Rules for the interview
Journalists often suffer from their own ‘bad press’. We are said to be nosy, sensationalist, out to destroy people’s reputations, working for the opposition, keeping hardworking people from their duties, lacking respect, etc. Sometimes, these accusations are well-founded. If someone was annoying us the way we sometimes annoy other people we would be upset too. The way to counter this negative image is to behave decently and ethically. Don’t be rude and don’t demand things that are unreasonable.
The more we behave in a way that implies “I can phone you at any time of day and night and you just have to give me what I want” the more we encourage hostility from the rest of society. Most people like to believe that they are good and honest. So why not begin by relating to interviewees on this basis? Phrasing questions in ways such as: “I would really like to understand how this works”, or “Please help explain the problem for the benefit of the community”, “Please work with me on this because the pollution is killing children” often produce good results. In many cases, individuals will help a journalist if they can be convinced that the public interest is at stake.
This is not just a matter of strategy. Despite grandiose labels such as ‘The Fourth Estate’, no individual journalist was democratically elected to monitor anybody – we just happened to land a job as a journalist. We are part of civil society, and in that sense share the responsibility of making sure the state serves its citizens, and we do have privileged access to channels of mass communication such as newspapers or broadcasting stations. All of that should make us less arrogant, not more so. Especially when we are working to expose hostile agencies, using methods such as making covert tapes that skirt or even break laws, it is important that we demonstrate our bona fides through pleasant, sincere, transparent (at least, as transparent as possible) working methods. To ensure that you don’t overstep the mark as a journalist, always ask yourself: What if I was the person I am investigating? How would I see the world, how would I see the role of journalists? Also ask: How accountable am I? Would I succumb to the same temptations that I am investigating against others? What would stop me? Where are my checks and balances?
If you don’t, you will alienate your interviewee, lose time, waste time apologising, and spend the first moments breathless and unable to focus.
While rules of dress are more relaxed than they used to be, you don’t want to alienate your interviewee on first impression. Dress in a way that will fit in with the context, show appropriate respect, and be neutral enough to send no messages about your lifestyle or views.
If necessary, use the needs of your recording machine (“It will pick up sound better here…”) as an excuse. You need a position where you can maintain eye-contact, but sitting directly face-to-face can feel too confrontational. Rather sit level, opposite, but at a slight angle to your subject. Avoid obstacles between you, such as piles of books or the lid of an open laptop. A soft sofa makes it hard to write and too easy to relax out of alertness.
This is good manners (you are their guest), will help you to relax and collect your thoughts, and may help them to see you as a human being rather than an intrusive journalist. But keep the type and length of the warm-up appropriate for the circumstances of the interview.
There may be cultural considerations of ‘respect’ to deal with here, but you will always have a better conversation with someone if each of you sees the other’s face and expression. This may be difficult if you are taking notes, but remember to look up occasionally, and always when you are asking a question. If you simply read your questions your interviewee will suspect you are not confident, or
read rudeness or hostility into your refusal to engage.
Be aware of body language (yours and theirs). Clusters of defensive gestures and posture can signal evasion and are a good clue to where you may want to push the questioning harder. Look too for signals of hurt, relief, humour, anger or boredom to either build on or counteract.
Confirm on/off the record and the timeframe; ensure informed consent to publish stories around sensitive topics. If the interview is informal choose your moment to get out your notebook or tape recorder and say: “You don’t mind if I record this/take notes?” If it’s formal, get going quickly.
Don’t conceal recording devices, but try to write or record non-intrusively, and explain (“This will help me to get your answers right”) if they seem nervous, or ask.
Note-taking keeps you focused and allows you to record things (gestures, surroundings, expressions) that the tape may not capture. It is also a back-up if anything goes wrong with the recording. Note accurately, and distinguish between quotes and your own observations/analysis.
These are those questions to which you know the answer. It will help you break the ice and cover the basics, and you may discover you actually don’t know the whole story. If your interviewee is bemused by the simplicity of the question, don’t take offence. You don’t need to, but you can explain – “Readers need this in your own words, not mine.”
Don’t ramble (their answers are more important than your monologues) and don’t interrupt. If their answers are not easy to understand, rephrase the question and try again. Some interviewees need to order their thoughts and will be happy to try again. Listen carefully to the reply – does it really answer your question? If not, you must try again. If you want to be absolutely certain you have understood, rephrase the answer back to them (“So you are saying…?”)
The interview is not about you. Don’t get aggressive even if the interview isn’t going as well as you hoped or the interviewee is rude. In a more informal interview resist talking about yourself, and provide empathy, not sympathy (which can sound patronising) for their difficulties.
Take a tip from psychologists. Avoid questions that reveal how you will feel about the answer – “Wasn’t this a shocking abuse of power?” – and rather ask: “How do you feel about using power in this way?” You may be seeking motivation and reasoning, but directly using the word “Why?” can sound accusing or incredulous. So ask “why?” indirectly: not “Why did the press reports make you
angry?” but rather, “You said those press reports made you feel angry. Tell me more about that…”
Let the interviewee finish, pause, then ask your next question. You don’t need to fill the gaps. If the interviewee needs time to think about an answer, give it; if they need time to recover their emotions, just wait quietly before asking, “Shall we go on now?”
Be in a constant state of interaction with what you hear; note your responses in your notes and use them to generate additional questions. Is this the answer I want? Do I understand this? How will I use this? Once the interview is over it may be very difficult to go back for a second one. If you have done your research and to your surprise you are not hearing what you expected, don’t panic,
give up or change the subject – go with it. Respond to new points and ask follow-ups. Don’t try and shoe-horn an interview into a preconceived story. The surprise might turn into a better story in the end; if it doesn’t, you can choose a later moment to return to your original theme.
Keep an eye on the clock, pace your questions, and when you reach the end of your agreed time, ask: “Do we have time for X more questions?”
“The story will appear on Thursday.” “The photographer will phone you to make an appointment.” Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
This is important, even if you have been stonewalled and insulted. Try to sound as if you mean it.
This is the time when your short-term memory works best; if you leave the notes until the next day, you may forget what a tailed-off scribble actually stood for, or what you urgently noted to yourself to check.
Good journalists will use their material honestly. Obviously, you cannot tell lies about what was said. But nor can you alter the sense of a question or reply after the interview is over: that is what is meant by ‘taking something out of context’. (Be especially careful when you have to move answers from the sequence in which they occurred in the original interview; it’s easy here to distort truth accidentally by clumsy juxtaposition.) Tell your story, and then give the response of those the story concerns. Audiences are intelligent. They will know where the truth lies. You don’t need to tell them it lies with you.