September 17, 1997 / Coverage / Fall 1997

A Tale of Two Interviews

Written by David Knight

The Do’s and Don’ts of tracking Down the Hotest Story of the Year

Sami A. Slaquer
8:30 a.m., somewhere on the West Coast – Sami is assigned the hottest story of the year – an investigative piece on the new speed bumps that are causing damage to cars in the school’s parking lot.

8:31 a.m. – Sami plops down in a chair to search last year’s yearbook for a prom date. So what if it’s just August? He needs all the time he can get.

A bad omen
Sami is wasting valuable time. Getting a fast start is very important on any story assignment. Procrastination now will come back to haunt him later.

3 p.m. – After giving little thought to his story assignment the rest of the day, Sami goes home. He decides to sit in front of the T.V. and try to think of some questions. No luck.

6 p.m. – Three hours later, after watching a couple of episodes of The Brady Bunch and some music videos on MTV, Sami still doesn’t have a question. “What the heck,” he says to himself. “I’ll do it tomorrow.”

Do not procrastinate
You have got to have strategies to help you think of questions quickly. You cannot afford to put off thinking of questions because you have writer’s block.

Two weeks later, 7:50 a.m. – “Oh, man!” Sami thinks, “My story is due tomorrow.” He frantically scrawls a note to his best friend Scuz and stuffs it in Scuz’s locker. “Dear Scuz,” the note says, “I need a quote about speed bumps. Please write a quote and return to me after school.”

A cardinal sin
Writing down questions and letting your sources answer on paper is a cardinal sin of reporting. The whole idea of the interview is to have a conversation during which the source shares information candidly with you. Comments sources write down are almost always stilted, and the quotes will not sound like a person talking, but like a person writing.

8:03 a.m. – Sami’s editor comes by his desk, “How’s the story coming, Sami?” “Great, man,” Sami says, “I sent out questions today, and they’ll be in this afternoon.” “Have it in tomorrow?” editor asks. “Sure,” Sami says, “and it’ll be great.”

Poor leadership
The editor is as much at fault for the shape Sami’s story is in as Sami. Editors must make sure reporters know the interviewing process. Smart editors set deadlines for each step of the writing process, instead of just one deadline for finishing the story. Smart editors also assign teams to stories. If the editor had done his job, Sami would not be about to commit major errors in the interviewing process.

3:05 p.m. – Sami finds the note stuffed back in his locker. It reads: “I don’t do speed – have no idea. Got to go to work. Catch ya later.” “Great,” Sami thinks. Then he heads to the arcade in the mall to plan his strategy.

Forget friends
You should never interview friends. They will tempt you to make up quotes for them, and your readers might begin to think they have got to know someone on the publication to get interviewed.

6 p.m. – Sami sees three students playing Mortal Combat – they look like good sources. Sami – “Hey, dude, can I ask you some questions?”

The right place?
Interview your source in his environment, but make sure the environment fits the story. The arcade is not exactly right for this story.

Dude 1 – “What are you – a physics test?”

Dude 2 & 3 – “Giggle, snarf, snarf- That’s a good one, Dude 1.”

Sami – “No, dude, like I got this story to do for my school newspaper. It won’t take but a minute – just give me a quote about the new speed bumps.”

Hey, gimme a quote!
Probably the No. 1 cardinal sin of reporting – asking for “a quote.” That is like sticking a microphone in someone’s face and asking them to “say something.” It puts them on the spot and makes you look lazy and unprofessional.

Dude 1 – “Give a what?”

Dude 2 – “Dude 1, you dumb. Like speed, like he’s doing a story on teens and drugs.”

One-on-one is best
Get your source alone with just you or the interviewing team. If you try to interview people in front of their friends or fellow teachers, you will find they are too conscious of what the other people think about their answers to respond honestly or thoughtfully.

Dude 3 pushes Dude 2 – “No way, man, you dumb. He’s reviewing that sequel to the first Speed movie.”

Dude 1 – “You guys are losers. Anyway, I don’t know nothin’.”

Dude 3 – “You can say that again.” (Dude 1 glares at Dude 3.)

Sami, astute reporter that he is, senses trouble and interrupts – “Just chill out, guys. It’s about the new SPEED BUMPS in the SCHOOL PARKING LOT, see. The things cars run over. Do you think they’re good?”

What a disaster
Not introducing yourself and not explaining the reason for the interview is unprofessional, as well as disrespectful. Also, remember, it is important to break the ice and to have a planned approach to your questions. When you do not do these things, you are not likely to succeed in the interview.

Dude 1 – “Oh, yeah, I seen those. Good? Yeah, dey’re nice. How’s that for a quote?”

No leading questions
See what a leading question will do? Dude 1 heard the word “good” in Sami’s question, so he guesses that’s what Sami wants to hear and answers accordingly.

Dude 2- “Rockin’. (to Sami) He’s good with words, ain’t he?”

Dude 3 – (slouching against the wall with his arms across his chest) “Sounds stupid to me”

Dude 1 -“Who are you calling stupid?”

Sami-“Whoa, now, chill out, just let me ask you a couple more questions. Are they causing problems?”

Dude 1 – “Uh, yeah.”

Avoid “yes” and “no”
See what a “yes or no” question will do. One-word quotes do not make for engaging copy.

Dude 3 – “How dey causing you problems? You ain’t got no car. Dey hurt your feet when you walk across dem?”

Dude 1 edges toward Dude 3 – “Hey, man, what you know? You go around them on your bike, I guess.”

The right source
Research before beginning the interviewing process helps you find sources who have a connection to your story. It also increases your chances of getting a great story.

Dude 2 – “I agree.”
Dude 1 and 3 glare at him.

Sami – “Okay, cool down, just a couple more questions. Have you talked to anybody who has a car that is ticked off about them?”

Ask clear questions
A “ticked-off” car? Sounds like a better story than the speed bumps. Be careful how you word questions.

Dude 1 – “Uh, yeah.”

Dude 3 mutters under his breath – “That’s a lie. Ain’t nobody with a car talkin’ to him.”

Dude 1 goes after Dude 3 – “What’d you say, man?” And the fight begins. Sami runs.

Five minutes later – Sami stops near the food court to compose himself and sees his principal, Mr. Bigum Knurd, with a heaping tray full of greasy goodies. “Hey, Mr. Knurd, can I ask you some questions?”

Timing is everything
Do not interview sources when they are busy or involved with something else. Catching a source on the run usually yields terrible quotes.

Mr. Knurd – “Uh, look, forget you saw me, and I’ll give you a ‘get-out-of-detention-free’ pass.”

Sami – “What? Okay, but I still need to ask you some questions. I’m doing a story on the new speed bumps.”

Be clear
Make sure you prepare questions that are clearly worded. You lose the confidence of your source when you make him feel dumb because he misunderstood you and responded incorrectly.

Mr. Knurd – “Look, you know speed kills. You have so much to look forward to. Don’t throw it all away with some stupid mistake. Stay off speed.”

Sami – “No, man, SPEED BUMPS in the school parking lot. The new ones. Why’d the district put the stupid things in? They tear up cars.”

Do not attack
Do not begin with a tough question that frightens or threatens your source. Remember, start with easy questions, which help your source build trust and confidence in you. And, do not word your questions in a way that intimidates or makes your source feel stupid.

Mr. Knurd – “Young man, you will not talk to me in that manner. You’re just like every other journalist – always looking for the negative – trying to stir up controversy. Well, I won’t have it in my school.”

Sami turns away in disgust and sees his last hope, Mrs. Knota Kloo, his English teacher, – “Uh, Mrs. Kloo, can I ask you some questions?”

Mrs. Kloo turns from the Elvis throw rugs in the middle of the mall to see who’s speaking to her – “Uh, yes, certainly.” Sami sees a dazed look in her eyes.

Make introductions
Do not let a source spend the whole interview trying to remember who you are instead of concentrating on your questions. Always begin by introducing yourself, even if you think the source should know your name.

Sami – “Do you think the school needs those new speed bumps?”

Mrs. Kloo, still dazed – “Well, of course.”

Sami – “You do? Why?”

Mrs. Kloo, now gazing somewhere above his head – “To keep students from running in the halls, of course. Young man, how are you going to quote me? You’re not writing anything down.”

At least scribble
Nothing makes a source feel more confident that you will be accurate than his seeing you take notes, and nothing is better for keeping a source talking. Take notes, and practice so you will be good at it.

Sami shrugs and walks off – “I think I got enough. I didn’t want to do this stupid story anyway. It’s boring.”

10 p.m., that night – Sami sits down to write. He sits and sits and sits and finally writes a five-paragraph story with no direct quotes and a great deal of his opinion.

A waste of time
Without good interviews, even the greatest writers cannot turn out good copy. Being a great reporter is sometimes better than being a great writer. All great writers, from novelists to journalists, are great because they are experts at gathering information.

8 a.m., the next morning – Sami turns in his story. When his editor asks him what happened, Sami says, “Nobody wouldn’t say nothin’.”

Rock N. Wreporter
1:30 p.m., somewhere on the East Coast – Rock is assigned the hottest story of the year – an investigative piece on the new speed bumps that are causing damage to cars in the school’s parking lot.

1:31 p.m. – Rock leaps into action, immediately sitting down with his editor to discuss the best angle for the story.

A crucial first step
Never begin a story until you are sure you understand the angle.

1:45 p.m.- Rock hits the library to check Time, Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal for articles about the speed bumps.

Absolutely a must – read something that has already been written about your topic before you do anything else.

3 p.m. – No luck in the major magazines, but Rock does find a good story in last year’s student newspaper and another item in the local paper on parents who voiced their concerns to the school board at a recent meeting.

Ah, ha!
Reading background articles helps you develop ideas for angles, questions and sources. By doing this, Rock got the names of three good sources to interview and ideas for 10 questions.

3:10 p.m. – In the parking lot, Rock observes students upset by the speed bumps, counts the number of speed bumps and notes how many cars scrape. He also measures the height of the speed bumps.

Every detail helps
Every little thing you can find out before you begin to interview increases the chances you will be successful.

1:30 p.m., the next day – When Rock returns to journalism class the next day, he has identified three parents, four students, a teacher, an administrator, and a police officer he plans to interview.

Get both sides
Great reporters know that you always interview people on both sides of an issue.

1:35 p.m.- Rock works with the designer and the photographer assigned to the story to write between 10 and 20 questions for each source. He gives them to his editor to critique.

Prepare several questions
Write several – between 10 and 20 – questions for each source. Of course, some questions you use with one source might (and probably should) be used with other sources.

3 p.m. – Rock goes by the Guidance Office to get background information and phone numbers for the people he plans to interview so he can call to set up meetings with them.

Make appointments
When possible, schedule interviews in advance, but always write the questions before you contact your source for an appointment.

1:30 p.m., the next day – The editor returns the questions critiqued and Rock, the designer and the photographer revise them and put them in order- easiest to hardest.

Revision is key
Revising questions is just as important as revising copy. And remember, put your ‘fact’ questions first – they are easier to answer and get the interview rolling. Save “opinion” questions until last – they are harder for people to answer.

3 p.m. – Rock and his colleagues meet their first source, Otto B. Carr, for an interview in the parking lot.

Get them ‘at home
Rock’s smart – he knows that interviewing sources in their environment gives him more material to use as he paints word pictures for his readers. He also realizes the value of involving the designer and the photographer, when possible, in all steps of the interviewing process. Do this, and you will discover deadlines are met more often and all elements of the story improve tremendously.

Rock – “Hi, I’m Rock Wreporter. This is Dee Page, our designer, and Flash Cannon, our photographer.”

Otto – “Good deal. How you wanna do this?”

Rock – “Just like we talked about last night. We’d like to ride out of the parking lot with you, just to get a feel for how the speed bumps affect your car. Then we’ll meet you at your father’s auto shop for the interview. Is that okay?” Flash begins snapping shots.

Great photographers – what would we do without them? Flash will have great images because he is already getting Otto used to him being there.

Otto – “Sounds good. I just have to take my girlfriend home, but that’ll just take a minute.” (They pile into Otto’s car. As they cross speed bumps, Rock and Dee take notes while observing how Otto, his girlfriend and the car react to the speed bumps.)

Observe and record
Great reporters are great observers – and great recorders of detail. Make sure you look for details that will paint a picture and draw your reader into the story.

3:30 p.m. – At the shop, Otto pulls his car onto a lift and sends it slowly up until it is above their heads. Flash is firing away.

Rock – “Do you mind if I tape-record? It helps me make sure I get my facts straight.” (Rock gets out his tape recorder.)

Is it real, or is it…
Gotta love tape recorders. But never trust them – they will let you down and they do not record the very important non-verbal communication. Always take notes, even if you record.

Otto – “Sounds like a good idea to me.” Rock – “Before we begin, I just want to let you know that if you want to go off the record, you must tell me first.”

Set the ground rules
Always set the ground rules for the interview. Avoid having someone go off the record with you after the fact. Like the coach who says his team stinks, but then says, “That’s off the record, of course.”

Otto – “No, problem.”

Rock – “Great. So, Otto, you’ve been driving to school for five years. Is that right?”

Otto – “Yep, got my first car after I turned 16.”

Rock – “Your car is a 1968 Chevelle Super Sport that you restored yourself. Is that correct?”

Otto – “Correct.” (Rock asks 10 break-the-ice questions, which are all “yes-answer” questions, following up each one with “Is that right?” or “Is that correct?” Note that Rock already knows the answers to these questions.)

Put them at ease
A guaranteed way to impress your sources. They will be awed that you have taken the time to do your homework. They will have confidence you will get the facts right. They will respect you more because you appear to know something about the subject. Bottom line – it makes them more likely to talk candidly with you.

Otto – (After 10th question) “Hey, you’ve really done your homework on me.”

Rock – “Thanks. We just wanted to make sure we had all our facts straight. Now…”

Rock and Dee begin asking the questions they’ve prepared, taking down Otto’s great quotes.

As they ask each question, they give Otto time to respond, never jumping in just because he pauses before answering.

Be patient
Give them time to think before they answer, and do not let their silence intimidate you into answering the question for them. Ask your question and then be quiet until they answer or they ask you to explain it.

As Otto answers, they take notes, nod and say, “Uh-huh,” or “I understand.”

In the margins of their notes, they record what Otto does as he talks, like when he points to a bent place on his muffler, closes one eye and stares at the ceiling as he adds up how much he’s spent on repairs, polishes a spot on the front fender as he talks about the hours spent restoring the Chevy.

Observation adds color
Observing and recording what Otto does as he answers their questions will help them write more colorful and descriptive stories. Great reporters put you there by letting you hear, see and feel what happens during the interview or the event you are covering.

Flash captures Otto’s expressions on film. He works hard not to interrupt the interview’s flow. He also takes notes, making sure to note the frame he’s shooting and what Otto was asked during the frame, so he’ll have what he needs to write cutlines.

What a shutterbug!
Flash will get great candids because he knows how to disappear as he shoots. He also gathers information for cutlines, information that will be accurate and add to what his photos show.

Rock and Dee work well together, following up each question with questions designed to get the little details they’ll need to make their story come alive. For example, after they ask Otto to describe the first time a speed bump damaged his car, they follow up with: “What did you say to your girlfriend when you heard the oil pan scraping?” “What did it sound like?” “What exactly did you do?” and “How did your father react when you told him what happened?”

Follow up
Beginning reporters miss great quotes and stories because they do not pursue questions to the max. Follow-up questions help you put flesh on the answers your original questions get. Ask as many questions as necessary to get the little details of the story. As your source responds to a question, listen carefully and ask questions that will expand his answer.

One hour later – Rock, Dee and Flash have asked all their questions, and they take a minute to flip through their notes, making sure they didn’t leave any out.

Very thorough
Always take time to check to see that you have asked all the questions you prepared.

Rock – “That’s all our questions. Would you like to add anything?”

What a reporter!
A question you always ask. Always put it in your list. Your source will appreciate it, and sometimes you will get great stuff, as Rock and Dee did.

Otto – “As a matter of fact, there is. I’ve checked into what most paving guys say about how high speed bumps should be, and the school speed bumps are at least six inches higher than normal.

” Rock – “Wow!…” And Rock and Dee follow up, finding out the names of paving contractors who can give them more details.

Rock – “Thanks, Otto, this has been a great interview. You’ve been very helpful. Would you mind if we call if we have other questions?”

A genius!
The last question you always ask. That way, when your editor or adviser asks you to call for more information, you already have permission from your source to call back.

Otto – “Oh no, man. Call me anytime.”

Ten minutes later – Rock is at home, going through his notes to correct words that aren’t clear and adding new questions to ask in his other interviews.

Pulling it together
Always end by reviewing and correcting your notes as soon as possible after you finish the interview. When you get around to writing the story, you will not find things you cannot decipher.

The next three days – Rock, Dee and Flash interview the rest of their sources. They create a package that wins top honors in state and national award competitions. But, more importantly, their package convinces the administration to have the speed bumps re-constructed.

The ultimate honor
The ultimate honor of reporting – something you produced helps change things for the better.

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David Knight