In the previous chapter on the basics of interviewing we looked at why interviews are important to journalists, how to plan and prepare for them and how to conduct them. In this chapter we focus in on telephone interviews, their advantages but also traps to be wary of.
Used properly, the telephone can be your best friend. It is especially useful for talking to people who are too far away for you to visit.
Basic rules for the telephone
Try to use the bright friendly manner, which you use for face-to-face interviews, for the telephone as well. You will inspire confidence in the person you are calling, and get your story much more quickly.
Don't be too hard on secretaries who are protecting the important people you are trying to contact. They are only doing their job. If they have been told by their boss to protect him from you, then you will not get anywhere by being angry. In that situation, the telephone is unlikely to succeed and you should visit in person.
Remember that when you telephone someone at home, at night or during the weekend, you are intruding into their private family life. You should not do so unless the story demands it. Even if it does, you should apologise for having to interrupt them and state your business quickly.
Because a journalist uses the phone so often, it is important that you should know the standard rules of telephone politeness for the profession.
The people you phone for news are often busy people doing important work. They protect themselves from trivia by employing secretaries to answer the phone for them, and to separate the unimportant or minor calls from those which require their personal attention.
So when you phone the Police Commissioner, you will probably first get the switchboard at police headquarters. You will ask for the Commissioner's office. There, his secretary will answer the phone. You must give her your name, the name of the organisation you work for and the nature of your inquiry.
For example, you may say: "This is Joe Vagi, of the Niugini Courier. May I speak to the Commissioner about his trip to Australia, please?"
She will ask you to hold on, while she speaks to the Commissioner to tell him that you are on the line, who you are and what you want. He will then decide whether to take the call, or to refer it to somebody else - his deputy, or the public relations department, for example.
If he agrees to talk to you, you will hear him come on the line. You must then repeat your name, your organisation and what you want. Do so quickly and efficiently. Don't waste time mumbling and thinking about exactly what it is you want to say. If you sound confused and unsure of what you want, you will probably get nothing. You will also give your newspaper or radio station a bad reputation.
The conversation should go something like this:
You: Good afternoon, Mr Geno. This is Joe Vagi from the Niugini Courier. I wanted to ask you about your recent trip to Australia and whether it had been a success.
Commissioner: Certainly, ... etc
It is important to tell people who you phone, as soon as they come on the line, that you are a journalist and who you work for, so the person knows that what he says may later appear in print or on a radio bulletin. In everyday journalism it is unethical to try to get news by pretending you are not a journalist, or even by not telling people that you are a journalist at all. (In Chapters 39 to 41 on Investigative Reporting we discuss the rare occasions when it is permissible to hide your true identity as a journalist.)
Answering the phone
When the phone rings in the newsroom and you pick it up, you should say "Newsroom" and then give your name - for example: "Newsroom, Joe Vagi speaking." It is not enough to say "Hello?", as this forces the other person to waste time by asking if they are connected to the newsroom and who they are speaking to.
If the caller wants to speak to a reporter who is not in the newsroom, then you should say: "She is not in the office at the moment. I'll just find out where she is." Ask the chief of staff, or whoever else is around, where the person is. If she will be back in a minute or two, you may suggest that the caller waits; if she is out for a while, you must tell the caller so. You should then say: "Can I help you? Or can I take a message?"
The caller can now choose. If they think you can help, they can talk to you instead of the person they wanted. If they think you cannot help, at least they can leave a message with you. The message should contain:
- The caller's name and telephone number
- The date and time they called
- What they wanted
- Whether they will call back later, or whether they want to be called back
- Your own name
It should be clearly written, or better still typed, and left where the person will find it. The most usual place for messages to be left for reporters is on their keyboard. If you have an internal office email system, you can send them an email with the information.
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Using the telephone effectively
It is possible to interrupt people at inconvenient times when you use a telephone. You must use the phone efficiently, so that you use as little as possible of your interviewee's time. Think before you make the call exactly what information you need from this person. If you ask for information which you could easily have found elsewhere, then a busy person will get cross with you - and rightly so.
The timing of a telephone call is important. If your deadlines allow, try not to phone too early or too late in the day.
People are not at their best within one hour of starting their day's work, and within half an hour of lunch they will not want to be bothered. People are very often late back from lunch, and again do not want to get a call within half an hour of the end of their day's work.
If you can call at the best times in between - mid-morning or mid-afternoon - you are more likely to be helped.
If you want to phone someone at home, do so as early in the evening as possible - people do not like having to get out of bed to answer the phone.
Ask for someone by name
Whenever possible, find out the name of the person who can help you. The receptionist - if approached politely - might help you. You might ask her: "What is the name of the person in charge of property, please?" Or you can pretend to know the name, but have forgotten it: "Can I please speak to ... oh, what's his name? The person in charge of property? Mr...?" "Mr Hussein?" "That's it! Mr Hussein."
Having a name to ask for can save you from being transferred from one person to another ... and ending up after half an hour back with the person you first spoke to.
Start at the top
Try to talk to the boss - he is often more willing to talk to the press than more junior people are. He knows the answers and he usually understands the importance of journalists getting a story about his company or department right.
Even if he does not have time to speak to you, it can be useful to make that contact first. For example, if you have called Mr Hussein, the managing director, and he refers you to somebody else in his company, then you can say to that person quite honestly: "I was just speaking to Mr Hussein and he said I should speak to you." He cannot now refuse, if his boss says he must speak to you.
When we interview someone face-to-face, we can see from the look on their face, or the gestures which they use, whether they are serious about what they are saying, or whether they are being funny, or sarcastic. When you use the telephone, you have only their voice to get this information - and it can alter the meaning of what they are saying.
Feed back what they say, to make sure you have understood it properly in the way they meant it. For example, you may say: "So the Foreign Minister called you `an imperialist lackey', did he?" If the reply comes back: "No, no, not really; I was just joking!", then you can apologise and you have avoided an embarrassing misunderstanding. But if the reply is "Yes, that's just what he said", then you may have a very big news story.
A smile shows in your voice. If the person at the other end of the telephone line can sense that you are smiling, that you are polite and positive, you will get a much better response.
In a face-to-face interview a short pause can sometimes help by making the interviewee feel he must continue speaking. In a telephone interview it does not help.
If there is silence, then the person on the other end of the line seems to have disappeared. Your interviewee may well think that the interview is over, and hang up. Keep the conversation flowing, even when half your mind is reading back over your notes of what has already been said.
It is helpful, too, to remind the interviewee from time to time that you are there and that you are listening. While he is speaking, you may say "oh yes" or "really?" or even grunt one of those little noises that shows you are listening and interested. This does not apply, however, if you are recording an interview for radio - the reporter's grunts will become very annoying to the listener when the interview is broadcast.
Thank the interviewee. Check that you can call back if you need more information. If it is appropriate, ask if a photograph can be taken. Politely say goodbye.
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Using a telephone has many advantages, but it also has its problems. These include the impersonal and inhuman nature of the telephone, the difficulty of knowing the situation you are phoning into, and the problem of clarity.
Telephones are most effective when you call somebody you already know. If you can visualise the person at the other end of the line, you can talk more easily to them.
Try not to use the telephone to interview somebody you do not know. Do not be lazy, and use the telephone just because you cannot be bothered to walk 100 metres.
The telephone is always second-best to a face-to-face interview, because it is impersonal.
When you phone a busy person, you will almost certainly interrupt them from doing something. Busy people do not sit around doing nothing, waiting for the phone to ring.
It is difficult to know the situation you are going into. Is your interviewee angry or frustrated, worried, miserable or happy?
It is a good idea to start a telephone interview by asking: "Is this a convenient moment to ask you a couple of questions?"
Lack of clarity
Telephone lines are not always as clear as we would wish. A poor quality line can make communication difficult.
Also, a strange accent is even harder to understand on the telephone than it is face-to-face, especially when one or both of you is working in a second language.
Remember that it is as hard for your interviewee to understand you as it is for you to understand your interviewee. Make it as easy as possible by speaking loudly, slowly and clearly, with the telephone mouthpiece in front of your mouth and not under your chin.
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Remember that a face-to-face interview is always better than a telephone interview.
When you must use the telephone, use it properly.
Be clear and polite to everyone on the telephone, however annoying they might be.
Record your interview properly and check you have all the information you need.
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