Today I bring you the first in a series of articles on newswriting and reporting. These articles tie in with the Half-Eaten Mind’s objective to provide high-quality journalism and writing in general as well as its secondary aim as a means of education. They are based on handouts from a taught module on newswriting and reporting that I studied in late 2003 as part of my university degree in journalism and media studies. I had recently discovered the original handouts and have decided to digitally retype them for your reading pleasure, along with my own further commentary. The handouts were originally produced by lecturer Alan Geere at the University of Westminster’s School of Media, Art and Design in November 2003. All credit for the original information goes to him. The first part of the very first article is out today.
The series will be of particular use to people wishing to pursue journalism as a career, but who have no idea exactly what working as a ‘roving reporter’ entails. Also, it is hoped that the articles will also prove useful in an educational context for new journalism students at news schools or universities.
For the vast majority of journalists, the most important means of obtaining information for their news story is by conducting an interview with a source. This is a dialogue between two people involving questions from the journalist being replied with answers from the source (the interviewee). Interviews are essential for obtaining facts, figures and comments that may not be easily found from official outlets or for certain types of reporting, such as crime beats or B2B journalism. Sources, apart from imparting valuable information to flesh out a reporter’s story, also can offer informational tidbits and quotes that can help ‘spice up’ an article and give it a more human and relational angle for the news consumer. Indeed in some cases, interviews may be the only way to get a suitable angle on a flashing news story and valuable or secret sources have been the make-or-break for many an exclusive scoop.
When conducting an interview, the best thing to do is act naturally. Do not feel stressed or feel you have to behave in a restrictive and stiff manner (unless the situation demands it). An interview does not need to take place in a formal atmosphere. Many interviewees are more than happy to be spoken to at their home or in a casual setting like a park or coffee shop. It is not a test of any sort, but simply a talk with someone about a specific topic. Think of your forthcoming interview as being only slightly different to a chat with your best friend about your favourite singer, football team or any other subject you are interested in. The key difference however, is that instead of merely hearing, the reporter is both listening and writing down what the source says, or using recording equipment to make a reproduction of the source’s conversation with said reporter. The important thing to remember at this stage, is that as a reporter, you are expected to remain impartial, so keep your opinions to yourself.
Preparing for the interview
Before setting out to meet up with your source, carry out some research first, both on the source (if they are a public figure) as well as the topic/s you will be speaking to them about. You want to show the source that you are in the know or at least have been thoroughly debriefed about the news subject. Think of what questions you intend to ask. So for example, if you are about to interview a person who sells furs and is agitated by animals rights activists, it might be interesting to find out if he or she owns a dog or cat. Likewise if you are interviewing an animal rights activist to get the other side of the story, you might ask them what life experiences influenced them to join the movement.
Make doubly sure you have your questions ready, either in written form or mentally noted down. Do not expect your news source to tell you voluntarily what you want to know. The whole point of having set questions ready and running is that they give structure to the interview as well as helping you organise your thoughts. Not only that, but having a good set of questions will get you all the information and quotes you will need to build up your news story once you return to the newsdesk or classroom.
Just like a job interview, you should show up properly dressed. Remember you are representing the news organisation you are working for, and a sloppy dress sense reflects badly on you, your employer and journalists in general. Taking care in what you wear and how you wear it also shows you have respect for the source.
Conducting the interview
* Introduce yourself and the publication you work for. An official press card or identity card issued by your employer will help you negotiate security personnel or concerned relatives when visiting homes, offices or public venues.
* Look your subject in the eye. This may be hard for the more shy among us, but it shows you are interested in the source and what he or she has to say. Not maintaining eye contact can make you seem shifty and if the source is from a highly sensitive context, i.e. a crime informant or victim of a robbery, for example, it can make them uncomfortable. Do not fall into the trap of being so busy taking notes that all the source remembers from the interview are your flying fingers and the crown of your head. Some people may get nervous at the sight of seeing their every word written down. You can easily commit some things to memory, or to ensure accuracy, use a voice recorder. If you do use such a recorder, be sure to get the source’s permission first, and be prepared to press pause if the subject wants to say something ‘off the record’.
* Often, the first question you will be asking is the subject’s name and how to spell it. Even if you know the name and seen it spelled somewhere already, double-check as it could still be wrong. This is especially important for people with names from cultures other than your own. Even if it is a common name in your country, still double-check, as the person may use a spelling variation of their name, i.e. ‘Jon’ rather than ‘John’; ‘Suniel’ rather than ‘Sunil’, ‘Mhairi’ rather than ‘Mary’. Getting the spelling wrong can be the fastest way to lose credibility in the source’s eyes.
* Make sure to pronounce the source’s name correctly and use their first name from time to time. It helps put them at ease, shows that you care about what they have to say, and makes for a friendlier conversation and ultimately, more material for your story.
* Not only should you double-check spellings of names, but also those of any company or town names, and any key historical dates. Do not ever be afraid to ask what you might fear is a silly question. It is better to look a bit clueless as so to speak, than get an important name, fact or date horribly wrong.
* Begin the interview with easy sociable questions to relax the interviewee. Many interviewees do not often find themselves speaking to the media as a regular course of their lives and may be somewhat at unease at what is an unfamiliar experience for them. It is your job to make them feel more comfortable. Save the tough questions for later. Steer clear of questions that appear to have predetermined or ‘closed’ answers i.e. ‘yes or no’ questions. The interviewee will not be able to express themselves fully and you risk the interview becoming a tick-box situation. You will not get any good quotes that way. Also remember to keep your questioning as impartial as possible. Do not let your opinions or biases determine the focus of your questioning.
* Ask open-ended questions that invite a lengthy answer and encourage the interviewee to speak their heart out and give healthy anecdotes and juicy quotes or opinions. For example “How did you react?” or “Why do you think that happened?“. While at the same time paying attention to what your source says, be sure to make a note of the juicier quotes and anecdotes.
* Do not ask negative questions. So avoid things like “No news, yet?“. You do not want to make it easy for the subject to just say ‘No’.
* Let the interviewee be aware that you know who they are, which is where your earlier research comes in useful. It shows you have done your homework and it saves time being wasted by the interviewee having to explain who they are, what their company does etc. This is called ‘priming’ the interviewee. So for example, it might go like this: “Mr. Jones, I understand you appeared in a movie about the takeover by people under 30. Do you believe this could actually happen?“. Other advantages of priming include helping set a context and angle for the interview, which will in turn help you select an angle for the news story. It also makes for a more fruitful and fun interviewing session.
* Accept all proffered facts and data given by the source professionally. Do not quibble, argue (even if you know the information to be inaccurate) or express shock/disappointment. Remember, your opinions on the source or who they represent are strictly private. Accept what the source tells you on the face of it.
* Do not make any promise to the source that you will promise to write or say remarks in a certain way. This will affect your journalistic impartiality. At the same time though, please respect the source’s request if they wish for certain comments to be ‘off the record’ to avoid causing offence or breaching any written/unwritten rules of confidentiality.
* Do not promise to let your source read the story before it goes live or published
* Leave the door open for another talk or follow-up interview. Many sources can have a long shelf-life in terms of newsworthiness as certain news stories are long-running and constantly evolving, such as the civil war in Syria or Anglo-Argentine tensions over the Falklands/Malvinas. Ask your contact if they would mind if you made contact later personally face-to-face or through a follow-up phone call. Obtain a phone number or Skype/IM ID for further discussions if you need to clarify any facts or gather further information.
Part Two of “INTERVIEWING: What to do…and what not to do” will be live next weekend.