Art of the Interview: Tips for Error-Free Stories

Art of the Interview is an occasional series designed to help young journalists build critical interviewing skills.

You hand in your story to the editor, confident that it is flawless.

The next day, your source calls to tell you the story is incorrect. Now, you have to write a correction — a public confession in print.

It happens more often than you might think. The human brain is prone to error, and when you add tight deadlines into the mix, the chances for slip-ups is high. Fortunately, you can eliminate many factual errors by incorporating fact-checking habits into your interview process.

Check and circle

A former editor taught me this. At some point during the interview, go back through your notes and double-check the facts: Name spellings, titles, figures, dates and everything else pertinent to the story. Once the source has verified that piece of information, circle it in your notes. That way, you know it’s correct.

It’s a simple process, but it works. Once I started using it, my correction rate went down significantly.

Each writer thinks and works differently, so tinker with the method and make it work for you. You can check all the information at once at the end of the interview, or you can pause at intervals throughout the conversation. Also try highlighting the verified information or putting a check mark next to it. Do whatever works best for you.

Rephrase and verify

You may have checked dates, figures and name spellings, but what if you’ve made an incorrect assumption about a key piece of information? You’d be amazed how many stories get scuttled by perfectly reasonable but erroneous assumptions.

If your brain is anything like mine, then you make assumptions every day without even realizing it. This makes catching errors a tricky proposition.

The solution: Repeat back to the source what he said — or what you thought he said — in your own words. That gives him a chance to correct you if you’re wrong.

This serves two purposes. It reassures you that you really do understand the subject. It also gives the same assurance to your source, which builds his trust in your skills and helps guarantee his willingness to work with you in the future.

An added bonus: As you process the information in your own words, you sometimes stumble across accurate and artful phrasing that you can use in your writing.

To err is human. To verify is divine, or darn close to it. Corrections happen to everyone, even Pulitzer winners. But, working simple fact-checking habits can ensure they happen less often.

Your turn

Do you have other fact-checking strategies you use during an interview? Share them in the comments below.

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