For as important as a skill as we consider source interviewing, we don’t talk much about it as being something that has changed amid so many other changes in journalism and news gathering today.
In my experience working with mostly young reporters, talking about interviewing is very much an after-thought. The assumption is you got some instruction at school somewhere and some experience at college media and then refined elsewhere. But, gosh, looking back, we leave a lot of that to chance.
Of course there are resources. I like Columbia University’s four principles and there are nice reads like this from CJR and this from Poynter — then there are lots of search-ready posts like this and this.
Still, I’ve found myself giving thoughts and discussing this often, particularly with quirks of today’s digital reporting age.
Here are some tips and answers to questions I’ve gotten through the years:
- What is success?: Go into your interview knowing what specifically would be success — I need to find out this, or I want to ask that or I should better understand this — to help make sure you leave with what you need. I haven’t always done that.
- Control your time: One of the many reasons why moderating live events is such good experience for reporters is that you have to know how to manage time. You’re most often going to get half-hour or, at best, hour-long blocks, depending on whom you’re interviewing. You can’t waste their time, and you ought not waste yours. You should be checking the time regularly.
- Know whom you are serving. Chiefly it is in fact your audience. But often your interviewee is part of that audience, and remember it is that source’s story (usually). So your mission is to share lessons with your audience but you do have some responsibility in wanting permission. (Though, yes, this gets hairy with particularly challenging subject matters: there’s a difference between understanding an inexperienced organization leader and an establish politician and so how much in-interview understanding you offer them will range.)
- Be upfront: Look, depending on the source, you may avoid being overly direct about a specific question you want to ask, and that’s an unfortunate reality. Far more often though, I’ve had success saying: I want to ask you some questions about this and I’m also going to clarify the impact on your recent round of layoffs. Some will say that tips a source off. I counter that with comfort comes quality of answers. Often at the beginning of my interview (top of the phone call or right when we sit down if in-person), I will give a quick synopsis of what my honest intentions are: right now I think I’m writing a person profile on you, right now I think I’m writing a trend piece you’re a part of, right now I think I’m trying to understand how your recent challenges will impact your own development. I won’t get too cutting at the start but I will be real. I remember so vividly the lesson that a journalist should never be ‘a friendly dog in an interview’ and then a ‘snake behind the keyboard’ later.
- Start soft and big: I want my interviewee to get comfortable and talking as quickly as possible. So I often ask a broad question to set mood and cede the stage to them immediately. I shudder thinking back to my early interviews in which I’d speak for several minutes on my thoughts and goals for the piece before really asking the subject a question. That’s changed. After some casual small talk, I’ll give a 1-2 sentence explanation of my purpose and then get right to that first big question to get the source talking.
- You can interrupt: There are two kinds of long-talking interviewees. Those (a) who get excited and share (often they’ll give you more than you even were going to ask for, so it can be wise to let them talk on) and those (b) who are skilled at talking lengthily without every saying anything (these are among the most skilled pundits and politicians). Effectively they’re stalling at best or complete idiots at worst. I will think, mid-interview, if I’m listening to an (a) or a (b) person. If it’s a (b) person (or if I already knew that), I’ll take control. Nervous about guiding the conversation? Easy, use time. I say often “I want to be mindful of time” which is both honest, courteous and effective tool. They agreed to the interview, so you can say: “sorry to interrupt, but I want to be mindful of time, so can I clarify what you mean by that….?”
- Shut up, shut up, shut up: Anyone who knows me knows this was a big obstacle for me to overcome as a younger interviewer. I like talking and dialoguing. I want to share. I learned quickly (often after listening to my interviews) to shut up. Most times, save early off-record relationship building moments, an interview is not a conversation. It is an interview. So shut up and prod with questions to get the answers you want. If you ask something and you think the question make sense, get comfortable with silence: make your source respond.
- Repeat back…or don’t: Often, you’re a translator of someone’s opinions or translation. So when I’m trying to understand something, I will repeat back what I think I heard to make sure I get it correct. However there are other times when you want don’t want to over-dramatize something you find important, as a source might backtrack. So be intentional: if you want to hide the importance, just get an answer and move on. Your goal is accuracy: sometimes clarifying helps, sometimes it chases it away.
- Everyone’s favorite closing question: It’s a great one and an obvious one but I still rely on: anything else I should have asked? I’d say most times I get nothing but those others times I’ll get something illuminating, if only to see what my source really wants to push.
- Rattle off those detailed questions at the end: A good way to close out an interview, after the above question, is to check the ol’ agate or, more accurately, the ticky-tack detail questions you might want for context or flesh things out — birthdate for age, neighborhood for background, what first brought you to a geography or topic.
- Prepare yourself with repeat questions: As a beat reporter, you will be tracking trends with similar kinds of stories. So you should pretty quickly pick up a few questions you commonly want to know — what people love about your community, why they do the work they do, what their opinion is of some trend, etc. Get those questions ready to ask in each interview to build consensus. I push reporters to use small crumbs to build to bigger trends. (You might take some of these repeat questions and make them a small feature that can be replicated and from which you can pull later on.)
- In-person, phone and email interviews: These all have different outcomes so be thoughtful. No surprise, their most common time output is inverse to the most common quality of source responses. That is, an in-person interview tends to gather the best responses and nuance and take the most time, and an email interview is pretty much the opposite. But they all provide their own value: do you want just factual information and or context? Email (or text) questions are best. If you want to understand someone or uncover something: in-person is necessary. Don’t dismiss any of them, just understand your own goals and the differences in interview style.
- Be clear about being on the record: Don’t get in a mess about being on or off the record because people will use it against you. You do need to make people comfortable so you can’t interfere by constantly repeating the idea that you’re recording them but they are owed very clear ground rules from the start. No one wants: “that’s all off the record” after the fact. That won’t fly.
- Stop transcribing all recorded interviews. As implied above, listening to your fully recorded interviews is good when you’re still developing your interview style (and likely every once in a while as you advance in your career too). I’ve learned a lot about my own style that way. But doing so is about you and not, in contrast, a particularly helpful best practice for beat reporting. Certainly record interviews with high-profile, potentially challenging or controversial subjects (or, indeed, record all interviews you do for your own protection) but you need not transcribe them. It’s an enormous time suck and should only be done with clear purpose — a high-level Q&A on rare occasion perhaps. You must be active during an interview and should not dumbly rely on a recording. So keep the recording, but act as if it’s not there: develop your ear for direct quotes you want and write them down (I personally prefer typing out via laptop or, yes, even my mobile phone over hand-writing but do that for the right mood setting). Go back to your recording only if there are problems or if you want to clarify something. You need to move more quickly than that allows and, I believe, the gains are marginal.
- Sources shouldn’t be surprised. It’s a tricky topic as again there are times when you need to get your information through savvy message controllers. But far more often, it’s my experience that even when being challenged, it’s your responsibility as an interviewer for your subject to have some sense of what you’re using that interview for. So I will often close an interview or followup later by saying something like: as I see the story here is that there’s a tension between releasing open data for transparency and its impact on jobs for data collection employees. I perhaps don’t say exactly how challenging something will be but I do convey where I think there’s tension.