As a journalist, knowing how to interview is an important aspect of the job,
but in the Poynter article, “Interviewing: The Ignored Skill,” the author Bob Steele acknowledges the lack of formal teaching of how to interview. The article suggests most journalists learn from trial and error.
In another article, “Interview Techniques,” Steele shares an excerpt from an interview tip sheet created by senior investigative reporter at The Oregonian, Les Zaitz. Zaitz makes the point that interviewing is as personal as writing. Each journalist has his or her unique style that will develop through experience. So while it may be difficult to develop an exact formula for interviews, there are some helpful and useful tips.
Prepare for the interview
Become knowledgeable on the topic of the interview. Research your interviewee, the topic, and ask advice from other journalists who are experts on the interview topic.
Write out questions and points you would like answered before the interview.
Ask your questions in an organized and flowing manner.
Approaching a stranger and expecting the person to immediately open up to you and provide you with information is not the social norm as people normally confide in people they have a close and personal relationship with.
When interviewing a source a journalist must respect the person. Even if the journalist does not agree with the source’s view, it is important to maintain respect so the person is willing to confide in the journalist. If the journalist shows respect, the source will be more willing to answer personal and tough questions.
When interviewing for television or radio, it is important the reporter does not speak while the interviewee is responding. Although in a conversation with a friend you may reply during their talking by saying, “really?” “Uh-huh,” “Oh” or any other conversational phrase, journalists must resist. If you do respond while the interviewee is answering the question, it will be difficult for the audience to hear what the interviewee is saying due to the overlapping phrases.
Responding to the source like this may make the source feel more comfortable, but it will not produce clear answers the audience can understand. However, it is important to make the source feel comfortable so they are more willing to open up and give honest, powerful responses. To make the source comfortable and achieve a clear interview, it is helpful to respond to the source through facial expressions.
Facial expressions let the source know you are engaged in what they are saying, but also allow for a clean audio track that is easy to edit.
Let the source fully respond to the question, but if the source starts talking off topic, as a journalist it is acceptable to interrupt and redirect the interviewee to answer the question you want answered. After you ask a question, allow the source time to respond. Even if they do not respond immediately do not interrupt the silence.
Sometimes it is more impactful to remain silent because people generally find it awkward sitting in silence, and if the silence persists, even if it is an uncomfortable question, the source may feel more obligated to answer the question to eliminate the awkward silence.
An example of an effective use of the silence is when Barbara Walters ask Oprah Winfrey to describe her friendship with Gayle King. Walters does not try to intervene and guide Winfrey’s answer, but gives her a moment of silence to honestly reflect on her feelings and produces a powerful and emotional response. (Click on image at right to play the interview.)
Interviewing private citizens
Public officials have an obligation to speak with the media so the public understands and is aware of the issues in its community. Therefore it is a little easier to ask tough questions to a politician, for example, because public officials are accustom to media interviews.
The private citizen may not be accustomed to interviews. They may not understand why a journalist is asking them questions after they have experienced a great tragedy. Thus, it is important to show empathy and understanding.
Having people freely talk about their personal and emotional experiences to a stranger is asking a lot. If the source experiences a tragedy and is unwilling to speak in an interview, it can be helpful to explain the importance of their interview. For example, if you want to interview a parent whose child drowned in a pool, emphasize how their interview has the possibility to encourage pool safety and could potentially save the life of another child.
Developing your own interviewing style takes practice, but it does help if you follow some basic guidelines.
• Be prepared for the interview. Research.
• Be respectful to your interviewee and his or her opinion.
• Let the interviewee respond.
• Be engaged in what your interviewee has to say.
Kelsea Wasung is majoring in journalism with an emphasis in broadcast at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University. She is also enrolled in Barrett the Honors College and is expected to graduate with her Master’s and Bachelor’s degree in 2013. Kelsea has a passion for learning and sharing her knowledge with others. When she graduates she hopes to work as a field reporter, and eventually an anchor with a major network.
Kelsea writes her articles based off questions she has as a college reporter. She analyzes the work of other broadcasters to discover the best techniques they use and also researches broadcast topics of interest.