1. Jumping Through Time

An “ambush,” “jump interview,” “unplanned interview” or “unscheduled interview” are just some of the terms used to describe what happens when a journalist surprises an interview subject and approaches them without their consent. [1]

When talking about the history of jump or ambush interviews, it is hard not to talk about the legacy of Mike Wallace. American journalist Mike Wallace’s tough interview techniques and his pursuit of the “accountability interview” were present from the very beginning of his career. When Wallace joined 60 Minutes, ambush interviews became a prevalent journalism practice. The rise of the popular newsmagazine format relied heavily on that uncomfortable encounter with an interview subject. Wallace became known for accosting people with his camera crew when they least expected it. This model of investigative journalism quickly entered mainstream practices and became a model of what journalists could do when someone refused to speak to them.

In Canada, shows like CBC’s “This Hour has Seven Days” along with gutsy reporter Larry Zolf, introduced viewers to similar ambush techniques of investigative journalism for a brief period from 1964 to 1966. The controversial documentary news-style program was ultimately cancelled but the techniques used here paved the way for more entertainment-based news comedy shows such as “This Hour has 22 Minutes.”

“Sometimes it seems that everybody’s doing them and every story has them. It’s been in favour sometimes and out of favour other times,” recalls fifth estate host Gillian Findlay. [2]

Kirk Lapointe, University of British Columbia adjunct professor and former CBC ombud, remembers a time when broadcasters used jump interviews more liberally:

While the episodes were well reported, Wallace and others searched for those gotcha moments in television — the money shot. Jump interviews became part of the journalist’s toolbox and a justifiable way of obtaining that accountability interview journalists strive for. This brazen tactic became a model within the industry, but also paved the way for the rise of more sensational entertainment news coverage. When the American newsmagazine show Dateline NBC premiered its series “To Catch a Predator” in 2004, their investigative team used ambush interview techniques to entrap alleged pedophiles on camera.

Each journalist approaches the jump interview differently, and some are more comfortable using it than others. As jump interviews became more widely used, some feel their purpose has been devalued. [3] Investigative journalism techniques have changed over the past twenty years. Ambush interviews were the go-to technique in a time when politicians and other public servants were less willing to cooperate with the media. Nowadays, politicians, CEOs and other public servants undergo coaching and communications training on how to speak to journalists, and they are more willing to sit down for an interview with a reporter. [4] News organizations today are also more reluctant and careful in allowing their journalists to do jump interviews, and they have developed specific protocol standards to deal with these kinds of controversial investigations. [5]

Next: Vulnerable Subjects and Privacy Rights

Works Cited

[1] Jim Williamson, interview by Sam Colbert, Simon Bredin and Arielle Piat-Sauve, December 11, 2014. Unpublished.
[2] Gillian Findley, interview by Arielle Piat-Sauve, December 12, 2014. Unpublished.
[3] Ibid.
[4] David Kaufman, interview by Simon Bredin and Sam Colbert, December 12 2014. Unpublished.
[5] David Studer, interview by Simon Bredin and Arielle Piat-Sauve, December 11, 2014. Unpublished.