In a non-investigative situation, the main reason for interviewing people is to get information that is generally not known to the reporter and the public.
Once the cameras and audio recorders are rolling, reporters shouldn’t spend time asking people how long they have been employed, where they were educated, whether they are married, or whether they have any children. If that sort of information is important, it should be learned informally before the actual interview begins. You might want to include such information in the introductory sentence of your story, but you would rarely waste valuable airtime with video- or audiotaped responses on these subjects. The recorded questions and answers should be restricted to those that gather information about what the newsmaker knows or thinks about an idea or issue or, perhaps, to those that capture emotions.
One simple trick for reporters is to ask the interviewee to say and then spell their name just as the camera begins to record. This allows the videographer to double-check the audio level, plus it captures the spelling of the name that can be transcribed for the graphics operator during the newscast. Also, if the name is difficult to pronounce, having the subject say it on camera is the best way to learn the correct pronunciation.
PHRASING QUESTIONS CAREFULLY
Many people interviewed by reporters are shy by nature or intimidated by microphones and cameras. Some others just seem to measure their words carefully. In order to prevent one-and-two-word responses, reporters must phrase their questions so they are impossible to answer with a “yes” or “no” or by just a shake of the head.
If you ask a person, “Do you like farming?” you are bound to get a “yes” or “no” answer, but if you ask, “What do you like about farming?” you should get a sound byte. If you ask a witness to an auto accident “Did you see what happened?” you might, again, end up with a one-word response. If you ask, “What did you see?” you’ll most likely get a longer response. Children are particularly likely to give “yes” or “no” answers so ask them open-ended questions and be patient.
AVOIDING LEADING QUESTIONS
Do not lead the interviewees toward giving a particular response—some of the best reporters are sometimes guilty of this bad habit. During the Gulf War, a nationally known TV reporter asked a Bush administration official if he was “upset” after viewing pictures of an air raid that showed heavy destruction to a civilian target. The pictures clearly upset the reporter herself, and phrasing the question in that manner was a disservice for two reasons: (1) it probably influenced many viewers’ feelings about the video and (2) it put the administration official in an uncomfortable situation. If the official had said he was not upset, he would have appeared callous; if he had said he was upset, he might have sounded critical of the military, which may or may not have been fair or accurate. The reporter allowed her personal feelings about the air raid to influence the question. It was a leading question. She should have asked the administration official, “What did you think about those pictures?”
Reporters should arrive at an interview with a list of questions that they intend to ask the newsmaker. They also must develop a keen habit of listening carefully to the answers and asking follow-up questions. Many inexperienced reporters are so intent on asking their prepared questions that they fail to listen to the answers. They often do not realize that their previous question was not answered fully, or at all. Sometimes, to the embarrassment of all, the reporter asks a question that already has been answered. The astute newsmaker—often anticipating the reporter’s next question—sometimes adds additional information to an earlier response. The rude awakening comes when the reporter asks another question on the list and the newsmaker says, “I just answered that.”
Another effective technique is to establish direct eye contact with the person being interviewed. It’s easier for reporters to concentrate on what people are saying if they look them right in the eye. This habit also establishes good rapport. Maintaining eye contact with newsmakers lets them know that the reporter is listening and interested. If the reporter’s eyes drift toward the list of questions or to the cameraperson, the newsmaker might take that as a signal that he or she has said enough and wait for another question even though he or she might not have finished answering the previous question.
THE TOUGH QUESTIONS
One of the more difficult traits to overcome as a novice reporter is the reluctance to ask tough questions. It often goes against instinct to directly ask someone a question that might prompt discomfort or hostility. However, the reporter’s job sometimes requires asking questions that the subject may perceive as irritating or even confrontational. These instances may happen when asking an engineer about flooding in a new subdivision, questioning a football coach about a poorly called game, or interviewing a jaywalker about crossing the street without looking both ways. Seasoned interviewees, like veteran politicians, may not be riled easily. Others may pass you off to their attorney or, in the case of celebrities, to their manager.
Although there are no good ways to ask tough questions, some techniques work better than others. First, unless the interview is going to be brief, avoid asking a tough question at the start; this only creates a confrontational atmosphere for all subsequent questions. Second, if the question may be attributed to a third party, you can phrase the question neutrally. For example,
“Senator, your challenger in the upcoming election says fraud is rampant in your campaign. How do you respond?”
This will still elicit an answer without putting you in a direct confrontation with the subject. Use this technique if there are indeed charges from another source. It is poor journalism to use a “straw man” question to an unnamed source, such as:
“Senator, a lot of people say fraud is rampant in your campaign. How do you respond?”
There are also some instances where reporters are expected to ask direct questions. One painful example of a missed opportunity occurred at a White House press conference during the first months of the Barack Obama administration. As the other reporters focused on the economy, the war in Iraq, and the housing crisis, one reporter asked the president what he thought about baseball players using steroids. The question was not only inappropriate for the setting, but there’s only one way to answer it—does anyone expect the president to say he favors illegal steroid use?
Most interviews will not require a tough question. However, the reporter’s job is to ask such a question if the occasion warrants. Remember that politicians, police chiefs, and football coaches are accustomed to direct questions that require direct answers. The worst possible outcome is that they refuse to answer. Still, you need to ask.
Sometimes reporters inadvertently allow newsmakers to take control of an interview. Politicians are particularly skilled at manipulating interviews. For example, some politicians take a couple of minutes to answer a question, whereas others ask reporters how long a response they want and then give an answer of exactly that length. Because politicians and others accustomed to working with broadcast journalists know that reporters think in terms of sound bytes, they usually try to express their views in about 12 seconds to make sure their answers are not edited.
A problem arises when the newsmaker takes too long to respond. The choice then is either to interrupt or to allow the head to finish the answer and then reask the question, saying, “That was great, but could you cover that same ground again in about half the time?” Most often the individual is happy to comply, which simplifies the editing process and results in a more natural-sounding response. Editing a sound byte down from a minute to 20 seconds sometimes alters the speaker’s inflections.
Some newsmakers try to mislead reporters. They avoid answering some questions and skirt around others. Unless challenged, newsmakers often dominate interview situations. If the head doesn’t answer the question or gives only a partial answer, the reporter should try to follow up. The newsmaker often then gives largely the same answer phrased differently. The reporter then needs to decide whether to ask the question a third time or perhaps to say to the newsmaker, “I’m sorry; but you still have not answered my question.” When the response is “That’s all I’m going to say on the subject,” that in itself makes a statement. The reporter might then note in the story, “When pressed to answer the question several times, he refused to elaborate on the original answer.”
ASKING ENOUGH QUESTIONS
It takes time to develop the skill of knowing when you have asked enough questions during an interview. Reporters just entering the field tend to ask too many questions, usually because they are understandably insecure. As reporters gain experience, they develop a feel for when they have collected enough information.
Because time is precious to a broadcast reporter, asking too many questions means that the reporter spends more time than necessary at the scene or on the phone. That leaves less time for working on other stories and complicates the editing process.
The pressure of conducting interviews quickly can sometimes cause reporters to miss important information. It is often a good idea for the reporter to ask the interviewee if he or she would like to add anything or to ask candidly if the reporter might have missed anything important. It is surprising how often the response is “Well, as a matter of fact, I probably should tell you….”
FINISHING THE INTERVIEW
As the interview winds down, there are a few basic strategies to gather the last information as well as to signal the subject that you’re wrapping up; you will find some interviewees can ramble on all day.
Some reporters ask an open-ended question such as “As we’re wrapping up, do you have any final thoughts on the subject?” Others prefer to ask for how to cover the story; such as “We’re heading out to the location right now. Can you suggest anything we might want to get on videotape?”
One effective technique is to ask for a Web site or e-mail address that you can release on the newscast. For example, if the Red Cross Disaster Services is having a fundraiser and its Web site has the details, asking for the Internet address wraps up the interview while giving you a tidbit to pass along to viewers as well.
Once the interview is over, thank the interviewee for their time. Grab a business card (or double-check the contact information) so that you can follow up with them later. Also, take a moment to help the videographer break down the equipment; you need to get out as quickly as possible so the interviewee can get on with their day.
Finally, never promise that the interview will be on a particular newscast. Stories are frequently dropped, plus there’s always the chance that the story may air but the interview will not make the final cut. To avoid frustrating interviewees, let them know you hope to get it on that evening, but make no promises in the field. If they are insistent on knowing if they’ll be on or not, you can always call them later from the newsroom once the rundown is finished.