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Conversation or Interview?

03/12/2018 - 09h57



Question and response format shouldn't be banalized; it demands vigilance from the reporter.

During the presentation of a collection from the Paris Review magazine, journalist Philip Gourevitch, the publication's former editor, said that the interview, in the form of questions and answers - in jargon, so called ping-pong - is the oldest form of journalism, of literature, and probably of all knowledge.

They are the axis of the "Plato Dialogues", which were written more than 2,400 years ago. "The transcription of the conversations seems to be the most natural kind of writing, even though the interview as a genre is modern phenomenon, really taking off starting in the middle of the 20th century", he wrote.

Remarks are repeated to journalists and then they go down in history. In 1949, Getúlio Vargas announced his return to politics on the Última Hora (Last Hour TV show). In 1969, actress Leila Diniz told Pasquim (an alternative periodical) what the new Brazilian woman was thinking. In 1978, President João Baptista Figueiredo presented Folha with his concept of "differentiated democracy". In 1992, an interview with Pedro Collor at Veja (magazine) triggered the impeachment of Fernando Collor, sacramented by an interview with driver Eriberto França to IstoÉ (magazine).

These examples show that the interview has its own temperature and journalistic characteristics. Without wanting to make unreasonable or anachronistic comparisons, two interviews at the Folha this month generated reader correspondence.

On the 1st of March, the newspaper headline was an interview conducted by columnist Mônica Gergamo: "'I will fight until I win', Lula said about his candidacy". On the 7th of March, an interview of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC) with film-maker Fernando Grostein Andrade, a Folha columnist: "If I could relive history, I would try to get closer to Lula".

The new "Copy Writing Manual" contains specific recommendations for the ping-pong interview: "A format that reproduces questions and responses in direct speech. It is reserved for exceptional circumstances, generally when the person being interviewed - or the subject that is being dealt with - is clearly in evidence. The transcription must be loyal, but not necessarily complete".

It is incontestable that the interviews with Lula and FHC fit into the category of personalities "clearly in evidence". In both cases, that of the PT Party leader, conducted by a professional journalist who can give a class on how to conduct interviews, as well as the PSDB Party leader, carried out by a film-maker close to the interviewee, the interviewer sought to remove the politician from his comfort zone. The reader was rewarded with incisive statements, some unexpected, and a vibrant dialogue.

The ping-pong edition, however, has escaped from the circumstances prescribed by the "Manual". In the Newsroom, it is viewed with laziness by editors and reporters, since it is the fastest pathway between the article's investigation and its publication.

Since last Sunday (the 4th), the newspaper has published 17 interviews, 11 of them edited in this format. It is hard to find so many exceptions. On the 8th of March, there were two ping-pong articles on contiguous pages. On page A8, Rodrigo Maia, pre-candidate from the DEM Party, says: "I will be a candidate until the end, even against [President] Temer". On A9, it was the new President of the same party, Antonio Carlos Magalhães III: "A Maia candidacy won't be [sanctioned] by the government".

The interviews had similar topics for both of those interviewed: weak voter preference for their opposition, an alliance with Geraldo Alckmin, support or opposition to the Temer government. Published side by side, they did nothing more than doubly bore readers.

Interviews cannot even suggest a climate of cooperation. A degree of civilized confrontation is necessary. Questions have to be elaborated in such a way that obscure points, poorly explained ideas and questionable behaviors are revealed.

The idea isn't to attack the interviewee, but to engage in conversation that brings up something new, outside of common knowledge.

Interviews conducted in this format reveal a lot about the interviewer. Thus the stress on preparation and the need for an attitude from the journalist. The reporting of the conditions surrounding the interview, the environment in which it was conducted, and the behavior of the interviewee enriches the material. Common sense is needed in deciding what is relevant and interesting to tell readers.

North American journalist Janet Malcom uses a term to describe bad interviews: "tape-recorderese". It's the syndrome of a literal transcription of recorded speech in which the journalist exchanges ideas with bizarre syntax, hesitation, beating around the bush, repetition, contradictions, gaps, non-sentences. It is literally pernicious.

The "Manual" suggests that the interviewer be loyal to the interviewee and his ideas, but doesn't need to be dyslexic, hesitant, disconnected.

A former minister used to say, with wit, that granting an interview to Folha was like riding a bicycle: no matter how secure the interviewee felt, half-way there he lost his balance and took a fall.

The problem is that conducting the interview isn't like riding a bicycle ("once you've learned you never forget"). It demands the preparation and vigilance of a professional cyclist. You have to always be in shape.

Paula Cesarino Costa
Is a journalist and has been the newspaper's Ombudsman since April of 2016. She has been with Folha since 1987.

Translated by LLOYD HARDER

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