Students often tell me their greatest fear in doing reporting is interviewing people. The idea of asking questions of strangers and approaching people who don’t want to talk to them feels downright terrifying. I often ask students, “What’s the worst that can happen?” Most of them fear a response like the one veteran investigative journalist Dan Bice posted today:
Bice notes on Twitter that he had covered Sheriff David Clarke for about 15 years. Over that time, Bice has broken a number of stories that outlined some of the more inane things Clark has done, including instructing his deputies to harass an airline passenger Clarke didn’t like, threatening to “knock out” that passenger and others like him, mocking Milwaukee’s mayor for being beaten while trying to break up a fight and bailing on his gig as sheriff to make money on the national conservative political lecture circuit. Bice is both a great journalist and a fair one: He calls his column/investigation work “No Quarter,” likely a reference to his work calling out misdeeds of all types, regardless of the political affiliation of the participants.
(I reached out to Bice to ask him some questions about his experiences with Clarke and interviewing as well as to have him offer some advice to the students who read this blog. My guess is that he’s a bit too busy to get to what must be one of 189,241 requests for comment now that this story is going viral.)
With that in mind, I’ll play the poorer substitute for Bice and use some hivemind answers and suggestions here. Consider these thoughts when it comes to getting over your interview fear:
- It will rarely be this bad: Clarke has what can charitably be called a “certain way about him” when it comes to the media. Also, threats and bravado are a sizeable part of his vernacular, including the time he said he’d only “reach across the aisle” to Democrats to choke one of them and the time he accused the county executive of hating him out of “penis envy.” Worrying that you’re going to have a hostile source ready to suggest you perform some sort of three-way, inter-species carnal act on yourself for asking a few direct and yet fair questions is like worrying a meteor is going to hit you if you go outside. You should usually assume that if you can show an interview subject a modicum of respect and decency, that person will reciprocate.
- Some interviews will suck: It’s a safe bet that it will be much nicer interviewing the person who won the $758 million powerball jackpot than interviewing a mother whose 8-year-old son just died in a car wreck. Still, journalism isn’t just about the happy stories and you have a job to do. Approach the tougher interviews with caution, honesty and respect whenever possible. Being a jerk doesn’t tend to get you anywhere good. Even when people are angry in situations like that, it’s not so much that they’re angry at you, but rather the situation. Apologize for intruding on their grief if they are bereaved, offer rationale for your questions and provide them with the ability to speak if they want. If they still tell you to go to hell and take a left, back off. If you are confronting someone who has done something illegal or reprehensible (especially if that person is a public figure), don’t feel bad pushing the issue, but also know when it’s time to fold up your tent and go home. Good journalists don’t like to be the story. (I’d imagine Dan Bice is not all that thrilled that people are focusing on this spat as opposed to the guts of the questions he was asking about the costs Clarke accrued for the taxpayers. If he gets back to me, I’ll ask him.)
- Explain the WHY: Some people feel like if they duck you, they’re better off. That’s rarely the case. It’s a “fight or flight” response. Usually, explaining WHY you want the interview or WHY it’s in the best interest of the person to speak gets you a little wiggle room with the sources. Some people will still be in the “No. NO. NO!” mode, but others will be more open. Explain that you want to tell the story fairly or explain that you have heard XYZ about the issue and you don’t want to be wrong. I once interviewed a woman whose 17-year-old daughter had just died while driving drunk. The first thing she told me is that she didn’t want to talk to me. I made one pass at the WHY issue by explaining that I was writing a story about her daughter and all I knew was what the police report told me. I told the woman I knew that her daughter was probably a heck of a lot more than what was on that formal document, so if she wanted to share anything about the girl, I would listen. The woman talked for about an hour and a half. The WHY helped. In other cases, it might not, but at least you are demonstrating a desire to be fair and honest.
- Always give thanks: Just because someone else is being difficult, it doesn’t follow that you need to be. It’s always better to be the better person in these situations because you never know when decency might bear fruit for you. Maybe the person calms down and decides to call back and apologize for behaving that way, which might lead to the interview you wanted. Maybe if you don’t behave well, word gets around and more sources decide it’s not worth it to talk to you. Who knows? It doesn’t cost anything to be polite, so even as the person is yelling “Fuck you and the horse you rode in on,” feel free to say, “OK, thank you so much for your time.”