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August 29, 2010
Interviews are part and parcel of good journalism. They provide more than just additional voices to a story. They add facts, expertise, balance, depth and credibility. They can breathe vitality and vigour into dry, sterile information.
Good questions make for good interviews.
An interested interviewer draws out interesting angles and quotes that otherwise would lie dormant with those being interviewed.
But to conduct a good interview, you, the writer, must plan and focus and try to make your interview interesting for your interviewee too.
Always ask the obvious as well as stimulating questions. And don't jump to conclusions. The detail is as important as the earth-shattering facts you unearth. The obvious means, for example, that you ask for the spelling of names, that you make sure your 'researched' facts are correct - and the fact a couple don't live together anymore doesn't mean they are divorced. They may be separated - or not married in the first place. So check your facts before you leave your interview. These potentially 'small' inaccuracies will erode your story's credibility.
As with most interviews - the skill is to get the person you are interviewing to drop their guard and talk. This is often when the more interesting facts, anecdotes and description usually come. Keep chatting even as you are packing up to leave. The person you are interviewing often relaxes at this stage. The formal bit is over. It's at this point that the best quotes often come. Or even new facts. Make sure you follow them up.
In order to make the most of the time you have for your interview, research as much as you can about your subject. Otherwise you will seem ignorant and uninformed to those you are interviewing. Background knowledge will be appreciated by your interviewee, and having checked your researched facts are correct, you will have more time to ask other questions.
Don't talk too much. Listen. Prompt and listen.
Most people love to talk, even shy people, especially if they have an attentive audience. Be that audience.
Before the interview, list your 'must know' questions - this keeps you on track. Know why you are interviewing the person. What do you want to find out? Refer to your list of questions at the end of the interview to check you have covered all the main points. During the interview follow up new information but go back to your core questions.
Before setting off on an interview, it is worth considering why anyone would want to be interviewed by a journalist.
By asking yourself these questions and considering the answers, you will be in a better position to face your interviewee. Every interview is different. And every interviewee comes to an interview with a different set of expectations and a different agenda.
What would motivate a person to talk to a journalist?
He or she:
• believes the journalist really cares
• doesn't really want to, but it's their job - they have to
• believes strongly in their cause
• wants to get the facts right - to set the record straight
• is outraged at something or someone and thinks it needs to be aired in the Press
• wants to defend someone else
• can't resist the exposure
• wants to give their side of the 'story'
• has a hidden agenda
• thinks it's the right thing to do
• getting paid by someone to talk
• hopes the exposure will further their career or help their reputation
• wants to publicise an event, or product or boost a business.
The skill in writing and the skill in interviewing go hand in hand.
How you conduct your interview will have more impact on the outcome of your story than anything else. And what you get out of an interview very much depends on what you put into it.
And remember the basic facts all stories need to contain: Who, what, why, when, where, and how?
What does it take to be a good interviewer?is feature writer Simon Hattenstone's take on interviews as part of a series of booklets Great interviews of the 20th century, published by the Guardian.
Interviewing victims of trauma
Some people ask if it is necessary to interview those who have suffered a traumatic event soon after it has happened? What is the value of intruding on people when they are grieving, disoriented, shocked and frightened? What should you discuss with someone before that person consents to an interview?
It is unrealistic to say that people who have been involved in a shocking event should not be interviewed. If that were so, the cameras and journalists would have stayed away from Haiti after the earthquake in January 2010 or the Indonesian tsunami disaster in 2004. They would not be in Pakistan at this moment recording the tragic loss of life and livelihoods as the floods continue to devastate a nation. The world would not have known about these disasters or the scale of the human tragedy - neither would the money have been raised globally to rebuild the shattered lives of these people.
Sad as it is, people who are traumatised often have stories to tell. And those stories may be helpful to broadcast their plight. But journalists should seek interviewees in a thoughtful and respectful manner.
You, the journalist, must understand that not everyone involved in a news story fully realises how the press works, what an interview entails and its potential effects on them, their families and friends. Interviewees should also be told whether their names are likely be used in the story.
Read this blog by journalist, Chris Wheal, who found himself as a 'member of the public' when his nine-year-old nephew was found dead in the family garden, hung by a swing rope last month. Another point of view is given in response by Dominic Ponsford, editor of the Press Gazette.
Characteristics of a good interviewer
Consider which of these attributes you will need when you are interviewing a person or persons over a sensitive subject. Maybe you need all of them?:
- Freedom from expectations or judgements
At the end of any interview, ask if you can have a direct contact number and email address, and ask if you can get back to your interviewee if you need to check facts. You shouldn't hesitate getting back to the person you interviewed if you want to check you have got certain details right. The interviewee wants to be portrayed accurately.
Conducting a good interview can allow you to grow in your own knowledge and, by sharing that knowledge, impact a wider circle.
Most memorable interviews is a series of videos showing the good, bad and ugly moments of interviews conducted by leading writers such as Observer feature writer Lynn Barber.