Learning from a legendary interviewer: Barbara Walters

Broadcast journalist and interviewer, Barbara Walters, passed away at the age of 93 this past week. Walters conducted political and personality interviews for over 50 years and created the popular talk show, “The View”, which she anchored until the age of 84 (Stanley, 2022), at which time she retired in 2014. Although broadcast journalists’ interviews differ in multiple ways from those conducted by social sciences researchers (e.g., purpose, treatment of participants’ identities, etc.), qualitative researchers have much to learn from the conduct of interviews by well-known interviewers such as Walters. Some years ago I came across an archived documentary created by television producer Skip Blumberg. Blumberg conducted interviews about interviewing with a number of interviewers, including broadcast journalists Mike Wallace (1918-2012) and Barbara Walters. In Blumberg’s documentary, viewers see Mike Wallace describing journalist and television personality Barbara Walters as an interviewer who could elicit emotions from interviewees by “reaching through” to the inner person (Blumberg, 1985).

Already famous as an interviewer in the 1980s, Walters described interviewing in her interview with 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 to 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—providing the example of asking the Shah of Iran what he thought of what others had said about him. She asserted 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. Similarly to qualitative researchers, Walters usually used hour-long interviews in her work and described feeling a sense of excitement when things went well. She discussed not paying people for interviews but facilitating spaces for them to set the record straight.

Some of the tips for conducting interviews that Walters shared with Blumberg include:

  • Think choreographically about the organization of interview questions
  • Maintain curiosity about the topics you explore
  • Demonstrate interest in the person you are interviewing
  • Recognize the role of the editing process in representing what people say

If you’d like to view some clips from Walters’ numerous interviews and learn more about her work as an interviewer, click here. And of course, if qualitative interviewing is a method that you use, it likely won’t hurt to follow her tips! You may not become famous like Walters, but you might just generate some rich descriptions for your research project.

Kathy Roulston

References

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.

Stanley, A. (2022, December 20). Barbara Walters, a first among TV newswomen, is dead at 93. The New York Times.

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