Knight Center
Knight Center


Guide for reporters who want to master the art of the interview

-- "What do you need for a good interview?" -- "Passion, pain, peace, love and... understanding."

As part of a reporter's routine, the interview is among the most essential activities. It is the soul of journalism: it can strengthen or implode an issue, give life to narratives and help achieve better understanding of complex developments. Still, the majority of reporters only get better at this skill through trial and error and, sometimes, the error is recorded, leading to embarrassing moments.

Despite not being an exact science, dominating certain techniques can make the road easier for those journalists who want to get great responses from even the most evasive sources. Get to know those techniques in this guide from the Knight Center with links and tips from experienced professionals.

1. Define your objectives

Before anything else, know what you want the interview to be: quotes, confirmation, context, to reconstruct a scene? This is the first step to plotting a workable strategy.

Jacqui Banaszynski, a Knight Chair in Journalism and professor at the University of Missouri, advises journalists to respond to the following questions before turning on their recording devices: Why are you working on this subject? What do you need to know (and how will you obtain it)? What is your subject or initial focus? What are the logistical/journalistic/ethical/moral challenges involved?

2. Be prepared

A good interview starts way before contacting the interviewee. Jon Talton, columnist for the Seattle Times, wrote for the Reynolds Center that understanding the source and the issue is part of your homework. Making a list of prior questions does not guarantee success of the interview, but researching and understanding completely both what will be discussed and with whom will bear fruit. 

A good example of this comes from Poynter columnist Chip Scanlan: "A. J. Liebling, a legendary writer for The New Yorker, landed an interview with notoriously tight-lipped jockey Willie Shoemaker. He opened with a single question: Why do you ride with one stirrup higher than the other? Impressed by Liebling's knowledge, Shoemaker opened up."

3. Know how to ask

Just like Liebling, reporters frequently face off with interviewees who are not willing to talk as much as desired. Knowing how to ask these days makes a world of difference. Take a look at these lessons from the Canadian investigative journalist John Sawatsky, an authority in the art of the interview for the American Journalism Review and for Poynter:

  • Avoid questions whose responses could only be "yes" or "no" (unless you want to confirm an exact piece of information), go with questions such as "how", "why", and "what."
  • Use short and questions focused on a single subject (one at a time).
  • Avoid hyperboles and loaded words.
  • Keep your opinions outside the questions.
  • Do not try to argue with the source to convince them of your side; instead of that, ask for them to comment on something that you know is true.
  • Always ask: how do you know?
  • Talk about sensitive subjects without sounding "combative".
  • Ask for examples and descriptions, this will help the source remember and articulate responses.

4. Guide the conversation

Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson considers interviews to be "guided conversations" in which the dynamics of the subject are more important than any individual questions. “In journalism school, no one called the interactions between journalists and sources relationships, but that’s what they are," she said.

Learn to take notes with barely looking at the notebook. It is fundamental to engage the interviewee with eye contact and body movement. Showing empathy leaves the source more comfortable, which increases the chances of them opening up. "To interview is a science of winning confidence, then winning information," writes John Brady in  "The Craft of Interviewing".

5. Listen and control the rhythm

Sometimes a reporter is so worried about sticking to their outline that they do not realize those moments where the story can become something more. Don't cut out the possibility of profound information coming to light before quickly jumping to your next question. If there are time limits, focus on the most important topic. If you have plenty of time, explore the points which sounded the most interesting during the interview. 

6. Follow up on responses

Do not leave any doubt pass by. Questions derived from unclear responses can lead to more than what was expected. As Banaszynski states, "for every question, ask five more."

Be an interested listener and perceive when answers can lead to other questions about the topic. As Sawatsky explains, when you show that you are really listening, more confidence is established.

7. Establish any rules beforehand

Be clear about the subject and the context of the interview and find out at the beginning what the source may be worried about. That can avoid being surprised if the interviewee asks for the conversation to be off the record.

In an interesting article about the craft of interviewing for the Columbia Journalism Review, journalist Ann Friedman cites Max Linsky, a well-known interviewer for Longform Podcast, who says: “Long interviews can have three acts — know where you want to start, where you want to end, and how you want to get there. And let the subject know the plan! These conversations can go off the rails quick — laying out the roadmap early lets you easily interrupt and move things along. Makes it feel like you’re on the same team.”

8. In person, by phone, or email?

The interview can be done in various forms: in person, by phone, Skype, email, with or without a video camera. Writing for Poynter, journalist Mallary Jean Tenore cites the preferences of five reporters. The majority of them highlight that a face-to-face interview lets the reporter observe details such as the subject's behavior and their surroundings, which are not noticed in a phone or email conversations.

When the distance between reporter and subject does not allow for a personal conversation, there is the phone or even tools such as Skype. When talking online, using a webcam has the advantage of letting you see the body language of the interviewee. 

An interview through email is unanimously thought to be the last option. But it is useful to plan the interview, make preliminary questions, verify information, and clear up any previous doubts.

For those who choose to record on video, they need to pay attention to certain technical aspects, such as capturing audio and how the footage will be used. Casey Frechette with Poynter suggests to anticipate what could go wrong during a video interview in order to be prepared. Double checking that batteries are fully charged, that all equipment is functioning, and if the location is outside, are essential.

9. Be an expert, risk being ignorant

Be sure that you understand what certain expressions, jargons, and analogies can mean. In the words of Ann Friedman, "play dumb," especially when the subject is complex and technical. Ask the interviewee to explain it you as if you are a child.

10. Pay attention after the interview

Banaszynski notes that is always good to write phone numbers, emails, addresses, and details about both the location and interviewee. If need be, do not hesitate to contact again to clear up any doubts or even plan a second interview. After publication, it is always good to pass the article to the subject and be open to their comments.

Chip Scanlan adds that self-evaluation is always a good way to improve. After trascribing recorded conversations (and its essential to record!), look over both the answers and the questions. "Do you ask more conversation stoppers than starters? Do you step on your subject’s words just as they’re beginning to open up? Do you sound like a caring, interested human being, or a badgering prosecutor?"


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