Interviewing tips

A tipsheet by David Poulson, Associate Director,
MSU Knight Center for Environmental Journalism

So you’ve got a great story idea, uncovered some data and read up on the latest science.

Now don’t forget the obvious: Ask questions of real people.

How interviews are conducted varies by reporter, story, circumstance and source. All reporters have problems getting information from spinning politicians, belligerent bureaucrats, stone-walling executives and media-shy citizens. Those who cover the environment have additional challenges with deciphering jargon-prone scientists and evaluating sensational statements of media-savvy environmentalists.

Veteran journalists say there are some common techniques that serve them well. Here are some interviewing tips provided by members of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Questions

The simpler, the better.

“Why?” is the question that has served Trudy Tynan well during a 36-year journalism career.

“Ask it gently. Ask it interestedly. Ask it skeptically,” says the former Associated Press reporter. “I’ve never known an elected person who didn’t respond with quotable material when faced with a reporter with a puzzled expression asking ‘Now, why did you do that?’

“And keep asking until you are satisfied that you understand what they mean as well as what comes out of their mouth. If you are unsure, ask the same question in different words. There is nothing wrong in saying, ‘So, are you saying XXXX?’ and offering them the opportunity to say ‘No, I mean YYYYY.’ And then hit them with another ‘Why?’

“It’s so simple and direct it doesn’t give them any place to dodge,” Tynan says. “And if they are dodging and spinning, ask them what they are concerned about: ie: why are they behaving that way?”

Another great question: “How’s that work?”

It’s particularly effective for prompting researchers and other experts to open up and talk in a lively and understandable way, says Chuck Quirmbach, a reporter with Wisconsin Public Radio.

“They usually want to show you their work … let you in on what they’ve been working on for years,” Quirmbach says. “I learned that tip at SEJ-Baltimore, when a colleague asked about the mating of captive whooping cranes … “

A similar question, “Can you help me to understand this?” serves two purposes, says Kate Jaimet, national news reporter for the Ottawa Citizen: “Not only does this flatter their ego, it shows them that you are willing to listen.”

To prompt subjects to recreate events and produce telling scenes, Kansas City Star reporter Mike Mansur asks, “If this were a movie and it’s the opening scene, what would the camera focus on.

“People give you the most insightful, incredible answers,” Mansur says. “Getting people to think of a movie in filling in the blanks of a narrative can really work.”

Another handy tool is letting sources come up with their own questions as the interview ends.

“Always end with, ‘Is there anything else you want to add?’ ‘Is there anything else that will help our readers understand this situation?’” says Wisconsin freelancer Christine Heinrichs.

Mark Schleifstein, a reporter at the New Orleans Times Picayune, finishes an interview with, “Is there anything I haven’t asked that I ought to be asking? Is there anything else you want to tell me?”

Many reporters save tough questions for last in case they prompt a source to end an interview early. But that’s not a hard and fast rule.

“If your interview is very time-constrained and you may only get in one or two questions (I’ve often experienced this when interviewing politicians) then ask the most critical, toughest ones first,” Jaimet says. “You can always get the softball information later from spokespeople.”

Silence

The urge to break a silence is a powerful ally. Many journalists insist that their most successful interviews happen when they keep their mouth shut.

“Cultivate long pauses,” says Elizabeth Weise, science writer for USAToday. “It’s amazing what people will say when you don’t jump in.”

Silence is golden, Mansur says. “I recently on a weekend assignment had to interview the mother of a teenager who had been ‘hill-jumping,’ racing over rolling country roads. He had gone too fast and flown too far, killing himself and four others. The mother had been interviewed by TV and tried to put her best spin on things. She said it was God’s will … etc.

“Finally, I sat down with her in her home. She began with the same answers. But when she said it was God’s will. I sat silent. Didn’t say a word for a minute. And finally it all came flying out of her — how it was her fault (it really wasn’t), how she had let her son off early from being grounded for racing his car, etc.

“The truth came out.

“To me, it made the woman more sympathetic and that came through in the story. She seemed more real, a grief-stricken mom wondering why she had done this or her son had done that.”

A well-placed “uh-huh” can also be better than a question because it may spur elaboration.

“At first, someone sounds dumb or fears they might,” Mansur says. “But listen to how friends talk. They affirm each other.”

Indeed, the encouraging sounds and silences are part of an essential background track of any interview, says Perry Beeman, a reporter with the Des Moines Register: “I really do think the rhythm of an interview is important. That’s where the uh-huhs mix with the carefully placed silences.

“Of course, it’s always important to realize that the best stuff always comes at the end when the source thinks the interview is over and starts to let loose. Keep the recorder running. Never fully put the pad away.”

 Persistence

Sometimes you have to press hard to wade through jargon-laden responses that, left uninvestigated, will confuse readers as much as they confuse you. Roger Witherspoon once interviewed an engineer who said he had developed a “fully suspended, five-axis, three-magnetic-bearing, Dynamic spin rig with forced excitation.”

“I simply asked him what, in English, he had invented,” says Witherspoon, contributing editor for US Black Engineer and Information Technology. “He laughed and e-mailed me a diagram. I opened it and asked him which end was up.

“He laughed some more and explained it was a helicopter engine with no ball bearings in the engines — a development which could allow the development of several types of engines without the need for motor oil or their accompanying exhaust.”

Prepare

Examine the record of actions by government officials, politicians or corporate executives, says Bill Kelly, correspondent for California Energy Circuit. “Such preparation will guide you to the questions that will make your interview more hard hitting and productive.

“The journalist I.F. Stone used to write articles that were practically devoid of interviews, instead based almost solely on written records of actions,” Kelly says. “This is to say that there often is a great gulf between what people say and what they do, and it’s the latter that matters most. Too often, though, it’s what they say that passes as news.”

Schleifstein suggests listing questions before interviews for lengthy projects or investigative pieces. That way, you’re sure cover them all. And he says it’s a good idea to bring someone who can keep the subject busy as you’re scribbling notes.

“I often give photogs free rein to ask questions during an interview for that reason — and often, they come up with some pretty good questions exactly because they don’t have the knowledge you have,” he says.

Good preparation can free a reporter up to listen and observe while gathering context, perspective and color.

“Don’t ask any more questions than you really have to,” says Merritt Clifton, editor of Animal People. “Almost everything that reporters typically ask is info that they should already have from clips, Web sites, printed literature, maps, reference works, impact reports, site visits, etc., before ever going to bug any sources. Therefore, most reporters don’t get half as much out of interviews as they should.

“Get your background first. Then go talk to the sources. You’ll need to have a couple of questions in mind to help get the conversation started, and of course there will be the essential questions that you need to have answered.”

“However, reporters who ‘always ask the hard questions’ are often reporters who take shortcuts, jump to conclusions, and may produce sensational stories at the expense of depth.”

 When a source is evasive

A reporter is not a “mindless dictationist who takes a quote and goes to print,” Witherspoon says.

“Frequently, politicians and corporations will give responses which are not answers to the question posed — particularly if the issue is a touchy one. My policy is to simply state, ‘You did not answer the question, and if you stick with that response, I will have to write that you refused to answer.’”

 Avoid the newsroom

Interviewing sources on their home turf gives you a chance to note what’s on their desk, hanging on their walls or sitting on their bookshelves. Such observations provide color and can prompt revealing conservations.

And if you’re in the person’s office, you might be within striking distance of other documents, says Schleifstein. “Whenever I visit a scientist in his/her office, as we’re finishing, I ask if they have any reprints of papers they’ve written that are germane to our conversation.

“They’re usually impressed that you’d actually want to read them, and it could result in unexpected information falling into your hands.”

 Putting sources at ease

“Often when I talk to scientists for the first time, early in the conversation the discussion gets into their past experience with reporters, usually generalists who have misunderstood something or misquoted them or one of their colleagues,” says Schleifstein. “I use that discussion as an opportunity to urge them to call me if there’s any problem with the story — again helps cut through their distrust.”

Clifton says he meets sources in their natural habitat and talks first about what they want to talk about. And he feeds them.

“Share a bag of cookies or chips, or take them for coffee or a beer,” he says.

“Getting a source to laugh can help, too. And sometimes just being patient helps, especially with older people and people from traditional or indigenous cultures.

“Sometimes you can just come right out and say, ‘I’m so-and-so from the daily rag, and I don’t have any idea how to make you comfortable for an interview, so I’m just going to sit here and look stupid until you tell me how.’ In my experience, that always breaks the ice, even if the person just wants to tell me how stupid I look and how long I’ll be sitting.”

Get scientists beyond the science

“When you are talking to a naturalist or scientist at a place you’re visiting, go beyond the basics of research projects and local ecology,” says Wendee Holtcamp, a freelance writer-photographer. “Ask them for funny experiences that happened while doing research, or how they got into the field of study they are in.

“Also probe the people you interview for cultural lore or historical events – things that bring an added element of interest to a story.

“Pay attention to the person also – is their office messy or neat? Are they talkative and effervescent when explaining their work, or low-key and laid back? How do they compose themselves when speaking? Focus your mind’s eye on every detail.”

 And keep them on track

“Make sure you keep focused on the big picture,” Holtcamp says. “Particularly scientists can tend to get bogged down talking about the little details of their specific research, when what you want are implications, generalizations, the take-home message.

“You want to get a feel for the implications of their research, the place of their research in light of the understanding of that discipline as a whole. Don’t hesitate to guide the discussion back on track if they get talking about little details and you want to get back to the big picture.”