Writing the news story is only half the story. Getting the story is the other half.
The most important way journalists get stories is by interviewing people they plan to write about. So conducting interviews is one of the key tasks of journalism, a job that that no reporter can avoid. Interviewing is an essential skill for journalists.
Interviews may be conducted over the telephone or in person. There are advantages to both approaches. Over the telephone, the person being interviewed cannot see when you're taking notes, or whether you have a tape recorder running. This can be a significant psychological advantage in getting your interview subject to feel comfortable.
On the other hand, when we interview someone in person, we are better able to perceive nuance by observing body language, facial expression and other hints. In person, interviews also provide us with more to observe and describe surroundings and write a more colorful story.
The successful interview is depending on preparation.
Research: Do at least some research before every interview so that you understand the basic outlines of the story. It will inform and improve our story. Court records, academic textbooks, journalistic databases, the record of colleagues, other journalists and former and present associates of the person are all appropriate places to look.
Sales Pitch. Many interview subjects are nervous about being interviewed, or even hostile to the idea of helping our story. You should be prepared going into the interview to be prepared to explain to your interview subject why they're important and essential to your story, and to think of arguments that might help persuade them to co-operate.
Make a List. Prepare a list of questions that need to ask and the order in which we will ask questions. It is a good idea to start with softer, more general questions and move to tougher questions . A list will help us stay on track and to keep us away from sensitive questions. Ask basic questions first then controversial questions. Our list should always include a final question: Is there anything you'd like to add or tell me about this story? Questions need to be brief.
Request and Identify Ourself. Always clearly and honestly state who you are, who you work for and what you want to do. This may make a few people refuse to talk, but most will and when they do you will face. Be prepared to negotiate politely with a secretary.
Dress Appropriately. Dress in a way that will set your interview subject at lease. If you're interviewing strikers on a picket line, don't wear a three-piece chalk-stripe suit and a silk repp tie. If you're interviewing a business executive, don't wear steel-toed boots and a T-shirt. Many reporters try to strike a reasonable balance: sports jacket, a neat shirt and slacks - nothing too fancy, nothing to ragged. If you are interviewing religious people in a place of worship, be respectful of their traditions - be prepared to wear religious headgear if requested, take your hat off in a church. If you are a woman, you may want to pack a headscarf for this reason. If you're going to make a career of journalism, buy a pair of rubber boots that fit and throw them in the trunk of your car. The day will come when you thank me for this advice.
Be There or Be Square! Be on time. Always be on time. If you simply cannot avoid being late, phone ahead and explain the problem. . Early is better than late, but don't be so early you're a nuisance.
Basic strategies for conducting interviews.
First, break the ice. Don't start off an interview by being confrontational. Try to seat yourself in a comfortable, non-confrontational position. Introduce yourself and re-state your purpose. Look for ways to establish rapport. But don't waste too much time on this phase. You'll want to cut to the chase fairly quickly.
Use a conversational style. You're not a police officer and this isn't an interrogation. Barking harsh questions will likely get you nowhere fast. Use diplomacy and tact to present your questions in a conversational style. This will almost always work better.
Don't let your subject see your list. A long list of questions can put them off, or arouse their curiosity. Try not to let them see. Put questions in the back of your steno pad and flip back to refer to them. If you're one of the fortunate few, memorize them.
Start with an easy question. Save the hard stuff for later if you can. The basics - Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? - are always a good place to start. But be ready to ask tough questions early if time is limited. You can usually tell by context. If your subject has booked an hour and served you tea, you will probably have an opportunity to ask the tough stuff later. If she's already edging you toward the door, you might have to go for the jugular now.
Use open-ended and closed questions. Closed questions require a specific answer. Open-ended questions provide the interview subject with an opportunity to elaborate and provide explanation.
Ask follow-up questions. When the person you're interviewing answers one question, you may want to conversationally follow her lead and move to a follow-up question. Often it makes sense to move from the general to the specific.
Try to stay in control. Some interview subjects will try to "run out the clock" to avoid the tough questions. It's your job as the interviewer to keep track of time and get back to the core questions if they move too far away. Don't be rude, but try to keep the interview on track.
Ask background questions. It's important to understand the background and context of situations. So be prepared to ask questions about the background and history of a story.
Repeat important questions. Your subject won't answer a question. Politely ask it again. Maybe use different words the second or third time. It's surprising how often this technique works with otherwise intelligent people
Request definitions. Don't pretend to understand jargon if you don't. There are no dumb questions. Your readers need to know and so do you. So always ask for explanations of terms you are not familiar with, or technical aspects of the story.
Get help with a chronology. If you're writing a story about a crime, an accident, a game or a battle, it's often helpful to ask your subject to help you construct a chronology of events. You don't have to write your story in chronological order, but you do need to understand the order in which events took place in order to write about it.
Check and re-check. Always get the person you are interviewing to spell names and technical terms. Get them to confirm their title. Confirm that all information you have taken down is correct. If they say something about someone else, be prepared to check it with that person.
Save the worst for the end. If there's time, save the tough questions for the last third of the interview. That way, you've got something if your subject decides to walk away in a huff. But there may be times in an interview when you have to ask tough questions. Now is the time to get to it.
Get the names of others. Not all interviews, of course, must end with hard questions. Sometimes toward the end of an interview it's a good idea to ask for the names of others who could be interviewed about the same story. Interview subjects will often be happy to help.
Give the subject an opportunity to raise concerns. Always end with a question like this: Is there anything you'd like to add or tell me about this story? This is only fair. But it also protects you against accusations that you steered clear of a difficult topic, or failed to provide your subject with an opportunity to explain themselves. It's a good question and it helps cover your butt! Who could ask for more?
On taking notes in interviews
When you interview someone, you have to be able to transfer the information you hear to your story. You have three options: memory, notes or recording. Each have their
- Interviewing is one of the key tasks of reporting.
- If reporters can't get the story without conducting interviews, they need to develop strategies for conducting effective interviews.
- Preparation is the key to a successful interview.
- Do some research.
- Prepare a sales pitch to get a reluctant source to talk to you.
- Make a list of questions.
- Request an interview and identify yourself.
- Dress appropriately.
- Always be on time.
- When you're conducting the interview, start with gentle icebreaker conversation.
- Use a conversational style.