by Karissa Zastrow
For the last craft talk of the season, the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild invited three reporters, Dan Lyksett, Julian Emerson, and Eric Lindquist from the Leader Telegram to discuss the art of the interview. Every day we read stories in the paper, magazines, or online, but rarely do we think about the effort and finesse that goes into successfully reporting these stories. Together, these three reporters created a list of important practices to keep in mind when conducting interviews.
1. If possible, research what you are writing about. Look at records and documents surrounding the topic. Remember you might be dealing with experts on certain topics, so having a basic understanding of the language and details is necessary to understand what the subject is talking about.
2. Be strategic with your interview. Prepare a list of questions that you want answered before conducting an interview. By prioritizing your questions, you know what you need answered in order to make your story work if time starts to run out.
3. Take notes or record your interviews. This is essential to making sure your story is accurate and facts are correct. What you record may also have details you may have otherwise forgotten.
4. Let the subject know what the interview is about. Being honest might help you gain their trust.
5. Ask the subject how they want their name used in the story. Someone who goes by Bill might want to be referred to William in the story,
6. Establish ground rules. Dan urges his subjects to not tell him anything he can’t use in his story. It can be too hard to remember what can and cannot be used when writing the actual report and it helps the interviewer not violate the subjects’ trust.
7. Show respect for the subject and make them comfortable. It is natural to sit down and have a conversation in order to ease your way into the interview. Eric’s favorite way to start is to say, “Tell me your story.” Eventually, you may have to prod and ask questions, but by letting the subject talk, it can lead to a longer and stronger story.
8. Start with simple questions and work your way into the tougher questions. Some times by addressing the hard stuff first, a subject can be easily scared off and unwilling to talk. Julian describes that there is a fine line between asking the tough questions and being accusatory. When asking questions, you do not want to offend your subject because this can quickly end an interview.
9. Listen to the subject and let the interview breed. As a reporter, you need to let the subject talk and you need to listen carefully. It is important to give the subject time to answer the question. Really listen and then when they are done, stay silent for a little while longer. The silence might make the subject talk just a little bit more. Don’t try to help them out too much because you want their original thoughts. At the same time, don’t be afraid to redirect the conversation back to the topic if they get too far off track.
10. Avoid expressing your opinion. Reporters need to stick to the facts and treat the subjects with objectivity. An interviewer’s job is to get information, not to judge people.
11. Ask questions more than once, especially if the topic is controversial. As a reporter you need to make sure you understand the situation and get all the details correct. If you have any hint of doubt, don’t be afraid to ask the question again. It is better to ask the question again than to publish incorrect information.
12. If the subject refuses to answer a sensitive question, move on and circle back to it once you’ve figured out how to rephrase the question.
13. Always ask the subject if there is something you forgot to ask or if there is anything else you need to know. This is a great open ended question to get just a little more information and let them tell you something you may have missed.
14. Be yourself—this can put both you and your subject at ease. Remember, you are doing a job and part of that job is asking the hard questions to get a story.
Interviews require a lot of tact, perseverance, and skill to complete successfully. After an interview, the reporter’s job isn’t done. Still, they have to figure out how to compile the information correctly and effectively, all while typically working under tight deadlines. This requires a lot of thought and excellent writing skills while working under pressure. So the next time you read an article, take time to appreciate the art of the interview.