Interviewing Tips for Journalists: Before, during and after you talk with an important source for a news story

Jerz > Writing > Journalism

Good journalists value in-person interviews.

  • An interview means a real-time give-and take, not a list of questions you email.
  • Most people worth interviewing are too busy to write out their answers to help you meet your deadline.
  • If you can’t meet in person, ask if your source will do a videoconference, or even (if they’re the right generation) an old-fashioned phone call. (Gasp!)

You can intuit a lot from the tone of voice a source uses when answering your questions, or from how excited or nervous they get when a certain topic comes up. You don’t have to include all those details in your story, but when you’re right there with them, you can react to their real-time emotions, thinking up new questions based on their unexpected reactions, in order to make the most of your limited time together.

Even seeing for yourself whether their office is cluttered or organized, or decorated with inspirational slogans or quirky pop culture trinkets, can provide insight that you might be able to use in a personality profile.

Setting up the Interview

Ask for about a half hour of their time. Don’t email a list of every question you plan to ask, but do let them know what topics you’re interested in (so they have time to prepare if they wish to).

If the person is very important, and you’re already deep into researching your story and all you really need is a quote from a decision-maker or top expert, you might just ask for a five-minute phone interview. Use the time to let them know who else you’ve already interviewed, and how a you feel quote or two from them will help complete your story.

Don’t demand that a busy, important person give you basic information you can look up on your own. Do your homework, and Tell them about the gap you’d like them to fill in your in-progress story.

Before you show up for the interview, reach out to a short list of your source’s close associates, so that you can educate yourself beforehand.

When I wrote for an engineering publication, I was frequently talking to world-class experts who had very specific knowledge. (They were sending experiments up with NASA’s space shuttle, designing a voice synthesis interface for Stephen Hawking, or pioneering virtual reality applications, and they were busy people.) Before I spoke to the professor in charge of a big project, I would ask meet with one of their student assistants, who were usually excited to show a reporter around their lab and answer my beginner questions, so that when I met the boss we could jump right to the really interesting stuff. (I remember several times seeing the top prof’s face change, when they realized they were talking with someone who had relevant, specialized questions, and they didn’t have to explain their project from the ground up.)

If you are doing a light personality profile, ask your source’s relative or college roommate to tell you a funny story. For a complex, high-stakes story, bring some direct quotes from a stakeholder on the “other side” of a controversy. You’re not playing “gotcha” here — you are doing your homework, looking or questions that will get your source talking.

Ask to observe your subject in their native habitat doing the thing that makes your subject worth interviewing.

  • If you are interviewing a teacher, ask to observe their class, and put in your story details that you learn about their teaching style.
  • If you’re interviewing a single dad who is also a prize-winning chainsaw sculptor, ask to visit him in the morning as he gets the kids ready for school, as well as at a chainsaw sculpting competition.
  • If your subject is really important, and really busy, try to observe them at a public event.

Don’t waste their time by asking them details you could look up yourself (such as where they grew up or what is their full job title).

Starting the Interview

Most people who aren’t used to being interviewed will be at least a little nervous.

Start out with some informal chitchat, letting them know why you chose to interview them and why your readers would like to read about them. When they start talking, lean forward and nod a lot, and say, “I love that story, I’ll ask you to tell me more about that in a few minutes.”

  • When your subject seems comfortable, take out your notebook or your phone and ask, “Do you mind if I start taking notes / start recording now?”
  • In some states (including Pennsylvania), it is illegal to record someone without their knowledge. As soon as you turn on your recording device, say, “OK, I’m recording now. Interviewing [name of subject] for [subject of article or name of magazine you’re going to pitch].”
    • If you plan to use their voice in a podcast or documentary, say so in your recording.
    • If you only plan to use the recording to jog your memory, say “This is for my own notes,” or something like that. (And stick to your promise.)
  • Check with your editor before you make any promises about what you will or won’t put in your story.
  • Don’t agree to share your notes or a draft of your story before you publish it. (Some reporters will agree to read quotes back to give the source a chance to check them for accuracy, but that’s not required.)
  • In general, don’t interview a source who puts conditions on what you can write about them. (If you can, interview someone else. If this source is trying to obstruct your story by refusing to cooperate, then calmly explain that you think the story will be incomplete without their cooperation; in your story, briefly and neutrally describe the conditions under which your source did (or did not) agree to be interviewed, and note whether you agreed beforehand that any topics were excluded. Make it clear that you’re doing your best to cover all sides of the story, but that the person you’re interviewing is making it difficult for you to be fair.
  • If you do make a promise, keep it. (For instance, a local businessperson who is going through a messy divorce might be under a court order not to talk about their family, so the subject might agree to talk about their job, but not answer questions about their family life. In general, avoid letting sources put conditions on their interviews. As what they would be comfortable talking about with no conditions, and work from there.

During the Interview

Leave plenty of time to listen.

Lean forward and nod a lot when your source is talking. (Don’t be insincere about it, but do try to show your sincere interest in what your source has to day.)

  • Say things like, “Can you tell me a little more about that?” or “And what was going through your mind at that climactic moment?” and “What are some really vivid details you remember about that day?” (You’ll want such details to help you tell an engaging story for your reader.)
  • A journalist should listen fairly to multiple stakeholders in a complex situation.
  • If you frown or shake your head because you don’t like what you’re hearing, that will affect how much your subject is willing to open up to you. (This is why I suggest you make a conscious effort to show active signs that you are listening attentively. Get your game face on, and don’t react negatively to things you disagree with.)
  • Even if you personally object to something your source says, you should be grateful that they’re giving you material you can use to write a fair story that uses their own words to represent their take on the issue.

Get the details. Details drive your story.

Reporters pride themselves on getting the name, breed, and weight of any dog they mention in a story; the make, model, and year of any car, and the brand of the beer. (That’s the formula I learned as a cub reporter; some female friends of mine tell it as “the design and model of the bra.”)

On the Record and Off the Record

    • Once you have started recording (“gone on the record”), it’s permissible for you to publish anything your source says, even if they get flustered and say, “But don’t put that in your story.” (Don’t get legalistic about it, especially if you’re interviewing someone who’s not used to talking to reporters. Ask if they can a share a different story, or ask if you can share the story without mentioning any names.)
    • Your source might say, “I’ll only answer that off the record,” in which case you might want to ask them why they want to go off the record.
      • They might be fuzzy on some of the details and don’t want you to publish quotes that contain errors; or they might worry that they’ll be violating someone else’s privacy by telling a story that includes them.
      • Remind them that you can’t write a fair story if you can’t include their side, and try to keep them talking. (See the section below about anonymous sources.)
    • In some cases, a source who wants to go “off the record” would be OK with you prefacing a detail with something like “An employee of SHU who asked to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to speak officially on the matter said that….”
    • If you say “An English professor who teaches journalism and Shakespeare at a small Catholic liberal arts college in Greensburg posted on his blog that…” that’s not exactly going to help me (uh… that is, it’s not going to help the source you’re trying to protect) maintain their anonymity.
    • Don’t let your source tell you the juicy and controversial detail unless you can agree, beforehand, exactly how you will attribute it in your article.

After Your Interview

  • As you wrap up, thank your source and ask how they’d like to be contacted for follow-up questions. (You might need to double-check spelling, or clarify a timeline, or get their help in fact-checking your interview with someone else.)
    • After you’ve done in an-person or real-time electronic interview, it’s fine to follow up via email or text, if your source is OK with that.
    • Your source has just graciously given you their time, and you’re asking for even more of their time; reach out to them in whatever method is most convenient for them, rather than what’s easiest for you.
  • Check your facts. Sometimes people exaggerate, or get details confused.
    • Verify or duck.
    • When I was a cub reporter, my mentors told me, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
  • Don’t include any anonymous sources in your story unless
    1. your source has a very good reason to request anonymity (personal safety, fear of reprisal from a company), and
    2. your editor agrees that you absolutely need this source in order to cover the story.

Let your source know you’ll have to tell your editor the name you want to keep out of the story, and you’ll still need to verify all your source’s claims independently. (What documentation can they provide? Can they point you towards someone with first-hand knowledge who is willing to go on the record?)

Sources who request anonymity might be legitimately afraid of retaliation, but they might be trying to feed you rumors and lies to harm a rival, or they might just be trying to prank you. 

There’s no single, universal checklist that covers what to do. Talk to an experienced editor who can help you weigh the pros and cons of using an anonymous source.