I’ve been a journalist for about five years now with experience writing for several different newspapers.
This article focuses on interviewing for newspapers but it applies to online journalism as well.
Interviewing people is easy and the education you get from it is a huge perk of the job. I’ve talked to everyone in society, from people walking down the street to politicians and business leaders.
Below are a few tips that will help you perform journalism interviews:
You will write a better story and perform a better interview if you do as much background research as possible first.
Know the subject, know what you can about the interviewee and try to come into the interview sounding like you actually have an interest and are not just seeking quotes. Sometimes, of course, it’s impossible to do much background research, and in these cases be upfront with the interviewee that you’re ignorant on the subject and are seeking their wisdom.
Write a list of questions
This does not have to be an extensive list, but write down your main questions for the interview.
Most of the time, the interviewee’s answers will allow for interesting tangents that you can pick up on, but for tight-lipped subjects, it’s important to have some fallback questions so there’s no awkward dead air.
Pick up the phone
Work the phone instead of email when you can.
It’s easier to set up interviews and make a connection through the phone, unless you’re dealing with government communication departments.
Best of all, though, is to meet with people in person, which is a far more friendly venue than either email or phone.
Be clear about why you’re interviewing someone
Many people are rightfully apprehensive about being interviewed by a journalist.
Be clear about why you want to talk to them and what you’re using the information for. Politely ask if they would be willing to speak on the subject and be in the paper.
Trying to weasel out information in a dishonest fashion will create enemies and get you nowhere. Most people are willing and excited to be quoted in the newspaper once they know what’s up, so there is no reason to try to trick someone into it.
Use a recorder
A recorder is necessary for a journalist.
Not only does it make it far easier to correctly write down quotes, but it will protect you if someone disputes the quotes you print.
A recorder allows you to focus on the conversation and have a dialogue with your interviewee instead of madly writing down quotes and not being able to think about what the person is saying.
In Canada, only one person in the conversation needs to know it is being recorded, but it is polite when doing an in-person interview to ask if using a recorder is okay.
Have a goal
You must have a goal in mind for the interview, some sort of information that you are seeking to receive from the other person.
This can be factual information, such as statistics relating to the interviewee’s field; an opinion, such as whether a person supports a certain cause; or all of the above and more.
Without a goal in mind, your interview will be aimless and you’re unlikely to get anything worthwhile.
Listen for your goal
For the whole interview, listen for your goal.
Listen for your quotes or numbers. Even if you ask the right questions, sometimes people will give answers that do not achieve your goal, and too often reporters will put down the phone without having extracted the information they need.
On controversial subjects, interviewees will often give broad answers when you’re looking for their personal opinion, which is no good for your story. If you ask, “Do you support X?” and you don’t get an answer that can be translated into a yes or no, you are not achieving your goal.
Listen for your goal and keep asking until you are sure you’ve got it or, in some cases, sure you won’t be able to get it.
Ask if there’s anything else
Always ask at the end of the interview if the interviewee has anything to add to the subject.
Sometimes your best quotes and information will come from this question. Often, people have interesting things to say but will not divulge if asked specific questions. A broad, general question like this can reveal hidden gems and lets interviewees feel like they had a fair shot and got a chance to say everything they wanted.
Being polite is your best way to get the answers you want and maintain good relationships.
Always thank interviewees for their time and wish them a good day. Hostile interviews will damage your relationships and cut you off from information and quotes.