The Inlander/January 2011
Remember when you interviewed for a job? You likely had a list of “dos” and “don’ts” firmly ingrained in preparation for the line of questioning.
Among the dos, dress appropriately and be on time. Among the don’ts, avoid rambling answers and be wary of combative responses.
In a similar vein, interviews are basic to news gathering. Interviews may well spell a dead end to a story if reporters are not prepared. Equally important, reporters must be savvy in how to present the information.
Here is one checklist to help produce fruitful interviews and then portray the circumstances:
Do your homework. Preparation is the requisite to producing a solid story and is most important when conducting interviews. Find out as much as possible about the subject and the individuals. Review appropriate materials, and touch base with others who have knowledge of the subject.
Avoid preconceived notions. Reporters should approach interviews with an open mind. If you enter an interview with a certain mind-set, the interviewee will likely take notice and information may not be forthcoming. If you anticipate your subject to be adversarial, ease into the “tough” questions or your session may well be cut short.
Dress for the circumstances. Be cognizant of the surroundings, and dress for the occasion. It’s no more appropriate to wear a sport coat and tie for interviewing a farmer in the dairy barn than it is to enter a CEO’s office wearing a T-shirt and jeans.
Be attentive to follow-up questions. Every reporter should have prepared questions for an interview. Equally important, reporters must be adept at asking follow-up queries during the course of a conversation.
Ask open-ended questions. Pose a question that can be answered by a simple “yes” or “no,” and that’s likely the response you’ll receive. Frame questions so the interviewees must explain themselves.
Make note of the environment. Reporters often reference the surroundings in a story. That may well help set the atmosphere. In some instances however, the description is out of place and can detract from the flow of a story.
Use descriptive text when appropriate. Be selective when incorporating descriptive text in a story. A feature on a bellman will likely include details of the uniform. The attire of an individual speaking at a public hearing may not be relevant to report.
Convene a conversation. Interviews should be a dialogue not dominated by either the interviewer or interviewee.
Seek other voices. Few stories should be limited to “single sources.” The more voices in a story, the more well-rounded it will be. Incorporating the perspectives of others can be a valuable addition even in personality profiles.
Decipher notes immediately. Record your notes as soon as possible, whether the story is due the next day or even weeks later. Nothing is more frustrating or embarrassing than being unable to read your notes – quite possibly to the detriment of your final story.
Consider question-and-answer format. Q&As can be an excellent presentation for some interviews. It’s important to let the individuals know that their answers will be subject to editing for length and clarity.
“Said” says it best. Some writers go to great lengths to avoid always using “said” for attribution, especially in feature stories. Substitute words may include “explained,” “noted,” “added” and “emphasized.” Some words may inadvertently inject editorial commentary. The best rule is to stick to “said.”
In a nutshell, reporters must be as well schooled on the issues as the subject of the interview. It’s essential to producing stories with substance and meaning for readers.