INTERVIEWING: What to do…and what not to do (Part 2)

Today we bring you the second part of the first article on journalism advice for the fledging reporter. Last Sunday we covered the dos and don’ts of preparing for and carrying out an interview, including the all-important requirements to behave professionally and support the journalistic ethics of impartiality and accuracy.

These articles are based largely on notes distributed by a lecturer during newswriting and reporting seminars I attended over ten years ago on my journey into this exciting, fulfilling and noble career path. One of the most enduring memories I have of this lecturer, Mr. Geere, was on one occasion when he told us about having a ‘nose for news’. He admitted to us that every morning while commuting to work, he would strike up a conversation with a complete stranger/fellow traveller. Although some of us students started giving each other worried and perplexed looks upon hearing our lecturer’s little confession, it did sort of make sense to me. As a journalist, you will often speak to many kinds of people, from many backgrounds. Each with their own story or perspective to narrate. It certainly must have made his journeys a tad more interesting than just sitting there staring at tube adverts for car insurance. 

Mr. Geere taught us for one semester and module. Eventually he left the University of Westminster to pursue a job as an editor working for a newspaper in Trinidad and Tobago.

Taking notes

* When noting down direct quotes from your interviewee, distinguish them visually from the rest of your jottings. You can do that by using circles around the sentence, quotation marks, stars or underlining. Taking down notes on one side of the paper sheet or pad can actually help you rearrange the material in fitting into a viable story structure.

 * Pay attention and listen carefully. Do not waste time noting down unimportant or irrelevant details. You may be able to use them to add background or flavour to the story but do not forget that you may have a word count to worry about.

* As mentioned in Part One, be careful with the spellings of names and titles. It would be a headache to have to call back to just re-confirm a spelling or job function, or even worse, end up getting it wrong when your article goes out in public.

* Get direct quotes, especially on the major points of the interview/agenda.

* Do not spend all of your precious time just looking at the source and your notepad. Have a look around, and take in your surroundings. Especially when writing features, the surroundings can add context and atmosphere to the story. This also applies to the physical appearance of the source themselves. Do you notice any particular garments or jewellery they are wearing? Any interesting features or objects in the interview location?. If you find something noteworthy, then scribble down your impressions.

Effect of reinterviewing first source
Effect of reinterviewing first source (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Concentrate on what you are seeing and hearing

Once the interview is concluded and you and your source have parted ways, take a look at your notes. Review them and supplement them with any additional information you may have not noted down before, as well as any thoughts or ideas that come to your head as you review. The best time to do this is as soon as possible after the interview in your car, hotel room or wherever. The interview will still be fresh in your mind and that is the best time to recollect everything. Then arrange your notes in order of importance.

It is unnecessary to write in complete sentences unless you are preserving a direct quote. It is far better to write your notes in bullet points or maybe diagrams if you find that helps you.

Write down all specific information that you cannot trust to retain in memory. These include objective details like ages, names, addresses. statistics and sums of money. Try to get biographical information where needed and search the net or a clippings library for newspaper clips and other previously published articles which can offer further information on a person’s or organisation’s background.

Even here, accuracy should not be forgotten. If need be, conduct a follow-up call to double-check any unclear information. Do not be afraid or feel you are being a nuisance by doing so. It is better to be safe than sorry.

Exciting writing is fuelled by exciting anecdotes, so a good interviewer is always listening out for them. It is those stories and soundbites that are the spice that brings out the flavour in a solid piece of copy. A really sharp interviewer will also be an incredibly observant one, listening out for clues to experiences from the source that could lead the way to a good anecdote. He or she will pounce on those clues and direct the source to “give me an example” or “tell me about a time when that actually happened”.

Finding anecdotes

An anecdote is simply a small story, told in conversations as a means of relaying experiences in a person’s life. They are often used to entertain the listeners. In a journalistic context, an anecdote is a smaller story that nests itself within the body of the main story, which is the article you are writing. Often, an anecdote will illustrate something about the interviewee, such as his or her loyalty, bravery, persistence or some other quality that can add to developing the human context and background in your article. A good anecdote can really bring a story alive for the reader and will possibly hold their interest instead of flipping the page…or clicking another link.

Karma Foley Interview
Karma Foley Interview (Photo credit: kino-eye)

Watch your subject

Keep an eye out for non-verbal (unspoken) forms of communication, known in the industry as ‘non-verbals’. As humans, a lot of what we say does not come out as sounds from our lips. We often let our faces and hands do the talking. Pay attention to your source’s facial gestures, hand movements, tone of voice. Non-verbals also include things such as the clothes worn by the subject, their jewellery, their tics and seating position. Indeed, about seventy per cent of the interviewee’s total communication may well be non-verbal. So, to tell the complete story, you must give the reader the complete story. Remember, you are there in person with the source, not the reader. So you want to write the story in a way that the reader can feel that they are there in the room with you. Observation can really bring your story…and the subject of your story…to life!.

Study the environment

One of the perks of being a journalist is you are not chained to a desk or site all day. There usually is a lot of travel involved and you get to see many different environments and places. Journalism is very much about being observant and possessing a bloodhound like sense of curiosity. Indeed this is why American journalists are often nicknamed ‘newshounds’. When in surroundings unfamiliar in preparation for your interview, take a look around. Things like bulletin boards, desk items, pictures on the wall, file cabinets can all offer ideas that are gold dust for a well-told story. Even things as mundane and seemingly uneventful as how sunlight streams into the room can add that all-important contextual flavour. However keep in mind how these things relate to the interviewee or story subject. Avoid using description purely for the sake of description. Telling us that the interviewee uses a particular brand of washing-up liquid is pointless unless we can relate it to an aspect of the interviewee themselves. It is also helpful to add at this stage that while there is nothing wrong with visually observing things, it is not a good idea to rifle through your interviewee’s belongings or open up their drawers looking for story material. Keep hands to self. You can always ask the interviewee about objects in the room that will add that ‘zing’ to the story. They may even let you handle them for yourself.

Hopefully this article will help you strengthen your interviewing skills and make you into a stronger reporter. You can find Part 1 in the related articles section below this part. Next week, we will cover the nitty-gritty in organising a news story. Watch this space.

“INTERVIEWING: What to do…and what not to do” – Alan Geere, BAMS Newswriting and Reporting, University of Westminster (November 2003) class handout/information sheet.
“File:HUMINT-Interview-Set1v1.png” – ‘Hcberkowitz’, Wikimedia Commons (2 November 2007) LINK
“Karma Foley Interview” – David Tamés, Flickr (23 December 2005) LINK
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4 thoughts on “INTERVIEWING: What to do…and what not to do (Part 2)

  1. This was a good article. One of the reasons I hate doing interviews is because I get nervous and forget to notice surroundings, have to call back and get details, like spelling of names etc. I could make a check list from these two posts and probably have a lot more success. Luckily I learned shorthand back in the day, that really helps in taking notes.


    1. Hi Librarylady.

      Thanks very much for your comment!

      I can understand your apprehension about interviews and nervousness. I would feel the same way too so these tips may well help me get into journalist mode.
      Shorthand is indeed very useful, you can get so much down so much quicker.



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