Discover Dialogue: Conversation Analyst Steve Clayman

In any interaction a lot of the rules involve how people take turns—who has the right to speak.

By Alan BurdickAug 2, 2004 5:00 AM


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Steve Clayman is a social scientist and conversation analyst at the University of California at Los Angeles. He is the coauthor, with John Heritage, of The News Interview: Journalists and Public Figures on the Air. In recent years he has specialized in studying how journalists ask questions and how presidents answer—or don’t answer—them.

Photograph by Emily Shur

What is conversation analysis?

C: It’s a form of sociology that studies everyday interactions between people. One of the starting assumptions is that we really don’t know much about how humans interact; we don’t know what the basic units of interaction are. It’s largely uncharted terrain. We’re sort of like explorers who want to study the plant life in a new land: We collect specimens of interaction that exist out there, then systematically examine and compare them. One of the first dissertations in the field, in the 1960s, was called The First Five Seconds, by Emanuel Schegloff. It was a study of the opening moves in some 500 phone calls gathered from a variety of settings. Doug Maynard, a colleague at the University of Wisconsin, just published a study of how people deliver good and bad news—not just in conversation but also in clinical settings: Doctors are in a position of having to deliver bad news much of the time.

How did you come to study news interviews?

C: In the early 1980s, people were beginning to get interested in more specialized genres of interaction: doctor-patient communication, courtroom examinations, plea-bargaining sessions, that sort of thing. Journalism struck me as a useful world to study because interaction is such a central part of what journalists do. Also—and this is a practical consideration—it’s easy to get your hands on recordings of broadcast interviews: They’re in the public domain. We take it for granted today that journalists are going to regularly interview public figures and elected officials. In fact, we expect government officials to make themselves accessible to reporters, answer questions, have news conferences and interviews. But this wasn’t always the case. In the early 19th century, most newspapers didn’t really have reporters who went out and gathered news. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that it began to be accepted as a kind of standard practice for journalism. Not until the early decades of the 20th century did presidents first start having regular news conferences with reporters.

How does my interview with you compare structurally to the broadcast-news interviews that you’ve studied?

C: In some respects it seems similar. You and I are both basically adhering to the ground rule that says that the interviewer should only ask questions and the interviewee should only answer your questions. So the talk comes out in these enormous blocks: Interviewers usually produce long questions, sometimes with extended prefaces, and interviewees produce long answers. In any interaction, a lot of the basic ground rules involve how people take turns. Before anything else can happen, we have to figure who has rights to the floor at any given moment—who has the right to speak, and for how long, and who gets to speak next. In a news interview, there’s a special turn-taking system at work that is different from ordinary conversation; it’s our adhering to that simple question-and-answer rule that defines the boundaries of what can and cannot occur in a news interview. That seems obvious, right? Where it gets interesting is when you start asking how a simple rule like that actually gets implemented—and what happens if it gets broken. One famous case we’ve looked at was a CBS Evening News interview in 1988 between Dan Rather and Vice President George Bush. At the time, the presidential campaign was just getting under way. Dan Rather came to focus on what Bush may or may not have known about the Iran-contra scandal; Bush naturally didn’t want to talk about that. What started out as a standard news interview soon devolved into a very heated argument; by the end, a lot of the ground rules that define a news interview and make it the type of interaction that it is had been swept away. What John Heritage and I noticed was that from the very beginning of the encounter, Bush was being more active as an interviewee than interviewees normally are. Usually, interviewees stay silent and wait for a given question to be delivered, but Bush began to interject at the end of prefatory statements with these acknowledgments: “Right,” “Mm-hmm,” that sort of thing. In ordinary conversation, that’s a friendly action; it’s a way of showing that you’re listening, that you accept what the person is saying. But in a news interview, its social meaning is turned upside down—it becomes a way of asserting the right to speak at a place where normally interviewees don’t have the right to speak. In this case, it turned out to be a harbinger of trouble to come.

What constitutes a news interview is not just that it’s questions and answers. It’s also all the other forms of behavior that get stripped out that make it so—and a large amount of human conduct does get stripped away in order for us to do a news interview. One remarkable thing is that ordinarily in a broadcast-news interview, the parties do not give each other what conversation analysts call acknowledgment tokens.


C: They don’t say things like “Hmmm,” or “Ah-hah,” or “OK” or any of those things. Ordinary conversation is filled with that stuff, right? But you can look through literally hundreds of pages of broadcast-news interview transcripts and not see a single case where an interviewer says “Uh-huh” or some such thing in response to anything an interviewee has said. It’s a routine behavior that gets stripped out in a news interview context. It’s quite remarkable. One way to think about it is that the interviewer feels an obligation to appear neutral. Journalists don’t want to be seen as taking sides by saying things like “Yes” or “OK” or even “Oh.” In other institutional settings these behaviors also get stripped away. Doctors never say “Oh” in response to the symptoms a patient is describing.

In your research project with John Heritage, you’re studying a sample of some 4,000 questions raised at presidential news conferences from 1953 to 2000 to see whether journalists have become more adversarial toward presidents over time. How do you quantify something like that?

C: We’ve developed a system for analyzing and coding the vigorousness of the questions that journalists ask. We decomposed “vigorousness” into four underlying dimensions, which we’re calling initiative, directness, assertiveness, and adversarialness. Each of those involves a number of specific indicators. For example, initiative looks at things like how frequently journalists ask follow-up questions. Directness has to do with the extent to which journalists are being blunt. If a journalist says, “Mr. President, would you care to tell us what you’ll be doing next week?”—that’s very different from asking simply, “Mr. President, what are your plans for next week?” It’s an extremely cautious way of asking a question; it licenses the possibility that the president may choose not to answer. That is how Dwight Eisenhower was often questioned. That way of framing a question has virtually disappeared from the modern world. With assertiveness, we’re looking at the extent to which the question is designed to favor or invite a particular answer. For example, if a journalist asks the president, “Are you going to run for reelection?”—that’s relatively neutral. Another way is to say: “Mr. President, many of your supporters are calling for you to run again. Are you going to run for reelection?” Obviously that question is pushing for a yes answer. Here’s another way: “Mr. President, aren’t you going to run for reelection?” It turns out that anytime you put a negative into the interrogative—“Don’t you think?” “Isn’t it true that . . . ?”—for some strange reason it heavily tilts the answer in favor of yes. So now we can code yes-no questions and ask whether they have linguistic features that tilt them one way or another. In that way, we’ve been able to chart the evolution of more assertive styles of questioning over time. With adversarialness, we’re interested in the extent to which the question contains information that either disagrees with the president or is somehow critical of him, or holds him accountable for his actions. For example, “Mr. President, why did you decide to do such and such?” That’s a mild accountability question. The more adversarial version is “Mr. President, how could you do X?” Obviously, it implies that there is no acceptable explanation. Dwight Eisenhower never got a question like that; that form was virtually nonexistent as a journalistic practice in the 1950s. It’s not common today, but it’s now part of the journalist’s repertoire.

So with these little bits of conduct, then, you can actually chart a decline in deference to the president over time and the rise of a more vigorous, aggressive way of dealing with public figures. You can also isolate the circumstantial factors that predict aggressiveness. Here’s a little factoid that we think holds up really well: In general, the questions are softer when they deal with foreign affairs or military affairs than when they deal with domestic affairs; the forms of aggressiveness I’ve described are less common. Presidents get a kind of buffer or shield against aggressive questioning if the questions deal with foreign affairs. And the magnitude of that shield—the gap between the foreign and domestic questions—has remained more or less constant over the last 50 years.

What accounts for that?

C: There’s an old expression: Politics stops at the water’s edge. When journalists are dealing with foreign affairs or the military, I think there’s a natural tendency for them to feel like they are asking questions not just as journalists but also as citizens, and that affects how they design the questions. There’s been a lot of commentary about the degree to which reporters were relatively deferential toward George W. Bush in the aftermath of September 11. I haven’t looked at this statistically, but certainly one thing that seems to have happened since 9/11 is that in news conferences, questions for the president have been disproportionately foreign and military related, and in general those questions tend to be easier. Another thing that has emerged is that the unemployment rate seems to be a strong predictor of aggressive questioning: When the unemployment rate is on the rise, the questions get tougher.

Have presidents become more evasive?

C: That’s a good question. We haven’t looked at that; our analysis is focusing pretty exclusively on the questions. The difficulty is coming up with a reliable system to measure evasiveness. It turns out that answers are much more complicated to study than questions are. Most of the work we’ve done on that subject has looked at the practices that interviewees use when they want to resist the agenda of a question in some way. The bottom line is, evading or resisting a question has certain costs. It can be a bit embarrassing to have the journalist say, “Mr. President, you didn’t answer my question.” If you look at how politicians sidestep questions, you can see them engaging in a range of practices designed to minimize these costs. One case study we looked at was from the 1988 vice presidential debate, when Dan Quayle was asked what he would do if he suddenly became president in an emergency. He had a very tough time answering. The first time he got the question, he shifted the agenda and tried to change it into a question about his general qualifications for the presidency. We call this operating on the question; in essence, the public figure reformulates the question before answering. You can get away with that sometimes, if you do it very subtly. But it’s a very risky practice, because in effect the interviewee is putting words in the mouth of the journalist. Quayle was asked the same question three times, and each time he tried to sidestep the issue—and he paid a price for it.

How do interviews typically close?

C: The conventions are pretty straightforward. There are some ways in which the interviewer begins to wind down the talk; they do something like thank the interviewee for taking part.

Well . . . do you have any questions for me?

C: How long have you been a journalist?

I guess 15, 20 years.

C: Do you like it?

I do. I have found that I’ve gravitated toward science writing, and I think actually much of that has to do with the interviewing process. Personalitywise, I’m not cut out to be a press-corps journalist, for the same reason that I’m not a stock trader on Wall Street.

C: You know, I always thought that journalism could have been a fallback career for me.

There’s still time.

C: Yeah, I know.

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