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Interview Tips for Reporters and Feature Writers

By Edited Sep 28, 2015 0 1

The first step in successful interviewing is finding the right people to interview. If you're a news reporter, this often involves arriving at the scene of the crime/accident/bizarre happening as soon as possible and talking to as many witnesses and participants as you can. But that's not enough. Once you've gathered their impressions, you should approach experts who can provide background information. For example, if there's been a wave of bank robberies in your town, you should try to get quotes from the police ("How many similar crimes have there been in this town recently?" "What special measures are the police taking to combat this sort of crime?"), other banks ("Are you tightening security in response to today's robbery?" "What do you say to customers too scared to visit their local branch in case they get caught up in a robbery?"), and security consultants ("Is there anything more banks can do to prevent robberies?").


There's obviously less urgency when writing feature articles. A good way to begin is to comb previous media reports on the subject you're planning to write about, and gather names of individuals and organizations. Then use your contacts to find additional sources. For instance, if you're researching casinos in Las Vegas and know a business school professor in Nevada, ask him if any of his colleagues or students have researched the state's gaming industry. (I use the masculine pronoun purely for convenience).

Approaching potential interviewees

Once you've identified the people you'd like to talk to for your article, you need to approach them in a manner which increases the likelihood they'll agree to answer your questions. In your email, include the following eight points:

1. Your name. It's imperative you identify yourself properly.

2. The newspaper/magazine/website you're writing for. If you think the interviewee may not have heard of it, provide details such as the topics it covers, how often it's published, where it's sold (or found online), and what kind of person reads it.

3. Your position in that publication. If you're not a full-timer, describe yourself a "contributing writer" rather than a "freelancer." Also, state who exactly commissioned the article and give a phone number and/or email address, so the interviewee can check you are who you say you are.

4. Explain your angle on the topic and why you want the interviewee's input. Flatter him a little.

5. Include a few of the questions you hope to ask, so the interview subject gets a clear idea of what you expect.

6. Go into detail about the nuts-and-bolts of the interview. Will it be done face to face, by telephone or email? Ask if the interviewee has a strong preference. If the interview will be "live" (in person or over the telephone or Skype), ask if you should email the questions beforehand.

7. Make clear any deadline, just in case the interview subject is about to go overseas for a month.

8. Provide the prospective interviewee with an escape hatch. Some people are too busy to provide a proper interview yet too polite to say no. You may end up waiting for answers that never come, or be allocated a mere ten minutes when an entire hour is needed. So make it clear you've contemplated the possibility you'll be turned down. Include something like: "However, if for any reason you're unable to help me, I would be most grateful if you could suggest another person able to answer my questions."

Knowing what questions to ask

Assuming the person you approached has agreed to be interviewed, draw up a list of questions you plan to ask - but be ready to digress if things take an interesting turn. In addition to reading up on the topic, read up on the person you're about to interview. Previously published interviews often provide excellent starting points ("Two years ago you told a newspaper XYZ. Has anything happened to change your opinion?" or "Back in 2012, you said XYZ was likely to happen soon. It hasn't. Could you explain why not?").

In addition to the specific questions you've drawn up, remember to finish up with a catch-all invitation to the interviewee to touch on issues not already covered. This could be phrased in this way: "Is there anything else important? Have you had any experiences or hold any opinions that you haven't told me about, but which you think are significant?"

Review your questions ahead of the interview to ensure none contravene what I call the "three don'ts rule." Firstly, don't ask biased questions. Instead of asking someone, "How angry does this make you?" ask "How do you feel about this?" If you don't stay neutral, the interviewee may get defensive or even walk out. If you make it obvious you agree with the interview subject, he's likely to skip key parts of his argument. Secondly, don't ask leading questions. Some interviewees simply want to please; they'll give the answer they think you want. Thirdly, don't ask two questions at the same time, for instance: "Do you think she'll win the election, and what is she likely to do once elected?" You risk confusing the interviewee, and may not get clear answers to both parts.

Responding to requests for 'copy approval'

Many interview subjects worry about being misquoted, so there's a good chance you'll be asked by a person you've just interviewed if you can show the answers you intend to use - or possibly the entire article - to them ahead of publication. This is called "copy approval" and celebrities often make it a condition of agreeing to be interviewed. Some media outlets have a policy prohibiting this. If you're writing for one which doesn't, then in my opinion it's perfectly fine to email those sections of the interview you plan to use to the subject so he can review it, before sending the completed article to the editor.

I've done this to protect myself from accidentally misquoting someone. When paraphrasing, I take the initiative to get approval to make sure I haven't misunderstood or misrepresented the person's opinions. Investigative journalists trying to catch racists or corrupt politicians won't want to do this - but they should, in any case, give their targets a chance to respond to every allegation. Finally, when dealing with an interview subject who asks to see the interview text or article, do warn him that the editor may make changes at any point before printing, and that this is beyond your control.



Jun 16, 2014 5:16am
Great article
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