“Many People Are Saying”: Fielding the Proxy Question
A few weeks back, Washington Post writer Jenna Johnson commented on the way Donald Trump uses phrases such as “Many people are saying…” or “A lot of people think that…” or “Some people say this is a bad idea…” Johnson says this is how Trump “spreads conspiracies and innuendoes.” A key section of her article reads:
“Following the country’s most deadly mass shooting, Donald Trump was asked to explain what he meant when he said President Obama either does not understand radicalized Muslim terrorists or “he gets it better than anybody understands.”
“Well,” Trump said on the Today show Monday morning, “there are a lot of people that think maybe he doesn’t want to get it. A lot of people think maybe he doesn’t want to know about it. I happen to think that he just doesn’t know what he’s doing, but there are many people that think maybe he doesn’t want to get it. He doesn’t want to see what’s really happening. And that could be.”
Twitter jumped on Johnson’s bandwagon and dished up dozens of hilarious send-ups of Trump’s habit.
Without a doubt, Trump uses and overuses vague reference phrasing, enough so that his habit actually elbowed its way into a news cycle. Viewed in the context of our Predictive Interviewing Model, it may be that Trump learned this trick from the media itself.
We developed the Predictive Interviewing Model by analyzing more than 500 interview questions from two years’ worth of news stories. This analysis shows that the Proxy question-type is a favorite of reporters, particularly in interviews that include more than four questions.
Proxy question-types incorporate source generalizations such as, “I’ve spoken to many people who . . .” or “Many are upset over this…how do you respond?” Proxy questions suggest that the claim being made is common knowledge, or that the reporter has already extensively researched a subject, spoken to many sources, and can legitimately represent an audience’s views to an interviewee.
Research into this question type has called the Proxy question-type a strategy of reliance on faceless, secret sources that serve to create an image of investigative reporting even though it hasn’t taken place, and a way to create the illusion of knowing it all to throw an interviewee off message.1
Proxies are not the most common question-types reporters use in interviews, but it’s not difficult to find examples. Have a look at these interviews conducted by Matt Lauer of NBC’s “Today.” In both, Lauer uses Proxies to position himself as the surrogate brain for the viewing audience.
I also went back into our PMI training archives and found a Proxy from several years ago.
Our advice? If you’re in the hot seat and get a Proxy thrown at you, counter it with a Proxy of your own. Imagine an interview exchange like this:
Proxy: “Some people believe your company actively sought to skirt the law and take advantage of consumers who may not be paying close attention. What do you say to them?”
Response: “We’ve experienced thousands of examples of people who appreciate what we’ve brought to market and who couldn’t be happier. Our return policy guarantees satisfaction, so we’re ready to be responsive to anyone who might want a refund.”
And there you have it. When a Proxy is thrown your direction, using a Proxy in response allows you to deliver your desired message and at the same time, strengthens your credibility by diminishing that of the reporter. That’s a powerful piece of inside knowledge that’ll help you capitalize on your next interview.
Poler Kovacic, M., & Erjavec, K. (2011). Construction of semi-investigative reporting. Journalism Studies, 12(3), 328–343. doi:10.1080/1461670X.2010.493321
Granhag, P. S. (2015). Eliciting intelligence from sources: The first scientific test of the Scharff technique. Legal & Criminological Psychology, 20(1), 96–113.