The art of the interview

What’s in the article? 

  • Interviewing is fundamental to all forms of journalism.
  • Emily Kwong of NPR’s Short Wave and Michelle Theriault Boots of Anchorage Daily News share their knowledge about the process of interviewing.
  • They provide tips on how to get someone to agree to be interviewed and the process of cold contacting. 
  • Advantages and disadvantages of print versus audio interviews in journalism.
  • The Alaska Press Club, a nonprofit that provides continuing education, recognition and help to journalists across the 49th state. Become a member to support local journalism and attend the annual conference.

Interviewing, which refers to meeting someone face-to-face or digitally (especially for consultation), has been fundamental to journalism since the beginning. 

The process may be difficult to understand, and a good interview is certainly harder than it looks. But interviewing is something that can definitely be learned. 

NPR’s Emily Kwong and ADN’s Michelle Theriault Boots shared their reporting experiences at the 2022 Alaska Press Club Conference and have insights on the art of the interview. The session was hosted by Alaska Public Media’s Annie Feidt. 

How to get someone to agree to be interviewed

There are some important things that you need to consider when asking someone to be interviewed. When you’re reaching out, remember that the introduction matters. Many sources don’t know much about you or your newsroom. To make a good introduction, remember to be straightforward and transparent with your sources. Make it clear to them who you are and why their perspective is important. Theriault Boots acknowledged that email introductions can be useful. 

“Seeing that in words rather than a call on the phone sometimes helps them to feel more comfortable and to really consider whether they want to be interviewed or not,” Theriault Boots said. 

Cold contacting, by both email and phone, can also be intimidating for journalists. An important tip the two reporters offered is to contact the person as soon as possible. There is never a perfect time or right time and you will naturally get better at reaching out. 

Then it’s important to build trust with the source. 

“It’s a scary thing to be interviewed by someone and put your trust in a stranger who is going to put your name and possibly your voice or your image in the media,” Theriault Boots said.

Expectations are important to build before you ask even a single question in the interview.

“Usually, if people believe that you’re going to be fair to them they will do it,” Theriault Boots said. 

How to prepare for the interview

Preparation may be extensive or not; it depends on the project. 

Sometimes the day-to-day demands of journalism make it difficult for reporters to adequately prepare. Kwong notes that it’s important to be kind to yourself and realistic about how much time you have.

“It’s like a pendulum, you can be over prepared and closed minded and underprepared and flailing. Finding that balance is really something that comes with time,” Kwong said.  

Kwong talked about the differences between Susan Orlean, a long-form print writer who doesn’t do much prep, and Terry Gross, a radio program host who reads, watches and listens to everything about her sources. She said most reporters will find themselves somewhere in the middle. 

Kwong sets a timer and asks herself what type of prep would be the best use of the time she does have. Should she watch a TED talk the source did or call someone who knows them? 

Theriault Boots said it’s important to spend time thinking HOW to ask the question, and to think about what you’re specifically trying to get out of the interview.

“What can this person bring to the story?” Theriault Boots asked.  

The differences between audio and print interviews

There are definitely differences between audio and print interviews, even if they’re executed through a similar process.

Presentation host Annie Feidt said that she thinks interviewing for facts is harder in audio than in print. It’s hard for people to get facts and specific information correct on the spot for a quick soundbite.

Theriault Boots is mostly a print journalist but she has recently done some podcast work that has made her consider a new approach to interviews. She talks about how in print you have infinite chances to get what you need out of interviews. You can get away with asking many and sometimes fragmented questions to understand a larger story. But in audio and video you need to get people to say things on tape.

“If they are not completing the thought or you have botched the question, you might be able to go back and try it again with them but there is nothing like that first, fresh attempt,” Theriault Boots said.  

“I think audio interviewing requires much more prep because you really have to be very deliberate about what you’re asking, how you’re asking it and are you asking it in a way that is going to allow the person to speak and say what they have to say in a compelling way that’s not fragmented.” 

She says that with print it is easy to make follow up phone calls to close content gaps but with audio you often have one shot to get it right. 

Helpful interview tips and tricks

Kwong and Theriault Boots had other helpful advice that may help potential interviewers. 

  • First of all, don’t do what are called ‘gotcha’ questions, or asking a question that will potentially catch the subject off guard. It will do neither you or the subject or the general public any favors. 
  • In addition, avoid compound questions. Ask a single question followed by follow-up questions and make sure all questions are open-ended.  
  • It’s important to never go off the record unless your sources are civilians (though, on that note, make sure the civilians know what ‘off the record’ actually means). In general, try to keep things on the record as much as possible. 
  • It’s important to empathize with your subject, and not to be afraid of that empathy. It’s a human thing, much like interviewing traumatized citizens by starting the interview with the acknowledgement of the citizen’s pain. It’s the right thing to do to acknowledge both you and the source’s humanity. 
  • Additionally, don’t step on your source’s words, and be comfortable with silence. It’s important to listen as clearly as possible. It’s also totally okay to ask the subject to repeat themselves more concisely if they’re unclear.
  • It’s important to think of your sources (at least informally) as collaborators adding to your story.
  • Lastly, don’t assume too much; it’s important to adjust your position based on the data and information the source provides. 

These are just some of the insights shared by Emily Kwong and Michelle Theriault Boots, and you can watch the full recording and Q&A here and check out the document for their presentation here. Remember that these tips are only some of the things you can do in order to practice the art of the interview. 

Written by Logan Tyler Smith

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