Interviewing is at the core of every news story, but good interviewing is what separates the mundane stories from the exceptional. For many reporters the process can seem daunting: brainstorming questions, coaxing out good answers and calming your own nerves – all while working on deadline.
But the ideal interview is within reach. At the Asian American Journalists Association 2013 convention in New York City an expert panel shared what they have in their reporter’s toolbox when conducting interviews. The most important tools are planning ahead and preparation. That means bringing the right equipment with you to the interview like recorders, cameras and notepads. It also means being mentally prepared by doing your research.
Millicent Jefferson, the director and associate producer of the business-themed radio show Marketplace, recommends getting as much information on the subject-matter as possible, writing a lede to help focus your interview and checking out the last time your source was in the news.
“You never want to go into an interview not knowing the person you’re talking to just said something explosive a few days before,” says Jefferson.
It’s also important to find out something personal about your source like where they went to college or their favorite type of food, says Jefferson. Think of it as an ice-breaker or a tool to lighten up the tone of an interview if it starts going sour. Other tips included writing out the main points you want to cover and outlining your questions.
While preparation was the main theme, the panel also warned not to chain yourself to the questions. Following the conversation can sometimes lead you to surprising answers or an interesting angle of the story.
“Interviews are great when you’re prepared,” says Jefferson, “but you should also allow yourself the flexibility for the conversation to be a conversation.”
Getting through tough interviews was another hot topic at the panel. Southern California Public Radio’s business reporter Wendy Lee says she keeps her questions clear and concise to avoid confusion. And if your source continues to dodge a question, Lee says to not be afraid of a little silence.
“I just keep on asking the question, leave a silent gap and look at them in the eyes,” says Lee. Often times the interviewee will be the first one to fill that “awkward silence”, hopefully giving you the answer you want.
To avoid boring “yes” and “no” answers, Minnesota Public Radio’s Toni Randolph says she leaves her questions open-ended.
“It’s priceless,” says Randolph of the open-ended question. “If you’re not talking to me then I’ve got nothing.” Randolph also says it’s important for reporters to remind themselves that it’s not only about the question, but also the answers. Listening intently can reveal minute details you might otherwise miss.
Marketplace’s Jefferson rounded out the discussion with an example of a story the show recently produced on tornado victims in Moore, Okla. A tornado survivor was weary about sharing her story on air. But Jefferson was able to convince the source to talk by telling her that her voice could make a difference.
“A lot of the time sources don’t want to be recorded because they don’t think they’re the best person to talk to, but they usually are,” says Jefferson.