Writing News: The Interview

2010.08.12
By

HAVING LITERALLY AND FIGURATIVELY “DONE this in my sleep(1)” on occasion as ahem an award-winning reporter for the Sonoma Index-Tribune and Sonoma Sun (and freelancer for the Novato Advance, Petaluma Argus-Courier and The Bohemian) and being somewhat-to-greatly rankled by what passes for “news” these days outside of local outlets and the Daily Show, methinks it urgent to spread some of the skills needed to excel in The Game. Let’s start with the Interview.

The goal of the Interview is to extract information from someone who has it: whether they’re an eyewitness, a neighbor, a mayor, a relative, a senator or just a bunch of old guys reminiscing about Frank Sinatra in the backroom of an old Sonoma bar at 9:30 a.m. on a weekday. You will want to have the following:

- Tape recorder (smaller the better, and with a counter)
- Pad and pen(cil)
- Relevant and brief questions (what, when, where, how, maybe why, and — most importantly — “Anything else you want our readers/listeners to know? Anything I should have asked you, or that you’d wished I’d asked you?” This often yields the best quote of all.)

(Make sure that either tape or pad includes “the scene.” Include lots of color and context, body language, etc., but don’t go overboard at the expense of the nut-o’-story(2); include at least three relevant details. Some disdain tape recorders, but if you’re like me you’ll want people to tell you things in their own words — and you’ll want to quote them accurately. The counter’s for noting what point in the Interview contains The Quote.)

Two types of Interview there are: Field and Telephone.

Field Interviews are, by their nature, unpredictable; this is where your tape recorder is paramount. Identify yourself to the interviewee and give them a graceful way out: “I’m Clark Kent with the Daily Planet; mind if I ask you a few questions?” Keep as open and friendly a face as possible(3). If they consent, begin recording with something like, “This is Clark Kent of the Daily Planet on today’s date, and we’re speaking with …” Let the interviewee speak (and if necessary spell) name and title into the recorder; it both indicates consent and is a good way to break the ice.

If your interviewee is an emergency responder at the scene of something horrible, look for the guys in the white helmets (fire) or in a vehicle on the radio (police or also fire). Remember that while California Penal Code section 409.5d gives you legal access anywhere (your state or country may vary), you are a low priority to those trying to bring things under control. Keep your questions brief and to the point (that’s also a good general rule) and stay well out of the way (I usually back against a tree or something).

Interviewing witnesses and families can be dicey: some folks want to be in the newspaper and some don’t. Don’t push it; some may have a beef with the paper, or reporters in general, or be drunk, or indefinably weird in a way which makes you wish you’d studied finance. Be professional, as though you’re doing something serious (you are). Sometimes that can be contagious.

Interviewing someone who’s been traumatized by tragedy is invasive and, occasionally, necessary. Use extreme care. There is no other advice I can give you.

Other types of Field Interviews (e.g., press conferences, meeting interviewees at their office) are similar enough to the Telephone Interview as to make a good segue.

Telephone Interviews are easier in one way than Field Interviews, if you’re typing the conversation directly into your word-processor (typewriters, not so much). You’re limited in that you can’t see your interviewee’s eyes or body lingo, but if they’re not answering the phone you get to tell the secretary or voicemail “If I don’t hear from you by 2 p.m., I’ll have to write “Could not be reached by presstime.” (You’d be surprised how often this actually works, especially for those whose newsworthiness depends on public image.)

* * *

As nothing else comes to mind at present, I hope this helps those either curious about The Game or eager to play. As Edward R. Murrow said, “Everyone is a prisoner of his own experiences. No one can eliminate prejudices – just recognize them.”(4)

———-

(1) Much to either the amazement or confirmed suspicions of my former editors, if they’re reading this.
(2) Picked this up from a former editor-in-chief, who referred to the summing-up paragraph of any story as the “nut graf.” Being a hick, I don’t know if that’s a universal term.
(3) On the other thumb, I used to work with a guy (also award-winning) whose favorite tools were gruffness and insouciance. Whatever works. It’s my nature to befriend people, so I go with that; also, I’ll come right out and say “Explain this to me so that I can see it the way you do.” It seems to me that a successful reporter should pretend to be the dumbest guy in the room — and pay close attention to the people trying to explain things.
(4) He also said “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; credible we must be truthful,” which is even more important. Your byline is your reputation — cherish it!

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