Why Actively Derailing a Reporter During a Media Interview Doesn’t Work​

Why Actively Derailing a Reporter During a Media Interview Doesn’t Work​

We built the Predictive Interviewing Model on an in-depth analysis of 505 interviews, most of which were conducted as part of business stories. The reason? We wanted a high-integrity data set that represented, generally speaking, “normal” interviewing circumstances. That research uncovered the six question-types reporters use most often, and the sequence in which they are most often asked.

Compared to these “normal” business interviews, the 2016 presidential campaign is serving up what I can only characterize as “off-the-bell-curve crazy” examples of how a source can win or lose in an interview. The good news is that even in the weirdest examples, the Predictive Interviewing Model is proving to be very reliable. For example, the PIM performed perfectly last week during an unusual interview featuring Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen, and CNN anchor Brianna Keilar.

One of the strongest findings in the research behind the PIM was that interviews are very likely to start with an Open-ended question-type. These questions are designed to provide sources with “space in which to construct their own response (1).” Open-ended questions can include interrogatives associated with the inverted-pyramid question path reporters are taught in their training: “the three key W’s of the story: the who, the what and the where (2)”. This question-type casts a wide net so a source can explain why or how a particular event occurred or what that event means, in order to provide context.

Here’s a transcript of the opening exchange…

Keilar: “Let me ask you about this, you say it’s not a shakeup, but you guys are down, and it makes sense that there would –“

Cohen: “Says who?”

Keilar: “Polls. Most of them. All of them?”

Cohen: “Says who?”

Keilar: “Polls. I just told you, I answered your question.”

Cohen: “Okay. Which polls?”

Keilar: “All of them.”

Cohen: “Okay. And your question is?”

Keilar: “So my question I don’t think it’s really surprising when facing a challenge and trying to make a turnaround that there would be some, let’s at, let’s at least say, some adjustments, OK? So I guess what my real question is here that I did not get to get to is what is the point of this? If you’re calling it an expansion of winners, as you put it, working on the campaign, what is it about? To what, to what end?”

This is going to go down as one of the most awkward interview intros of this or any year. But once Keilar actually got to ask her first question, she followed the Predictive Interviewing Model. Keilar’s opening question was actually four questions nested together, but the final question she asked in the handover to Cohen was indeed an Open-ended question-type.

What’s intriguing about this example is how Cohen attempted to derail the predictable opening. Perhaps he’s a litigation attorney? That might explain his combative style. Perhaps he has a low regard for reporters and thought he could make Keiler look stupid by interrupting with “Says who?” several times (described later on Twitter as a “human owl impersonation”). Cohen may have been frustrated by the experience of what’s known as a “talk-back” interview, where an on-camera subject is listening to the anchor through an earpiece. [x_pullquote type=”right”]Actively working to derail a reporter on live TV makes the spokesperson appear less likable or credible and generally leaves the audience with a bad impression.[/x_pullquote]

But was Cohen’s approach effective? It’s tough to conclude so, given the praise Keilar received and the panning Cohen received in the aftermath of the interview, which quickly became viral. The negative premises of reporter questions can be aggravating to spokespeople, but those questions almost always are formulated in that manner. The spokesperson’s primary mission is to respond (which is different from “answering”) gracefully. Actively working to derail a reporter on live TV makes the spokesperson appear less likable or credible and generally leaves the audience with a bad impression.

Cohen’s biggest mistake was forgetting that this interview was an opportunity to speak to that audience, rather than engage Keilar in verbal combat. He could have started the interview by listening to the question, then responding with a statement like, “What I think is most important for your viewers to know is this; _______”. Indeed, he had a chance to make such a response, and get moving with his key messages, but Cohen blew the opportunity when he conceded the point to Keilar by saying, “Okay. And your question is?”

The conventions of a news interview are terribly simple: reporters ask questions and sources respond to questions. Cohen’s example shows us what can go wrong when sources try to pull a role-reversal.

1) St. Olaf College. (n.d.). Open-ended versus close-ended questions. Retrieved from

2) Harrower, Tim (2013). Inside reporting (3rd ed.). [Kindle 1st version]. Retrieved from Amazon.