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A Reporter's Journalism Tips: How To Do An Interview
This Just In: Interviews Are Essential
I've been a reporter for the better part of a decade, and the two things I hear most often when I tell a stranger what I do are: "Wow, I could never write under the pressure of deadlines like that" and "Wow, I'm way too bad a speller to be a journalist!"
Now, the former may be true. Writing under deadline gets easier with time and practice, and the longer you do this job, the less precious you are about each word, but it's not for everyone. And the latter? Nonsense. We all use spell check these days anyway, and with luck, we also have sharp-eyed editors and anal copy editors at our backs.
A far more important piece of the journalist's craft is the interview itself. After all, a good news story provides information, and that information needs to come from somewhere, or someone. Even if a reporter just knows the facts to be true, or plain old knows the the significance of those facts because he has been following the same beat for 20 years, he needs to be able to attribute the words and context to an independent authority. That means the reporter needs to coax people in the know to spill their secrets to him, and to trust him enough that he can attach those people's names to the secrets they spill.
Winning trust, then ferreting out information are the first two things a reporter must do. Well, the first thing is actually to get a story lead so he or she knows whom to contact for said interview, but once the talking begins, what matters is that you actually get your subject talking. Interviewing well may be a journalist's most important skill since no interview means no story.
And as print journalism evolves to a changed world of online news aggregators and blogging, it's important that people attracted to the craft possess good interviewing skills.
The Art of the Interview
The same qualities that make a good journalist also make for a good interview. For most kinds of reporting, I believe the essential qualities are to be curious, to have a flexible, nimble mind, to be personable and to be well-informed — not only for a specific interview, but broadly so.
These qualities are important for different reasons. The first, curiosity, is self-evident. Good journalists simply want to know their W's, their Whos and Whys and What's and Wheres. They may have been snoops as children, or eavesdroppers. They are curious about how things work and why they are done a certain way. They want to understand, and questions are their means to that end.
Curiosity is also invaluable because when you interview someone, they can tell if you are genuinely interested or not. Displaying a true interest will probably elicit longer, more complete answers, and is a surer way to get the person you are interviewing to open up, and perhaps to turn you on to other ideas and information you can use.
That brings us to the second quality, the nimble mind. In court, a lawyer should never ask a question to which she does not already know the answer. I do that all the time; it's my job. That means I often am surprised by what I hear, and if it proves more newsworthy or interesting than the story I thought I was pursuing, I should be ready to abandon that first, lesser story in an instant and jump face first into this new topic.
Being personable is akin to winning trust. You are more likely to get someone to open up if they feel they can relate to you. One way to do that is to be broadly well-informed. You never know when politics or civic issues or sports will be the key that unlocks your subject's tongue, so you'd better be able to go there conversationally.
Great Nonfiction Books By Journalists
This is the book that made Tom Wolfe famous, back when he found reporting on Southern California subcultures more fascinating than fiction. He'd immerse himself in the worlds he captured. Nobody has a better ear, or memory, for dialogue.
The unbelievable true story of a Canadian boy and identical twin who doctors thought they could "turn into a girl" after a botched circumcision. Fascinating exploration of gender and identity, this grew out of an article in Rolling Stone.
With this book, Truman Capote essentially created the genre of narrative non-fiction, opening book-length works to journalists.
As luck or fate would have it, a journalist was one of the trekkers on Everest on the deadliest day in that peak's history.
Journalists are storytellers, and good journalists are masters. Leave it to a journalist, then, to make a book about running both gripping and fun.
Step by Step: An Interview's Nuts and Bolts
- Before you ask a single question, think about what you want from this person: Who is he? Who is your audience? What sort of story this is going to be — hard news, a feature, a profile? These answers will suggest certain obvious questions, and may help you focus your thoughts or guide your approach.
- Try to make a connection. Remember, no matter how powerful or famous he or she is, your interview subject is a person, too, with all the usual human emotions that go along with it. You may be nervous, but so might your interview subject. I am always surprised by how nervous some of the people I interview are. I do this every day, but most people I talk to don’t speak to the press on a regular basis.
- Sometimes you don't know what you want from the person, but you are sure they know something interesting. When this is the case, ask questions that are informed enough that you sound smart and prepared, and yet open-ended enough that you leave room for the interview subject to give you a nugget you didn’t know to ask for. Be careful that you are not so vague that you get a say-nothing answer. Remember, YOU are guiding this interview, and the person is relying on you for that guidance
- What do you do if the person doesn't actually answer your question? Follow up, repeat the question, rephrase it if necessary. If the question is important, don't let it go and don't let the person answer a different question than the one you asked. This is your job.
- What do you do if you had another question that you planned to ask next, but whatever the person just said is more interesting? Follow up on the first point, maybe saving what you thought would be your next question for later. I often take margin notes at these times so I don’t forget what I was going to ask next. The same goes if they make a point I hadn’t considered, but I still want to pursue the current line of questioning — I'll jot a note of it so I am sure to remember to ask it later.
- Do not hesitate to challenge the person on a point if you don't understand (or believe) what your interview subject just said. If the person gets lost in jargon, ask her to rephrase in plain English. And ask follow up questions if a person seems to give only half an answer.
- Remember that as a reporter, you have license to ask questions that are totally rude in normal life. That’s not to say you can be rude — people skills 101, here — but your job is to get at information, and to ask for it. It took me a while when I first started as a reporter to feel okay asking an entrepreneur how much his company makes. Bad form at a dinner party, but necessarily bad form as a business reporter.
- Keep control of the interview; don’t let anyone spin you. Politely or firmly try to keep your interview on topic.
Tools To Help the Journalist
This style guide can be found on every desk in a newsroom.
This Journalist's Style andTrade Secrets
Here are some tricks of the journalist's trade.
- I personally try to start off chatty, to win trust, make the person comfortable. I am not above playing dumb if I think it will help my cause. Nor am I above pretending I know about something I do not know if playing smart will help my cause, or if I think they will open up to someone who already has inside knowledge. I can backfill any gaps I don't understand later.
- Use silence. People get uncomfortable with silence, and so they rush to fill it. If you have the discipline to stay quiet, you could win. This is often where the person will slip and say something unscripted or candid, and this is probably the number one tactic used by journalists everywhere.
- If the subject seems uncomfortable, consider taking the conversation off the record for a bit. Get him to tell you something in unvarnished language. Then go point by point through what he has said to see what you want to use, and ask him if you can use the information or the quote it if you frame it this way or that way. Often the person is afraid of saying the wrong thing, and want some security that he won't sound stupid in the interview.
- Finally, to tape record the interview or not. This one is a personal choice, though ethics (and in some states, the law) require you to inform the person if you tape record a conversation either in person or over the phone. I personally have never tape recorded an interview after the first few I ever did. Transcribing them is a bore, takes forever, and I hate the sound of my own voice. Instead I have developed my own personal shorthand. Somehow I manage to write down almost every word a person says, often while still looking them in the eye. If later on I can't quite read my notes, I will paraphrase rather than use a direct quote.