Chapter 16: Interviewing basics

In this chapter we consider what interviews are, why they are important, and how to use them successfully.

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An interview is a special kind of conversation.  It is a conversation between a journalist and a person who has facts or opinions which are likely to be newsworthy.

News involves people. Whatever news story you are researching, there will be a person or some people who know what you need to know, or who have relevant opinions. They will usually be happy to tell you.

Your job is to find these people, and then ask them what you want to know. That is an interview.

Usually, you will hear about news first and find the details later. You may see something happening; you may hear about it during a social conversation; you may receive a press release telling you about it; you may receive a tip-off from a well-placed friend.

However you first hear about the news, the next step is to find out all the details so that you can write the story. The easiest way to do this is to interview the right people.

Speaking and listening

An interview is just a conversation, although it is a particular kind of conversation. As in any conversation, you and the person you are talking to will both be involved in speaking and in listening. Think, though, about which is more important to you - to speak or to listen?

Of course you will have to speak, to put your questions and explain what you want to know. But the purpose of the interview is to hear what the other person has to say. The most important part of the interview is for you to listen to what the person has to say, and to make sure that you understand what he or she is saying.

To make sure that you understand, it may be necessary to ask further questions to clarify what has already been said. For example, you might ask: "Did you say that the building would cost $725,000?" or "Did you mean that the members of the committee would all be sacked?" Don't interrupt, though. Let the person finish speaking first, and make notes of what you don't fully understand. You can ask questions for clarification when it is your turn to speak.

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Making friends

Everybody talks more freely when they are relaxed and like the person they are talking to. If you want to get the best out of an interview, it is up to you to make sure that your interviewee (the person you are interviewing) feels this way.

For a start, you can try to arrange the interview in an informal setting - over a beer or a meal, in a club, under a tree. Otherwise, interview the person on his or her own territory - their office or home rather than the newspaper office. This will help them to feel at ease.

Then you have to gently take control of the situation, to guide the conversation where you want it to go. How you do this depends upon the person you are interviewing - an angry villager with a grievance which he is not expressing very clearly may need firm handling; a High Court judge will need very careful and polite handling.

Young journalists in developing countries often find it difficult to take control, especially if they are interviewing somebody with high social status. Women journalists, too, find it very difficult in some cultures to take control if they are interviewing a man.

You cannot disregard the cultural setting in which you live and work, but you should remember that you are striving to be a professional person. Controlling and guiding the interview, to get the relevant information without wasting time, is an important part of your professional skill.

It is a good idea to start any interview with friendly questions, even if they are not necessary for the story you wish to write. It will help you to make friends with the interviewee. You should always look and sound interested in the answers you receive, too. If the interviewee once feels that you are not listening, he will stop bothering to answer your questions.

Save your nasty questions until last. You may have to ask a trade union leader why he has called a strike without consulting his members, or a managing director why he has sacked 25 people and thrown them out of their homes.

If you think that the interviewee will not be happy with the question, make sure you have asked everything else first. Then you can ask the difficult question - if he gets angry and tells you to leave, you have lost nothing; if he gives you an answer, you have a good story.

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Visualising

One of the most important skills in interviewing is the skill of visualising.

As the person you are interviewing gives you more pieces of information, you need to add them to the picture you have in your mind.

Can you now visualise the whole story? Could you answer any question about this story if it was put to you - Who? What? Where? When? and especially Why? and How?

If there are any gaps in your understanding, this does not mean that you are at fault - it means that you lack information. Your next question should be to fill in this gap.

Some journalists write down all their questions before they begin an interview. This is not a good idea. You may write down a few very important questions in advance; but the next question you ask each time will depend on the answer you received to the question before.

Visualise the whole story throughout the interview. Be aware of the gaps in your picture. Ask the questions which will give you the information to fill those gaps.

visualisingSometimes your interviewee will speak in reply to your question, but not answer it. This may be accidental, if they did not understand your question or lost their train of thought; or it may be deliberate, if they do not want to answer the question, but do not want to say so.

Either way, if you ever ask a question and do not receive an answer, you should ask the question again. This does not have to be rude. You may say:

"Thank you, Minister, but I'm not sure that I heard the answer to my question. I was asking you whether you agree with the World Bank recommendations."

The object is to be polite but persistent. If the interviewee does not want to answer a question, make them say so. You can then thank them, move on to the next question ... and include in your story that they declined to answer this question.

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Evaluating

As well as listening and understanding what you hear, you will need to think while you are listening. Ask yourself what is the significance of what you are hearing? Is it a big news story or a small one? Is it news at all? What will be the effect of what you are hearing on people's lives?

In this way you can evaluate what is being said. When you have a picture in your mind of what the news story means, you will know the sort of question to ask next.

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Recording

However good you may think your memory is, you must keep a record of what you are told. An hour later, after a lot more talk and a journey back to the office and a chat with the chief of staff on your way to your desk, your memory of what was actually said will be unclear.

Tape recorder

You may record an interview with a tape recorder. If you are working for radio, you will need to do so, but even some newspaper and magazine reporters work this way. The advantage is that you record the interview accurately, without having to worry about note-taking, and can concentrate on what the person is saying. The disadvantage is that, after the interview, you may have to play the whole tape through again, sorting out what you want to use and what you don't want. This takes a lot of time.

If you are recording an interview with a tape recorder, you will need to follow a few simple rules:

  • Know your tape recorder and what all the switches do. Practise with it in the office, until you are familiar with it.
  • Check that the battery is fully charged before you leave the office. The best thing is always to put the battery in the charger whenever you finish a job, so that it will be ready for the next job.
  • Take a spare clean tape with you. Keep an eye on the tape recorder during the interview, so that you can change the tape before it reaches the end.
  • Put the microphone in a good position to record, and the tape recorder conveniently beside you. Check before you begin the interview that it is working and that the sound levels are right.
  • Set the counter to zero at the start of the interview.
Notebook

The alternative is to make notes in a notebook. This can best be done by using shorthand, so that you note the speaker's exact words while he or she is speaking them. You can then use them as a quote later, if you wish.

The advantage of such notes is that you do not bother to take a note of stuff which is boring or irrelevant, and which you know you will not use. Notes are selective and save time later.

For newspaper journalists, this is the best method. However, you will need shorthand of at least 80 words per minute, and preferably 100 words per minute, if you are to use this method effectively.

For court reporting, this is often the only method of recording which is allowed.

Combination

Journalists who do not have good shorthand, or who work in a language for which there is no good shorthand system, can use a combination of the previous two systems.

You take a tape recorder to record the whole interview, but you also make notes in a notebook.

There is no need to write down the speaker's words - they will be on tape - but you can note when he says something interesting. By noting the number on the tape counter, you will be able to find quickly the bits you want when you return to the office.

So, you may write in your notebook:

Rice project 026
Good quote 041
Cash figures 063
Quote 074
Copra drying 093
Quote 124
V. good quote 138

When you return to the office, you will be able to ignore most of the tape, and fast forward to the bits you want. Rewind the tape and reset the counter to zero. Now, when the tape counter shows 026, you will find the start of the discussion of the rice project; at 041 there is a good quote; and so on.

This has a very important advantage, that you can quote accurately what people say. This method is slower and more cumbersome than just using a notebook; but it is a very good compromise for journalists who do not have shorthand.

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The interview formula

Every interview is different, depending on the person you are interviewing and what you are talking about. All the same, there is a formula which you can apply to every interview, which will help you to get the best out of it.

Preparation

Before any interview, you need to do some preparation. Talk to your colleagues and find out whatever they know about your interviewee and the background to the story. Get the cuttings out of the library and read what has been published before.

Check on the sort of story that is wanted - is it a hard news story, a background story, or a personality profile? Then make a list of the things which you need to know, so that you can ask the right questions.

Finally, make yourself look neat and tidy. Whether you dress formally or informally depends upon who you are going to interview, but you should always look clean and you should never look scruffy.

Politeness

Nobody is obliged to be interviewed by a journalist, so be grateful and be polite. At the start of every interview, introduce yourself in a clear confident voice - "Good afternoon, Mr Wingti, I'm Joe Vagi of the Niugini Courier. Thank you for agreeing to see me."

Don't be in too much of a hurry to get down to business. Take a minute or two for appropriate small talk. You might ask about his health and his family and how he is settling into his job; this will indicate that you care about him as an individual and will help to establish a rapport. Don't overdo it, though. Remember that he may be a busy man and have better things to do than discuss his family with a total stranger!

It will be a matter for your judgment on each occasion how much of this small talk is appropriate.

Open questions

It may be that you know most of the details of a story, and only need two or three details from an interview. In that case you can get straight to the point. More usually, however, you will have only a sketchy idea of the story. In this case, the ideal first question is something like: "What actually happened?" or "Could you tell me about..?" This will give you the broad outlines of the story.

Avoid asking questions with a yes/no answer especially if you want a recorded interview for radio; it makes very dull listening to hear long questions from the journalist and one-word answers from the interviewee. Ask questions which invite details, not agreement or disagreement. Remember, you want to spend most of your time listening, not speaking.

Visualise

Once you have the broad outlines of the story, try to build up a picture in your mind of what happened. If there is any part of the picture which is not clear, ask for clarification. You will want to know Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How?

You must start with the most important areas of the story and gradually fill in the less important detail, because the interview might be brought to an end at any moment.

Don't forget to ask about the past and the future, too - what led up to the story, and what will happen as a result. Try not to interrupt.

Recap

To "recap" is short for "recapitulate". This means to go back over your notes before you let the interview end. Read them through, see if they make sense and check that no details you need are missing. Don't do all this in silence, though, or your interviewee will think you have finished. Keep talking, while most of your mind is on your notes. When you come across names, check the spelling; when there are figures, check that you have them right.

Finally, tell your interviewee what you understand the story to be. This will take time, as you tell back to the interviewee in an orderly form all that he has told you in bits and pieces. If you have got it wrong in any respect, you may be sure that he will stop you and put it right.

The final question

We are all human and fallible, so you may forget to ask something important in an interview. Or there may be something which you could not know about, which will make a good story.

For these reasons, when you have asked everything that you think you need to know, there is one more question to ask: "Is there anything else I should know?"

Before you go

You may find that you get back to your desk after an interview, start to write the story and then realise that you did not ask an important question. You then have to telephone your interviewee and put the question.

Before you leave the interview, therefore, check that you have their phone number and check that they will be available on that phone number for the next hour or two, "in case there are any other questions". If the interviewee is about to go out, try to get a number where you can contact them - most places around town have phones.

Leave your business card, if you have one, or otherwise a written note of your name, company and phone number, so that the interviewee can phone you if a thought occurs to them after you have gone.

If you think the story needs a photograph, check whether the interviewee will be available to have a picture taken, and if so when would be convenient.

Finally, say "thank you", shake the interviewee's hand (or whatever is usual in your culture) and part as friends - you may well need another interview from the same person at some future date.

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TO SUMMARISE:

Work out a method of recording interviews which is best for you - tape recorder, notebook or a combination of the two.

In every interview:

  • Listen more than you speak. Control the interview gently, but don't interrupt.
  • Be polite but persistent.
  • Ask open-ended questions; especially avoid questions with "yes/no" answers.
  • Visualise the story as it is revealed to you.
  • Evaluate the news story as it is revealed to you.
  • At the end of the interview, recap what you understand the story to be.

This is the end of the first part of this two-part section on interviewing. If you now want to read on, follow this link to the second section, Chapter 17: Telephone interviews

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Index to Chapter 16
  1. The importance of interviews
  2. Speaking and listening
  3. Making Friends
  4. Visualising
  5. Evaluating
  6. Recording
  7. The interview formula
  8. To summarise
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