(Fifth in an occasional series on journalism. See “The Christian journalist,” May 25, 2013; “The joy of Christian journalism,” Aug. 24, 2013; “Moving from suite-level to street level,” Nov. 2, 2013; and “Storytelling from simple to complex,” March 8, 2014.)
Our 16th annual World Journalism Institute course for college students and recent graduates begins Monday, and in the course of our intensive look at articles they’ve written we’ll discuss how reporters get good material by interviewing. Here are a few tips, starting with one that seems counter-intuitive:
The goal of an interview is not primarily to elicit words.
One master reporter, Richard Ben Cramer, said this about a common journalistic error: “I’ve been interviewed a lot during book tours. I see how newspaper people, in particular, do it. They’ll ask you a question. And as you start to talk they bend their heads to their notebooks and try to get down every word. They barely look at you again for 45 minutes. Now that’s entirely the wrong way to get any sense of anybody!”
What are other wrong ways? Some newspaper reporters conduct interviews to check off a name on a list, to get a story-“balancing” quotation. Others play journalistic ventriloquism. That’s where the reporter quotes a source saying what the reporter believes but will not say either because his organization does not allow him to express an opinion, or because he lacks the courage to say it himself.
Think about the three main ways journalists get information: They see for themselves, they ask others what they have seen for themselves, and they ask others what they know and trust about what others have seen for themselves. Good interviews serve all three purposes: The interviewer sees how interviewees answer hard or unexpected questions, hears the anecdotes they tell, and probes for additional information and sources.
This is why the ability to conduct good interviews is key: In this lesson we’ll see how to get information that goes beyond words.
Master reporters work hard to see in action someone they are profiling. As Michael Lewis put it, “Characters are always so much more interesting when they are moving through space than they are when they are at rest (especially when they are behind a desk in their office). Even when what they’re doing is irrelevant to what I’m writing about, I just want to participate in something with them.”
When it comes to words, the goal is to move the interviewee to tell stories. If he says someone is generous, push for an anecdote that shows generosity. Remember: Specificity is felicity. Write truck, not vehicle; write Ford truck, not truck; write Ford Ranger, not Ford truck. In pushing for descriptive information always ask for names, dates, times, colors, locations, ages, numbers: What exactly did you see? What did he look like?
No time to visit a maximum-security prison, or no access to one? Get a description from a trustworthy guard. Writing about an earthquake? Get a graphic description from someone who was there. No, make that more than one person, for just as we need two eyes for depth perception, so we need the testimony of two or more reliable witnesses before settling for detail garnered from afar.
Always press for specifics. If a person says, “I was worried, and I was praying,” get specifics: “What were you praying? Were you praying out loud? What did you say?” Press for lively quotations and push interviewees to use metaphors or similes by asking, “What was it like”? If the subject has said something substantively interesting but in a bland way, rephrase questions and see if on second try you get a livelier response.
Remember, you will only get specific detail about what the interviewee has seen if you ask for it. Do not ask a bland, “What was it like,” but “What did the punch feel like?” Not “What makes you happy,” but “What was the happiest moment of your life?” Not “Was that a hard day?” but “What was the worst experience of your life?”
Superlative questions—happiest, worst—make an interviewee think. Weird questions also function that way. Kramer and Call, in Telling True Stories, write about asking “six men who were crossing Antarctica on foot—and almost died in the process—whether Antarctica was male or female, and why. The question helped them relate to the continent in a new and personal way. Ask people what they worry about most or who matters most to them or what makes them most afraid. Always follow these abstract questions with concrete ones to elicit specific anecdotes.”
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.
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.
Magazine writer Richard Preston: “While the conventional wisdom is that it is always better to do an interview face-to-face, I’ve often found that people are actually more forthcoming over the phone because they are not distracted by looking at you to see how you are reacting to what they say. Over the phone they are speaking in the comfort of their home or office.”
In-person interviewing for profiles is generally superior to proceeding by telephone and email, but sometimes (generally for reasons of time and money) we can’t do an in-person visit. In those situations we need to ask interviewees to be our eyes and ears, offering not only analysis but description. But some journalists prefer asking tough questions over the phone. Journalist Susan Orlean: “I once had to ask someone about incest in his family. It was the hardest question I’ve ever had to ask, so I waited until we were on the phone.”
Especially in phone interviews, we’re asking interviewees to help us, and sometimes we can be explicit: “Help me create a picture for the reader.” Don’t just settle for, “I walked up the hill.” Ask: What was the grass like? Weeds? Flowers? Was it hot? Did you sweat? What did it sound like? Were you excited? Tense?
Interviewing the tongue-tied
With reluctant interviewees, questioners may have to follow the information-eliciting techniques learned by parents: avoid questions that can be answered yes or no; encourage the recalcitrants to go further by asking, “And then? What happened next?” When stuck, ask five-W questions: “Who taught you that? What did you read that was influential? When? Where? Why?”
Storytelling: In The New New Journalism, Alex Kotlowitz recalls asking one interviewee, “‘Tell me about the moment you got the phone call about Eric’s death.’ When he answered that question he started to relive the experience. … I walked him through every minute: What he did, what he said, what he thought, what he was wearing. I want him to go into so much detail that I could close my eyes and see the events as if I had been there with him. Now if I had simply said, ‘Tell me about Eric’s death,’ he would have said something vague like, ‘Well, it was a terrible thing.’” Kotlowitz adds, “I ask my subject to tell me a story … it’s after people tell me their tales that I begin to poke and prod. The more specific they get, the more reflective and truthful they become.”
After an interview has elicited stories, it’s time to get more of a sense of what he believes—and confrontational questions can sometimes help. The pointed-question list of Jeff Myers, who leads Summit Ministries, includes: “Why do you believe that you are right? So what? Why is this significant? How do I know you are telling me the truth? Why should I believe you? How did you come to this conclusion? What’s an alternate explanation? Could you give me two sources who disagree with you? Why do they disagree?”
Myers has sometimes truncated those questions to a list of four deadly ones, asked sequentially: What do you mean by that? Where do you get your information? How do you know you’re right? What happens if you’re wrong? Some interviewers like to ask broad questions: “How is this affecting you? What are some of the things that you enjoy doing? What would you like to see happen?” I’ve found that those tend to evoke overly general answers, so it’s better to ask for superlatives: “What is your most pressing issue? What is one thing you cannot fail to do? What is your greatest concern? For what one thing would you like most to be remembered?”
Do not worry about conversational pauses, unless you are interviewing someone for radio. When the in-person interviewee is not answering your question, just stare at him; eye contact helps to elicit response. Expectant silence is also helpful.
Radio and television have led us to believe that every second of airtime must be filled with talk, but good interviewing (like good professor-student interaction) requires patience. Chattering interviewers tend to blurt out several questions at a time, but that gives subjects the opportunity to dodge the toughest one. Other typical errors include making statements rather than asking questions, and asking yes/no questions. Remember, the goal is to elicit stories, not grunts.
A few more suggestions: Talk little, listen much, and listen for what isn’t said. With a well-known interviewee, wake him up by starting with a question that’s unusual. Watch the interviewee’s body language and make eye contact. Check the spelling of his name, title, and affiliation. Re-ask questions if the content of the answer is significant but the subject offered it in a meandering way. Experienced journalists who are taking notes and need a little more time to record a response don’t worry about pausing—but if you do worry, ask a question that will yield an unimportant response so you can get the exact wording on what was important.
Concluding words about interviewing
Although the following should go without saying, remember basic manners. Reporters have such a reputation for rudeness that you can win respect by not staying overly long, by saying thank you, and by not using a person’s first name unless invited to do so.
Some interviewees are not particularly personable, but you should avoid getting too friendly with those who are, or being influenced by the interviewee’s apparent friendliness. Some interviewees will push you to talk about yourself, but do not spend valuable time in that way: Turn the questions back on the interviewee. Some journalists advise interviewers to pretend to be on the interviewee’s side—but that, if you are not, is lying.
Two questions with which to end an interview: What questions should I have asked that I didn’t? Who else should I interview, and why? When you leave an interviewee, carry away whatever trophies you can: copies of speeches, articles, books. Be a pack rat. You’ll enjoy throwing away stuff when the article goes to press.
The worst interviews are often email ones, because questions cannot be adjusted to take into account responses to answers. Instant message interviewing is better, combining flexibility and the advantages of having a written record of the dialogue, instead of having to transcribe it.
Bottom line: When possible, avoid formal interviews. Here’s the testimony of three more experts. Lawrence Wright says, “I like to see people where they work and live.” Jonathan Harr tries “to do interviews in the character’s own environment, whether that’s an office, home, laboratory, courtroom—anywhere he spends time. I notice what books are on the shelves, what paintings are on the walls, how they keep their house, what kind of car they drive.”