As a journalism student, you’ve probably learned a lot of different techniques for interviewing people. Being open and friendly, putting the interviewee at ease, asking the important questions even if they’re difficult—these are all good tips. But not every technique works in every situation. It’s important to learn how to quickly size up a situation—and a person—so you can determine the best way to proceed.
Watch Body Language
Depending on the situation, your subject may be open and friendly, or closed-off and uncommunicative. Sometimes body language is easy to read, but some individuals have great poker faces.
In general, you should watch for abrupt changes in body language. A person who suddenly breaks eye contact or looks away may be hiding something. If possible, you should try to make small talk about things unrelated to the interview’s topic for a few minutes before getting down to business. This lets you see what gestures, facial expressions, and tone and pitch of voice are normal for the interviewee, so you can be aware if there’s a big change.
Breaking the Ice is a Good Idea for Other Reasons, Too
Aside from granting more insight into the individual’s normal body language, chitchat can have other benefits. You may not always have time to talk about the weather or your subject’s favorite sports team, but if you do, it’s usually time well spent. Chatting about something relatively inconsequential can help put the subject at ease. It also allows you to establish rapport, and helps the subject see you as a human being rather than a scary person with a camera.
You don’t have to stick to the weather—in fact, it’s best if you can talk about something the subject finds interesting. Look around the person’s office or home for clues—sports memorabilia, movie posters, etc. People often open up when you ask about subjects that most interest them. Once they feel comfortable with you, it will be much easier to quiz them about other topics.
Again, it’s important to read the situation. If your subject seems impatient, answers all your small-talk questions with one-word answers, or suggests that he or she is in a hurry, it’s probably best to move on to the actual interview.
What If the Subject Doesn’t Want to Open Up?
What do you do when the individual at the center of a big news story won’t talk to you? Continuing to badger the person is generally a bad idea. The more you irritate people, the less they’re going to want to talk to you.
Instead, interview other involved parties. Keep going until you find someone close to the story who’s willing to talk—an employee, a friend, a coworker, etc. However, you should remember that people willing to talk to you about a big scandal may have an ax to grind, so it’s essential to fact-check their answers.
After you’ve spoken to others, another technique is to tell the person you really want to interview that you’d like their comments on X thing that Y said. Be specific enough to concern them, but vague enough that they have to ask you for clarification. For example: “I know you said you didn’t want to talk to the media about this issue, and I respect that, but I’d like to give you the chance to respond to your assistant Bob Jones’ comments about your campaign funding sources. If you’re interested in telling your side of the story, call me at….”
A word of caution: Don’t tell subjects you’re going to help rehab their image or make them look good—that’s a lawsuit waiting to happen, not to mention highly unethical and an example of media bias. As a reporter, your goal is to find and report the truth in the most unbiased way possible.
Do assure the subject that you want to examine both sides of the story. This may discourage people who are hiding something from granting an interview, but it can also get great stories out of people who are simply scared or feel they haven’t been accurately portrayed by the media. You can’t/shouldn’t promise someone good publicity, but you can assure the person you’ll make every effort to quote him or her accurately (which is something you should do anyway).
Asking the Hard Questions
Sometimes it can be intimidating to ask an interview subject, especially a powerful or well-known individual, difficult questions, especially ones that involve allegations of illegal or unethical behavior. Even if you don’t feel intimidated, it’s important to tread carefully—your boss will not be happy if you start making baseless accusations and ticking people off.
Here are some tips:
- Prepare for the interview by thoroughly checking out the information you’ve received, and considering the source. If at all possible, fact-check the story yourself. If you’ve received allegations about a criminal activity, ask the source if he or she has reported the crime, and if not, why? If the source isn’t available for comment, you may want to check with your station’s legal department or counsel, if it has one, before venturing further.
- When you interview the subject, be specific and explain the source of your information. If it’s an anonymous source, say just that—it’s better than letting the subject think you’re just pulling ideas from thin air. “Mr. Mayor, we received an anonymous tip from someone claiming to be one of your campaign staffers. This person says you wrote checks out of the campaign fund for personal items, including a $500 barbecue for your backyard. How do you respond to that?”
- Don’t argue with the subject or accuse him or her of lying. Do reiterate what the person said and ask if you’re understanding the answer. “So you’re saying that you never purchased a $500 barbecue out of your campaign account? Is that right?”
- If you have evidence the person is lying, follow up with another question asking for clarification. “Then how do you explain this copy of a canceled check on your campaign account for $500 to Joe’s Barbecues? Is that your signature?”
- Remain calm and professional, even if the subject gets angry and starts yelling. Never get angry and start yelling back. Simply repeat your question in a calm manner.
- You may hear something along the lines of, “You’re trying to make me look bad!” A good comeback is, “I’m just trying to gather the facts. I asked you a simple yes-or-no question. Did you sign the check or not?”
- But don’t apologize either. Your job is to ask questions. If the subject really doesn’t want to answer, he or she can simply say, “No comment.” Yelling at a reporter for asking a question makes the interviewee look bad, not you.
- If someone tries to duck a question, there is nothing wrong with saying, “That’s not what I asked,” or “You didn’t answer my question.” Then repeat the question.g