Lead Stories

Interviewing beyond words

"Interviewing beyond words" Continued...

Planning

Interviews are sometimes fishing expeditions and sometimes searches for specific information and insights. You should develop a particular line of questioning, depending on the intent of the article, and should also ask general questions that allow interviewees to open up entirely new areas of which they may be unaware. Sometimes interviews can lead you in a direction very different from that you anticipated—but you still need to anticipate.

Planning for an interview starts with thinking about what an article should include, and what you need from the interview to make a story and fill in the gaps. Write down the information needed; structure questions accordingly. Think to yourself, “The story is X, so I need Y.” Remember that your goal in interviewing is not to be a megaphone for the interviewee but to get what you need to write your story. Know what you will ask. You are in charge of the interview.

While pushing hard for specific material, retain flexibility. Be prepared to change your theme if your initial assumptions appear incorrect. Be careful not to put words into the interviewee’s mouth. At the same time, guide the interview enough so that the interviewee will not neglect your theme.

Whether you are interviewing a friend or a foe, follow the standard that is used for arms-control agreements: Trust, but verify. Remember that the interviewee, no matter how famous, is not God. Remember also that the interviewee, regardless of his actions, is not a cockroach. If you have reason to suspect the interviewee’s honesty, ask some questions to which you already know the answers, and see if he is telling the truth. If he tells you something different from what you have heard, challenge him.

Plan how you will respond if the interviewee asks to go off the record. Basic rules: Never volunteer to go off the record, fight to stay on it, and, if necessary, explain your editor’s dislike for the practice. Off-the-record conversations may be necessary when a source’s health or job are in jeopardy, but remember that you are working for the readers, not carrying mail for the interviewee. Remember that you will have to tell readers the reason for going off-the-record with particular sources; a statement such as, “The source preferred to be off-the-record,” does not wash. If necessary, indicate to the source how his comments may be used, without making a commitment.

When a source asks to go off-the-record, find out what he means by that: information to be used for your background only, information that can be used but not attributed at all, information that can be attributed not by name but to “a source in the xyz department,” or what? Unattributed quotations that disparage a person are worthless, unless you have lots of on-the-record quotations saying similar things.

Long-distance interviewing

What if we’re writing a story from afar, and all we’re hearing over the phone are words? Does that leave us with insufficient descriptive material and narrative, talking heads but not moving feet? Maybe, but here’s the way out: Interview trustworthy people who can become proxy eyes, and elicit from them the type of specific detail that we could see were we there.

To get specific detail, we need to push. For example, when interviewing a young mother who has made the transition from salaried professional to full-time mom, settling for a vague statement about tighter budgets is dull. Much better to probe for the concrete and elicit a statement like this: “I buy store brands. I compare prices. When we buy a car, we won’t buy the Volvo, which would be our vehicle of choice if we were both still working. Instead, we’ll go with a less expensive four-door domestic.” The reporter’s telephoning goal is to elicit stories, anecdotes, and specifics: “I don’t go for Del Monte, I’ll get Pathmark on some things. I buy generic dishwasher detergent. I’ve found that generic corn chips are OK, too.”

In short, the skilled questioner will make the respondent an ally in writing the story. Experienced reporters ask their subjects for help in making important points clear to their audience. The etiquette of telephone interviewing sometimes involves calling the interviewee to set up a time for questioning. When making such a request, it’s good to say, “I’d like to ask you about x, y, and z” (not just, “I’d like an interview”) and to specify how much time is needed.

Interviewing by phone is hard but it does have some advantages. We can look regularly at our lists of questions. (We should also have a list for in-person interviews, but the goal there should be eye contact with the interviewee, not a notebook.) In either situation, we start with easier questions and be prepared to move away from the list as the conversation dictates. We should listen much and speak little.

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