patients’ talk, while patients’ answers provide access to hidden aspects of the self. The psychoanalyst commented that how a patient responds to a therapist’s questions and utterances in a therapeutic interview is taken as an expression of an inner self.

The purposes for which detectives and therapists conduct interviews—to determine guilt or assist in a patient’s healing—vary considerably from those conducted by qualitative researchers. Yet occasionally qualitative interviewers can become so engaged in pursuing answers that an interview evolves into a weakened form of interrogation. Similarly, interviews can take on a therapeutic form when participants disclose aspects of self that more typically would be discussed with a therapist. Lee (2011) has traced the historical links from therapy to interview practice. The idea of providing nondirective responses to interviewees in social sciences research drew on psychoanalyst Carl Rogers’ (1902–1987) approach to clinical practice. Julie Minikel-Lacoque (2019) has discussed what social science researchers can learn from therapeutic practice to inform the conduct of qualitative interviews and proposed a form of interview called the “affect-responsive interview.”

Blumberg (1985) interviewed four other interviewers: Mike Wallace, Susan Stamberg, Barbara Walters, and Studs Terkel. In this post, I’ll focus on what Stamberg and Walters talked about in relation to conducting effective interviews. I discuss Wallace’s and Terkel’s accounts in my forthcoming book, Interviews: A guide to theory and practice to be published later this year by SAGE.

Susan Stamberg (b. 1938), a radio broadcaster, is considered one of the “founding mothers” of National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States. Stamberg was the first female host of a national news broadcast (All things considered), and she has won numerous awards for her work. In her interview with Blumberg, Stamberg described interviewing as creating the “illusion” of two conversationalists without a microphone between them. For broadcast interviews, she sequenced questions to take listeners on an “adventure” or “voyage” with a beginning, middle, and end. Stamberg saw herself as a surrogate for the audience, conducting interviews about topics she was interested in and that she believed would interest her audiences. She strove to pose good questions, be quiet, and listen carefully. Stamberg sought “clues” to what she should ask next from what interviewees said. Stamberg explained that interviewing involves also listening for what people do not say, while communicating respect for interviewees. In Stamberg’s view, a successful interview invokes surprise in the listener when an interviewee does not give a set of “pat” answers. To be successful, the interviewer must figure out what a person really means—although Stamberg was quick to note that we never comprehend another person fully. In broadcast journalism, an interview of 15 minutes will be edited to 3-, 4-, 6-, or 11-minute excerpts of on-air time. Even in such short time frames, Stamberg expressed belief in the possibility of developing a relationship with an interviewee that could result in a surprise that emerges as “magical.”

Investigative journalist Mike Wallace (1918-2012) described broadcast journalist and television personality Barbara Walters (b. 1929) as an interviewer who could elicit emotions from interviewees by “reaching through” to the inner person (Blumberg, 1985). Walters conducted political and personality interviews for over 50 years. Already famous as an interviewer in the 1980s, Walters described interviewing to Blumberg as “getting people to open up,” either through pursuing a “wider” or “narrower” focus on topics. According to Walters, conducting personality interviews requires that the interviewer choreograph questions carefully to elicit the unexpected. Walters highlighted the need to generate something “special” as a way to stand out from the myriad of interviews available at that time. Walters contrasted the personality interview with the “hard-news” interview, in which the interviewer’s goal is to unearth new facts relevant for news reporting. Walters agreed with Blumberg that curiosity is an important attribute for interviewers; but more importantly she asserted that interviewers must be more interested in others than themselves. Walters reported how she approached difficult topics tangentially—for example, asking the Shah of Iran what he thought of what others had said about him. She stated that people talk with “great sensitivity” about their childhood. In representing interviews, Walters talked about including the “juice” that qualifies and explains statements that people make and ensuring that what people say is not misrepresented. Walters emphasized that she wanted to be fair in how she interviewed and represented interviewees.

What we can learn from these interviewers

The interviewers mentioned here asked questions of interviewees for purposes other than generating knowledge to inform research questions (i.e., therapy, building a criminal case, eliciting information for news reports, and entertainment) and cultivated different styles. Yet some commonalities in their approaches to interviewing may be discerned. These interviewers talked about:

  • being curious about others’ lives and sharing insights about the human condition gleaned from their interviews with audiences;
  • engaging with interviewees in a way that would lead audience members on a “voyage” of discovery;
  • recognizing that interviewees can be engaged in other activities (e.g., self-promotion, deceit);
  • understanding that any interviewer’s understanding of others is incomplete;
  • approaching interviews as amiable conversations, while recognizing that interviews are never simply conversational;
  • preparing carefully prior to conducting interviews;
  • asking questions purposefully in a carefully-sequenced way;
  • listening respectfully to interviewees;
  • using what people have said to steer further conversation;
  • recognizing the potential for editing to recontextualize interview talk; and
  • striving to treat interviewees ethically.

Although the purposes of interviewing for the broadcast journalist, the detective, and the psychoanalyst are different from those of the qualitative researcher, we can learn from the skillfulness displayed by professional interviewers in other fields. Who is your favorite interviewer? Which of their practices might you emulate in your work as a qualitative researcher?

Kathy Roulston


Blumberg, S. (Producer). (1985). Interviews with interviewers . . . about interviewing. [Film]. Image film and video collection, 1975–2006. Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection, The University of Georgia Libraries.

David, G. C., Rawls, A. W., & Trainum, J. (2018). Playing the interrogation game: Rapport, coercion, and confessions in police interrogations. Symbolic Interaction, 41(1), 3-24.

Lee, R. (2011). “The most important technique …”: Carl Rogers, Hawthorne, and the rise and fall of nondirective interviewing in sociology. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 47(2), 123-146.

Minikel-Lacocque, J. (2019). The affect-responsive interview and in-depth interviewing: What we can learn from therapy research. Qualitative Inquiry, 25(9-10), 1039-1046.

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