Of all the topics that students request help with throughout their journalism journey, the most common one is learning how to interview sources well. Whether it’s in my intro class or my senior capstone-style courses, whenever I ask, “What do you want to get out of this class?” the answer is usually, “I really suck at interviewing… How can I get better at this?”
Repeatedly doing the task is always one good way of improving yourself whenever you feel deficient in an area. However, interviewing can cause problems for other people while you learn. It’s like expecting people to stand against a wall while you learn the art of knife-throwing: Until you get good at it, this is really going to hurt.
I often experience a few painful interviews throughout the term, because first-year students in one of our intro classes are required to comb the building for a professor to interview and I usually make the mistake of keeping my door open. They become enamored with the bobbleheads and then, BAM, I’m explaining what life as a professor is like to some kid who looks as scared as a fawn trapped in a semi’s headlights.
A lot of what goes wrong in those interviews is covered in the textbook, in that the students don’t actively listen or really plan things out very well. To them, I’m just a slab of meat with a mouth that can satisfy their need to accomplish a task. However, a more senior student requested a specific interview with me for a departmental blog post, only to make the same kinds of mistakes these newbies made.
With that in mind, here are four questions a newer journalist can ask themselves prior to requesting an interview that might make their lives (and the lives of their subjects) a little better:
Have you done enough preparation before requesting the interview?
The worst experiences I’ve had as a journalist were the ones where I didn’t feel prepared. In some cases, I was able to get a bit of a pass, given that I covered a lot of breaking news. Thus, there’s no real way to prepare for a random shooting or a house fire that got way out of hand. However, there have been plenty of times where I would need to profile someone or do a news feature on a topic and I kind of half-assed the prep work, only to come face-to-face with a source who wasn’t all that thrilled with me.
The results felt like an awkward blind date, only there was no waitress to bring enough alcohol to improve the situation.
Before you decide, “I’m gonna interview this person,” consider how much you actually KNOW about that person and what it is that will improve the overall vibe and informative nature of the interview. Read up on the person, the topic and the newsworthiness of both before you send an email or make a call to get that person. The better handle you have on the source, the better you can approach them effectively and get everything off on the right foot.
How important is this person to the story you want to tell?
I have found a strange inverse relationship between how important a person actually is to a story and how important they think they are to it. In many cases, I’ve gotten the, “Oh, no… You don’t really need to talk to me about this…” response from people who are vital to a piece and brilliant beyond reproach. I have also had people get into a huff that their bland comment, which added nothing to the sum of human knowledge, didn’t get published because, “Do you know who I AM?”
The value of the source can vary greatly depending on the story you intend to write. In the case of a “Everyone had a great day at the fair” story, if you’ve seen one person eating a funnel cake, you’ve seen them all. Thus, when a source rebuffs your request for an interview, it’s not the end of the world. Feel free to hunt elsewhere.
Conversely, if that person is supposed to be the star of a major profile piece or news story, you need to come loaded for bear. You need to be able to explain to that person why they matter, what makes the story worth telling and how important their participation is in this piece.
It also matters in your overall approach. I’m not saying you should treat sources poorly if they are a dime a dozen for the story, but you do need to be exceedingly careful with wary sources who can make or break a story or reticent individuals who are playing it a bit close to the vest. This is the perfect time to practice those persuasive skills you learned in your public speaking or public relations courses.
Have you practiced?
It sounds almost childlike to practice your interview, either with someone else or by yourself, but you can save yourself a lot of aggravation if you put in a few practice rounds before the big event.
Reading the questions aloud can help you figure out if they actually make sense when you verbalize them. Some things sound great in your head, but lose traction when they hit the paper. Even more, this is where you can figure out if you accidentally slipped in a loaded question or you failed to ask the question you intended to ask.
It never hurts to ask someone to work with you, especially if you’re new at this kind of process. When you ask a question and it strikes an unfortunate nerve with your practice partner, you realize you might need to rewrite that question or rethink the concept.
For example, there are 1,001 ways to ask how a person is coping with the loss of a loved one, and just as many ways of screwing up the ask. Asking “Now that your husband is dead, where do you see yourself going from here,” is probably not going to get the response you had hoped for, unless you really wanted a widow to punch you in the head.
Practice also helps you improve the interview’s flow, prevents you from having to look at your notes as often and makes it feel more like a conversation than an interrogation.
Have you considered what this will be like from the source’s perspective?
We talk a lot about audience-centricity in the “Dynamics” textbooks because the goal of journalism is to work for the audience. With that in mind, think about the “audience” of this interview: the person on the other end of the questions.
When you request an interview, what you are essentially saying is that you want someone to do you a favor. You want that person to stop whatever else it is they’re doing, set aside a block of time for you, allow you to poke at them with a series of inquiries that will likely benefit you more than it will benefit them and then leave them in a mild to moderate panic over what it is you’ll do with what you’ve learned. It’s also an even-money bet they’ll worry you’ll screw stuff up and they’ll have to spend the next several days/weeks/months undoing the damage your stupidity has done to them.
Sounds like a big bag of fun for your interview subject, doesn’t it?
With that in mind, you should probably spend some time putting yourself into the shoes of your interview subject. What can you do to make the process easier on them? What can you do to help them feel like you’re not wasting their time? How can you structure the interview to make the process work more smoothly?
This also plays into the earlier elements as well. How would you feel if someone asked you for a favor and you graciously granted it, only to have that person show up late? Or look unprepared? Or just sit there like, “Well? Just gimme something quick so I can get out of here!”
As difficult as all of this can be on you as a newer journalist, it can be exponentially harder and uglier for the people who have to deal with the back end of your growing pains. Do whatever you can to take that person’s perspective into account before you decide to make the interview request.