Interviewing candidates: Never a stupid question

by | May 1, 2008 | Reprints

Publishers’ Auxiliary/May 2008

All editors and reporters likely remember interviewing for their first job. What were the toughest and most meaningful questions – the ones that afforded an opportunity to distinguish you from the other applicants? Which questions prompted a simple “yes” or “no” answer, and which ones gave your prospective boss an inside look of who you are, and what you’d bring to the table?

The same principles should apply when quizzing candidates for elective office. After all, they are applying for a job. Their answers must convince their bosses – the electorate – that they are the most qualified to represent and effectively advance constituent interests.

We’ve all been there – faced with interviewing a candidate with whom we’re most comfortable. The individual might be a business associate, a longtime newsmaker or even a former fellow employee. Our immediate reaction is to let down our guard and avoid asking the usually battery of questions.

A warning: Don’t assume anything.

Every interview should include the standard biographical information as answers may provide special insight. For example, trace candidates’ work history. Individuals who have jumped from job to job might reveal a record of advancement and achievement, or it might underscore a pattern of not being able to hold a job. Either set of information is important for voters to know.

Does the candidate have a criminal background? Editors might feel sheepish in asking such questions, but the answers might loom important later. Consider these two examples.

An individual filed for mayor. He clearly was unqualified and the filing took everyone by surprise. Indeed, it turned out he was prodded by friends – almost as a dare. Weeks later the rumor circulated that he had been convicted many years earlier of criminal sexual conduct. The newspaper tracked the story and confronted the candidate. He withdrew immediately, and the story ran on page 1. He was angered and the story was clearly an embarrassment to a candidacy that probably should never have been launched. Had the question been asked at the time of filing – “Do you have a criminal background?” –  the individual likely would have withdrawn immediately. The story could have cited withdrawal “for personal reasons,” and it may well have saved him some heartache.

Another example is not directly related to an election but underscores a similar point. An individual was named assistant fire chief and, apparently unknown to many, was a convicted felon. Several years later the fire chief resigned and this individual applied for the job – presumably as the front-runner. His criminal record as yet had gone unpublished. Imagine the predicament and potential embarrassment of those who did and didn’t know about his circumstances – including the newspaper – when the details surfaced.

The underlying point is to ask the same set of questions of all candidates.

Then there’s the job interview. Each race will prompt a distinctive set of questions, but some should be common to all races. Again, be certain to ask the standard questions as the answers might prompt unexpected and enlightening answers.

Consider a candidate who was asked: “Why are you running for county commissioner?” After an uncomfortable minute or so, he opened his mouth to reveal a set of nearly toothless gums. After closing his mouth, he leaned forward and looked the editor straight in the eye. His response: “Dental benefits.”

For the most part, candidates will be ready and prepped for the usual questions, and many will likely have written notes. The questions still should be posed.

But also try to think of unorthodox questions that will force candidates to think on the spot and delve into territory that won’t be covered at the usual candidate forums. Then, be attentive to their answers and be ready to ask the appropriate follow-up questions.

Remember, for the majority of readers, your stories will be their primary exposure to these individuals and will be the basis for their decisions at the ballot box. In turn, the decisions of these policy-makers at all levels affect numerous aspects of citizens’ everyday lives – from taxation to zoning to classroom sizes.

Introducing candidates is among the most important elements of the months-long election coverage and demands the greatest attention of editors and reporters.