Contact theSOPAbout theSOPSupport theSOPWritersEditorsManaging Editors
theSOP logo
Published:April 24th, 2006 08:15 EST
Veteran Reporter Describes the Art of the Interview

Veteran Reporter Describes the Art of the Interview

By SOP newswire

IIP`s Handbook of Independent Journalism offers advice for reporters

This article is third in a series of excerpts from an International Information Programs (IIP) publication, Handbook of Independent Journalism, scheduled for release in mid-2006.

The entire book will be made available on USINFO`s Publications Web site.

Featured below is an excerpt from the book`s second chapter, outlining strategies for setting up and conducting news interviews.  Additional excerpts will be featured on the USINFO Web site during the days leading up to World Press Freedom Day, May 3.

For additional information, see Press Freedom.

By Deborah Potter
Executive Director, NewsLab (

American reporter Kristin Gilger says, Skillful interviewing is the basis for all good reporting and writing. "  An interview is defined as information, opinion, or experience shared by a source in conversation with a reporter.  What makes an interview a little different from an ordinary conversation is that the reporter determines the direction of the questioning. 

Setting up an interview is not always easy.  People may not want to talk with a journalist, especially if the story is controversial.  When dealing with public officials, start from the premise that the public has a right to know what the officials are doing.  Experienced reporters have found they can persuade even the most reluctant officials to agree to an interview by anticipating the excuses and roadblocks they may use.

" They don`t have time.
The reporter can offer to meet at the most convenient time or place for the person they want to speak with.  Limiting the amount of time requested also may help.

" They are afraid because they think the story will make them look bad.
Treating people with respect and telling them precisely why you want to talk with them will help sources be less anxious.

" They don`t know what to say.
Reporters need to be clear about why the story needs a particular person`s point of view.

" They are hard to reach.
Reporters often have to go through a secretary or public relations officer to contact the person they want to interview.  If they suspect that their request is not being forwarded, some reporters will write a letter to the source, or call during lunch or after business hours in an effort to get through.

Once you have secured the interview and researched the person and the topic, there is still more preparation to do.  Most reporters develop a list of questions or topics, which they take with them but do not read from during the interview.  Instead, they refer to the list only near the end to make sure they haven`t forgotten something important.  The list also includes other information, documents, or photographs they want to obtain from that source.

Questions are the backbone of an interview.  They are the rudder, keeping the ship going in the right direction.  Good questions can reward you with unexpected answers, rich information, and surprises.  Poor questions can leave you wondering why you bothered to talk to that person anyway.  Questions that are too specific can lead you down the wrong trail. 

The first question in an interview is important because it sets the tone for what follows.  A lot of journalists like to begin with an ice-breaker " question that lets the source relax.  It`s something they`re comfortable answering.  It may, in fact, have nothing to do with the reason you are there.  But often it helps to establish your credentials with the source, and that can establish a sense of trust and openness.

Most of the time, the best questions are open-ended questions that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no.  They are also non-judgmental, in that they do not establish the reporter`s point of view. It`s the difference between, What do you think about that? "  and What could you have been thinking! "  While it`s important to ask good questions, it`s also important to be quiet and let the interviewee talk.  Good journalists are good listeners, and often learn the most significant information by being silent.  What you hear also can lead to additional questions that may not have occurred to you.

Robert Siegel, who works for National Public Radio in Washington, D.C., tells the story of an interview he did with a Turkish diplomat after Pope John Paul II was shot and wounded by a Turk in Rome.  His first question, Do you know any details about this man, Mehmet Ali Agca; where he lived in Italy, what he did there, what kind of visa the Italians gave him? "  The answers were all no.  After several more tries, Siegel paused, about to give up.  And the diplomat filled the silence with this, " except that he is the most famous convicted murderer in Turkey, who escaped from prison after assassinating the editor of one of our major newspapers. "  Siegel says he almost lost a good story by asking questions that were too narrow.  He acknowledges that a better way to open the interview might have been, Tell me about this man. "

Reporters can do interviews in person, by telephone, or online via e-mail or instant messaging.  Each approach has advantages and disadvantages.  Interviewing in person gives the reporter a more complete sense of the individual.  What kinds of photos are on the wall?  Is the desk messy or neat?  What books are in the bookcase?  Meeting in person also gives the reporter the ability to judge the source`s credibility based on his demeanor.  Does he look nervous or comfortable?  Is she willing to look the reporter in the eye? 

Christopher (Chip) Scanlan, director of writing workshops for the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in the United States, tells the story of interviewing a woman who lost her husband to cancer.  She gave him a tour of her home, and in the bedroom she said, You know, every night I put just a little of [my husband`s] cologne on the pillow, so I can believe he is still with me. "  It`s a detail that the reader can smell and feel, which Scanlan never would have learned over the phone or online.

Telephone interviews take less time, and some reporters find it easier to take good notes when they don`t have to worry about maintaining eye contact with the source.  They can even type their notes into the computer.  E-mail interviews are useful for reaching people in distant places, but the reporter can`t listen to what`s being said and follow up in real time. "  Instant messaging via the Internet is more akin to a telephone interview.  But both online methods raise the question of whether the person they appear to be from actually sent the answers.

Because of these concerns, The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk, Virginia, has instituted this newsroom policy for online reporting: "In quoting from electronic communications, we will make certain the communication is genuine, as it is easy to fake Internet return addresses or log on as someone else. The Internet is not controlled like a wire service [such as Reuters or the Associated Press]; hoaxes can come from anywhere."

Reporters using e-mail or other online forms of communication should follow the same professional standards as they would in any other form.  They must identify themselves as journalists and tell what information they are seeking and why.  They need to apply the same fact-checking and thinking skills they would to any other source of information.

No matter which way they conduct an interview, reporters usually have some questions they save for the end.  First, they may summarize the conversation to be sure they`ve heard accurately what was being said.  Then they will ask if there is anything else the person being interviewed wants to add.  They also ask for the best way to get back in touch with the person, especially after hours, and they thank the person for his or her time.  And many journalists have one last question they ask at all interviews, Who else should I talk to about this? "

Source:  U.S. Dept. of State