Art of the Interview is an occasional series designed to help young journalists build critical interviewing skills.
The art of the interview is asking questions that elicit provocative, insightful answers. Building trust with your source is critical to creating an atmosphere in which he or she can be open and candid with you.
One of the quickest ways to build trust is demonstrating that you’ve done your homework. Mention a key fact or bring a pertinent issue into the conversation, and you show that you have done the research necessary to be conversant on the subject. Even something as simple as verifying basic facts you gleaned from a website can inspire your source’s confidence in you.
Getting the basics
What facts do you need when going into an interview?
At minimum, you need to know enough to ensure the interview flows smoothly with few interruptions. If the source has to pause every few minutes to define a term or give background information, it’s going to be frustrating for him and confusing for you.
What to know
- Names: Get the name of the person you are interviewing, obviously. (But always get the source to verify spelling before putting it in print.) You should also know the names of other major players in the story.
- Acronyms: The vocabulary of the average administrator is usually littered with acronyms. Media-savvy sources will usually remember to stop and define them for you. Others may not, so it’s a good idea to look these up ahead of time.
- Technical jargon: Similar to acronyms, technical jargon is a part of life for the everyday executive. As you dig deeper into the beat, you’ll gradually become more familiar with the lingo. If you’re new, however, learning basic terms in the vocabulary will give you a leg up.
- Issues: Consider your source’s position. What things does he care about? What things make his job or his life harder? In short, what are the major issues for him?Brushing up on the issues can help you build empathy with your source, and it can also make your story richer. If you’re writing a story about a new program at the city recreation center, for instance, knowing that the city manager has proposed a 15 percent budget cut for recreation services could add another dimension to your story. How does the recreation director propose to keep the programming running if funds are cut? And why does she believe offering this program is important, despite the economic downturn that triggered the city manager’s cost-cutting proposal?
Where to find it
If you’re a daily or weekly newspaper reporter, your own archives are one of your richest resources. A quick search in the archives can help you find names, learn the lingo, and get a comprehensive history of the story. If you’ve new at your publication, I’d recommend you take a month or so and read as far back into the archives as you can. This will save you some frantic digging on deadline.
If you’re a freelance reporter, digital or print archives of magazines, newspapers, and other authoritative sources are a great first stop in your fact-finding campaign.
The Internet is another good first-stop to get you acquainted with a topic, organization, or person.
Use this resource with caution. A good policy is to assume that all websites, even official ones, are riddled with errors (they usually are), and that no one who updates them will be as careful about their facts as you must be with yours (they usually aren’t). If this approach seems cynical, just remember: If the website gets it wrong, they won’t be writing the correction. You will.
That being said, it’s fine to use a credible website as a starting point. Just be sure to verify everything you glean there with a flesh-and-blood source.
Your editor is a wellspring of information.* He knows the community better than almost anyone else. Don’t be afraid to ask him for some background information on the story.
Also seek out the wise men and wise women on your beat. These sources know the history, the jargon, and the people behind the story. Look for the folks behind the scenes: The secretaries, the assistants, the department heads, and long-time employees farther down the totem poll. A humble clerk who’s worked in the county courthouse for 30 years often knows more than the county commissioner just elected to office.
Again, don’t be afraid to call these people up for help. You’ll be surprised how many people will be eager to tell you what they know, especially if you’re just seeking background information. It will take more time out of your day, but it will help you get a better grip on the story. More importantly, it will also will you an ally.
*He may also be a wellspring of ire and bleak humor who makes you quake in your shoes. Fear not, gentle reader. You will grow to appreciate his curmudgeonly charm. Just don’t call him charming, or he’ll drop-kick your sorry butt into next week. (His words, not mine.)
What other background information do you gather before doing an interview? What other tips would you recommend? Sound out in the comments below.
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