Assessing the Motives of our Interviewees

“Go on, order anything you want.”

Bhuvan’s eyes lit up at the suggestion. I watched him begin to survey his options, craning his neck around to see the stalls to his back. There were 360 degrees worth at the Select City Mall Food Court, and all were doing their best to tempt customers with their neon signs, greasy aromas, and 2 for 1 deals.

And what deals! I thought sarcastically.

The mall food was expensive, and I was already regretting my promise to treat Bhuvan out to dinner. I hoped to god he wouldn’t pick anything too pricey.

“Pizza.” He said firmly. “…with the peppers on top.”

I went over to the pizza cashier to assess the damage. 300 rupees. Okay. Not too bad considering he could have gone for KFC’s new curry chicken combo. I rounded out the order with the cheapest coffee available, from a joint called Mad over Donuts. I didn’t want to be the only person at the table empty-handed.  

Accompanying Bhuvan at the table was Prateek, his cricket trainer. I was interviewing the two of them for our story on what it takes to become a professional cricket player in India. It was a solid interview. But then, as we were wrapping up, and Bhuvan wiped the cheese from his pizza fingers, Prateek leaned in and asked an all-too familiar, uncomfortable question.

“So, you’re gonna mention me and my cricket academy in the article right?”

Bingo. That’s why he came.

In journalism, every interviewee has a motive. Whether it’s to get on TV, publicize themselves, bash an opponent, or score some free pizza, there’s always a reason. For some, it’s the novelty in being asked to interview. It makes people feel important. On our trip, others are merely interested to find out why two young Californian journalists randomly contacted them. How did we even get their number?

A critical part of our job is to assess these motivations. The risk we run is biased reporting; if we fail to consider why someone is helping us, we could be providing a one-sided account of the story.

The task isn’t always easy. In our type of journalism, assessing motives can be a challenge. We write human interest pieces that usually aren’t time sensitive, so the news of the story is not as apparent as breaking events like a shooting, or a rape. In such cases, it’s more evident to witnesses why reporters should want to talk to them, especially if the news is sensational. Human interest pieces, on the other hand, involve character building, and asking people about their day to day lives. We often have to explain to subjects why we’re so interested in seemingly mundane details, or why our questioning goes to such depths; they might not see how they fit into the story arc.

In these 5,000 word stories, we ask a lot of our interviewees. The more we ask, the more we have to be mindful about why they’d give so much time to talk to us, or go out of their way to introduce us to other leads. To counter this, we have to look carefully at each character, drawing a map of the story’s players, how they fit together, and why they might be cooperating with us. Are they giving us an accurate picture of what’s going on?

Of course we can never know for sure — it’s just conjecture — but it’s a good practice nonetheless. Let’s use the bias-busting process to run down a short list of characters in the cricket story.

Prateek: He probably wants to help us with Bhuvan’s story because it makes him out to be a hero. Bhuvan is poor, and Prateek is the one who financially supports and trains him. That certainly makes him biased about Bhuvan’s chances and progress, as well as offers him a chance to publicize his cricket academy. But here’s the thing: that’s okay. Part our story is about how cricket kids need champions, or politically-connected sponsors, to move up the ranks. As Bhuvan’s financial supporter, Prateek’s demonstrates the part perfectly. As long as his statements are fact-checked, like in meeting with Bhuvan’s parents and past coaches, we can run with it.

Bhuvan: The kid is excited two California journalists have taken an interest in him. It makes him feel like he’s going somewhere with his cricket career, a shadow of what might happen if he makes it to Team India. Also, free pizza! We were more than happy to give it to him upon learning his backstory, because his rise in the cricket world has become the centerpiece of our article.

Raj Sharma: A New Delhi State Cricket Selector. He’s a much trickery character, politically savvy and well-known in the New Delhi cricket world. His academy, unlike Prateek’s, doesn’t need publicity. He let us attend his cricket practices, but largely ignored our questions until we brought up allegations of political corruption in the cricket selection process. Suddenly he was paying strict attention to us. His motivation? Probably that he doesn’t want us to put out any falsehoods, and that he doesn’t want us coming close to associating the word “corruption with his name.” And of course it’s great for us because we can cross check his statements with others. The beauty of politics is that there are almost always opposing sides.

Last – and here’s the clincher — we have to analyze the most dangerous characters of all: Ourselves

Why are we interested in covering the story? Are we being biased? How much are we letting the story emerge by itself?  Often we have a vision for what a story will look like, and we catch ourselves structuring interviews so that they prove us right.  The truth has to emerge organically.

If we can keep everyone’s motivations in mind, we can avoid interviewees directing the course of our story, or having ourselves steer the story away from truth to begin with.

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4 Responses to Assessing the Motives of our Interviewees

  1. jmw says:

    Keeping the story “straight” sounds like walking through a minefield. I guess if the path didn’t veer a lot it would be a bore.

  2. pH says:

    Useful read, for lots or reasons. it gives insight into your internal team dialogs; it validates the “journalism grad school” curriculum approach to this trip, as you’ve laid it out for yourselves; finally it jolts me into a reminder that a good manager needs to have the same separation from the emotional vestiture in his/her work…If you are to make a truely effective analysis of a business’ efficiency, you better get your ego and fears out of the picture if you are to truely deliver value to the exercise, and therefore to the investors.
    Thanks for the greasy pizza.

    • CA says:

      pH – thanks for shining a light on the additional insight these two kids provided that relates to our day to day roles as business and people managers. I just picked up this blog so will have some catching up to do and may drop in a few other comments along the way.
      On a lighter note Bhuvan’s enthusiasm for Californian journalists may have been tempered somewhat if he understood how popular cricket is (or rather isn’t) in the USA. Now if Morgan were as fluent in Australian or British as he is in American and French then he may be able to attract even more interest from the Indian cricket hierarchy ;)

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