Wick Communications

The art of the interview

In Writing techniques on May 31, 2012 at 8:47 pm

Have you heard of the Poynter Review Project? It’s a joint venture of sorts between the sports television behemoth ESPN and The Poynter Institute, a journalism think-tank in Florida. It’s an 18-month effort to review the practices at ESPN in hopes of making for a better, more enjoyable, more ethical broadcast. How can you argue with that?

It looks like the project is active on several fronts. I happened on this review of ESPN anchor and reporter interview techniques and thought it was pretty interesting. ESPN gives a lot of thought to the art of the interview, leaning on the teachings of a Canadian investigative reporter named John Sawatsky.

So what does that have to do with us?

One truth of working in a newsroom is that you are bound to hear your colleagues conduct interviews, both in the field and over the phone. And they hear yours in return. You probably all wonder about the techniques and questions you hear.

I thought some of the criticisms of the ESPN reporters could be transferred to a print newsroom. I’ve adapted some of those criticisms and principles and added my own spin on a couple:

  1. Make your source comfortable. Don’t approach her with your pen poised over your note pad. Ask the softball stuff first; save the hardest question for the end. Find common ground. Be humble and gracious. …
  2. Be honest. Don’t leave your source thinking the story is going to be about his summer vacation, since that is what you talked about most, only to have him later see your story about his poor job performance. Developing a rapport requires respect and that begins with honesty.
  3. Do some homework. Check your newspaper’s archives. Google around. Let that background inform your questions. Your source will appreciate that you know the right questions to ask and that will lead him to believe you will write a well-informed story.
  4. Don’t accuse, ask. “Isn’t it true that you were expelled from high school for smoking pot?” will likely get you nowhere. “Did you ever have trouble with authority figures in high school?” may lead your source to open up and tell the story.
  5. Get it right. Ask your source to spell his name. Make sure you get his title right. Don’t be afraid to ask him to repeat himself or to go slowly. Make light of your own need to work deliberately.
  6. Don’t waste your source’s time. This is much trickier than it sounds. As Sawatsky points out, the purpose of an interview is to get, not to give. The principal doesn’t need to know about your high school exploits. Almost by definition, the people we call on are busy. Treat them with respect and don’t bore them with details about you.

Everyone in your newsroom thinks he or she is a good interviewer. It takes that kind of confidence just to do the job. But most of us haven’t had any kind of training when it comes to asking questions of newsmakers. Try to give it a little thought. Reconstruct your own interviews for a couple of days and ask yourself what you may have done differently. You might begin to see some patterns in your approach that are hindering your work.

Clay

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