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News Reporting & Writing . Interviewing: A survivor’s guide Gerry Doyle. The Interview.

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News Reporting & Writing

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News reporting writing

News Reporting & Writing

Interviewing: A survivor’s guide

Gerry Doyle

The interview

The Interview

  • A controlled encounter with a news source for the purpose of gathering information. The interviewer wants to direct the encounter and keep it on track. The interviewer is searching for facts, details, opinions, insights, reactions and quotations.

The interview1

The Interview

  • Fact No. 1: It is not always easy to call or talk to a complete stranger about a topic you know nothing about.

  • Fact No. 2: You cannot die from embarrassment.

The interview2

The Interview

  • The most common fear in the working world – whether you're the CEO or the intern – is this: The fear of being found out.

  • If you are afraid of making a fool of yourself, don’t worry – you DEFINITELY will make a fool of yourself at some point (so don’t worry about it!)

The interview3

The Interview

  • Your job is not to be the expert—your job is to BECOME the expert… or at least enough of an expert to explain a subject to someone.

The interview4

The Interview

  • There is no such thing as a stupid question

  • Pick up the phone!

  • Don’t hide behind e-mail

  • Don’t deny yourself the central thing that makes this profession a joy – meeting and learning about an astonishing variety of people.

The interview fighting fear

The Interview: Fighting Fear

  • Follow your fears – play the opposite game

  • Prioritize, don’t avoid, what makes you nervous

  • Nerves tell you what you SHOULD be doing

  • It’s the sign of an instinct that tells you how you should be prioritizing your work

  • Procrastination – the bane of writers - is not laziness, it’s avoidance

The interview curiosity

The Interview: Curiosity

  • Unleash your curiosity – find your inner 5-year-old. (“Why? Why? Why?”)

  • Genuine interest in your subject and interviewees gains trust, scores better stories – and you have more fun. (Read “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser).

  • It also inflames the passion that leads to persistence, another hallmark of great reporters.

The interview5

The Interview

Things that won’t change – like the demand for speed and accuracy in our writing – are these truisms of reporting:

  • You will get better information in person than on the phone. Why?

  • You will get better information on the phone than e-mail. Why?

The interview e mail

The Interview: E-mail

  • It’s tempting to use e-mail: plenty of time to organize, no nerves, no conflict.

  • One major limitation: There is no such thing as ‘interview’ by e-mail!

Problems with e mail

Problems with e-mail

  • Unsure when they will respond

  • What if they can’t write?

  • How do you know your subject wrote it?

  • Answers beget more questions

  • What takes 10 minutes of back and forth in person or on the phone can take DAYS

Problems with e mail1

Problems with e-mail

  • And let’s be honest: it is lazy – you are hiding behind e-mail rather than picking up the phone.

  • It’s no fun – and the odds of finding better sources, additional information that will lead to future stories are low.

Great uses of e mail

Great uses of e-mail

  • Finding and arranging for interview

  • Tell who you are, why you want to speak with them, how much time it will take, your deadline and three or so general questions you have

  • Fact-checking before publication

  • Quick comments for breaking news stories (still better to talk to a living person)

Great uses of e mail1

Great uses of e-mail

  • Getting documents

  • Confirming a simple yes or no question

  • And one side benefit: a time-stamped record of a response

Types of interviews

Types of interviews

  • The formal meeting. This is when you have time to set up a meeting with someone you need for a story, or who can help you get smarter on a subject.

  • The spontaneous. These usually occur around a specific event -- a fire, accident or verdict.

Types of interviews1

Types of interviews

  • The informal meeting. This is when you have a chance to tag along with a source while they are doing something else, or visit them at their workplace or home.

  • The Backgrounder.These are used when you want to get smarter on a subject that you may write about. (Important in beat reporting—you get to know your sources and topics.)

Interviews issues

Interviews: Issues

Regardless of the type:

  • Remember: There is no such thing as a stupid question—only the one you forgot to ask.

  • Go to the interview with a mental or physical list of questions you need answers to.

  • Arrange the questions by subject, and work from the least difficult to most difficult.

  • Get source to give long answers by asking open-ended questions.

Interviews questions

Interviews: Questions

Why we drill Who, What, When, Where, How and Why:

  • This is the DNA of all questions, from hard news stories on a traffic accident to long investigative features.

Interviews questions1

Interviews: Questions

Closed-ended questions: To clarify, verify and authenticate, ask closed-ended questions. They are sometimes the only ones you have time for on fast-breaking stories.

  • Did you warn the students they would be arrested?

  • How many students did you arrest?

  • What crimes will they be charged with?

Interviews questions2

Interviews: Questions

  • Open-ended questions: To draw people out, to get amplification and explanation, ask open-ended questions:

  • What’s it like being chief executive?

  • What did you like about your U.S. trip?

  • What factors will determine when you will support direct elections in Hong Kong?

  • In almost any scenario: “How does it feel?”

Interviews should i tape

Interviews: Should I Tape?


  • Fact No. 3: There are two kinds of reporters – those who HAVE lost their notebook, and those who WILL.


  • Guarantees quotes are accurate – reduces possibility of accusations of ‘misquoting’

  • Will help you evaluate your own interviewing technique

Interviews should i tape1

Interviews: Should I Tape?


  • Fact No. 4: There are two kinds of reporters – those who HAVE lost their recordings, and those who WILL.


  • Will double the time (or more) to write the piece

  • Often stops you from listening actively in the interview

  • Can make interviewees uncomfortable, less likely to give you good information

My advice tape

My advice: Tape

  • Do it, especially early in your career (with the permission of your interviewee).

  • The more contentious the subject matter, the more important an accurate record is—this protects you.

  • But take notes AS IF YOU DON’T have a recorder.

  • If possible, glance at the time and note (timestamp) key parts you’ll want to review later.

Interviews preparation

Interviews: Preparation

  • Background research

  • Draft questions

  • Questions you think your reader would want to know the answer to

  • Listen to Terry Gross at Fresh air

  • Listen how well she backgrounds herself to form her questions

Interview strategy

Interview strategy

  • Most people love to talk about themselves or things they care about (hobbies, politics, their children)

  • Use these topics to open up interviews

  • Many people mistrust or are afraid of reporters

  • “Soldiers” (public officials, C-level execs) vs. “civilians” (people who aren’t used to dealing with the media)

Interview strategy1

Interview strategy

  • Be sincere, professional, nonjudgmental. You will stand a better chance of getting what you need for your story.

  • This can be difficult – you will meet people you disagree with, dislike or who just plain scare you

  • Try to fairly understand their point of view

  • Learn how to shut up and listen – silence needs to be filled (let them fill it). No one likes silence in a conversation!

Interview strategy2

Interview strategy

  • Listen to what tone of voice, or body language tells you

  • Notice when someone has strong emotional feelings on a topic – ask them about it

  • Attitudes/Opinions of interviewees are usually built on specific incidents/examples from their life

  • Watch for cues the interviewee is uncomfortable

  • If staring at your notebook, quit taking notes (you must remember to LISTEN, not just scribble)

Interview strategy3

Interview strategy

  • Contradictions, hesitation, silence, nervousness, roving eyes all suggest need for follow-up

  • Look around you! And note it down.

  • If interviewee doesn’t want to answer a question, ask why and explain why you (and your readers) think it’s an important question

Interview strategy4

Interview strategy

  • Save difficult, controversial questions for later in the interview

  • ASK THE NEXT QUESTION – don’t shy away

  • Ask to explain responses you don’t understand

  • Repeat ad nauseam: “Can you give me an example of that?”

    • Teases out general statements into specific examples, good detail

    • Excellent lie detector

Interview strategy5

Interview strategy

  • If they give you dates, numbers, or other quantifiable information, ask for the source

  • Ask about other stories, topics that they think you should pursue

    • Many great stories are spawned from sources from on other stories

  • At the end, let them know you will have additional facts to check or a follow-up chat – be sure to ask about their schedule

    • Until an article is published, I own my sources

Interview following up

Interview: Following up

  • By the time I leave, I have a lead for the story in mind and key quotes I know I’m going to use

  • Go through notes and clarify immediately, type out key points, listen to quotes

  • Put notebook in a safe, usual place. Make sure recording is backed up on computer or other location. Don’t lose both your notebook and your recorder!

Menscher s 12 ground rules

Menscher’s 12 Ground Rules

  • Identify yourself at the beginning

  • State the purpose of the interview

  • Make sure the source knows how the information will be used

  • Tell the source how long the interview will take

  • Keep it as short as possible

  • Ask specific questions that the source is competent to answer

Mencher s 12 ground rules

Mencher’s 12 Ground Rules

  • Give the source time to reply

  • Ask the source to clarify complex or vague answers

  • Read back answers if requested or when in doubt of the phrasing

  • Insist on answers if the public has a right to know them

  • Avoid lecturing and arguing

  • Abide by non-attribution requests

Drawing people out

Drawing People Out

  • Some words to draw people out:

  • Please tell me why….

  • Please tell me about…

  • Please tell me how….

  • Please tell me the reasons….

  • Please tell me the consequences of…

Magic phrases

Magic Phrases

  • “I wonder if you can help me. I’m doing a story on…”

  • “Can you give me an example of that?”

  • “Is there anything we haven’t discussed that might be important for me to know?”

  • “Who else should I talk to?” (Play ‘leap frog’ – hop from one source to the next)

  • “You won’t be surprised by anything that appears in the article”

    • make sure you back that statement up

Happy reading week

Happy reading week!

  • Here’s your homework. Read these: “English-language News Writing,” Pages 222-223; and a selection from Melvin Mencher (I will e-mail a .pdf and post it online)

  • And if you have time, watch this: “All the President’s Men,” starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford. (if this doesn’t get you excited about journalism, nothing will!)

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