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Nailing the Interview: Getting Sources To Talk

As you develop your reporting craft, interviewing sources becomes an important component of information gathering. It can take practice before you are comfortable taking control of the interview and asking tough questions. This can be especially difficult when you are trying to build an on-going relationship with a source.

But the good news is that it gets easier with each interview. You just have to get out there and try it. Here are some tips to help:

1. Secure the Meeting

Often times, sources are public figures that can be difficult to nail down. They are busy people with complicated schedules and you should be respectful of that. You show respect by going through the proper channel first– reach out to their scheduler or press assistant to get a time on their calendar. Be persistent to show that you mean business and won’t give up easily.

They will likely ask you what the interview is regarding. You should have an answer prepared that gives insight on the general topic at hand, but do not mention the specifics at this stage. For example, if you want to drill your councilman about a few questionable line items on the city budget that wastes taxpayer money, you are better off saying that you want to talk about how the new budget will affect residents in the city.

2. Do Your Homework

iStock_000014821620SmallMake sure you know everything you can about your source before the interview. A little Internet research goes a long way. Search for articles or essays the source has written or news stories where they’ve been quoted. Search for any important titles, awards, or positions they hold. Ask competitors and allies about the source too. You can learn a lot from their friends and enemies.

3. Control Your Emotions

You might already have an opinion about this person before you walk into the interview. But you need to check your emotions at the door if you want a source to speak openly with you. Go into the meeting with an open mind and a willingness to learn or understand different perspectives.

Don’t fight or argue. You are not there to change his or her mind. You are there to gather information. In fact, if you scoff, roll your eyes, or make a snarky comment, they may end the interview right then. You can still challenge the source with facts and questions, but do so in an appropriate and polite manner.

4. Break the Ice

Getting the interview started is the hardest part. You don’t know what to expect from one another, or if you can trust each other. Think of it as a first date. Would you start drilling your date with questions when you first sit down to dinner?  No, and you shouldn’t do that to your source either.

Take the time to be friendly and warm up to the source. If you are in their office, look for personal details you can comment on—a favorite sports team, their alma mater, or an award hanging on the wall. If you are in a public meeting place, maybe you can congratulate them on a recent event or speech.

5. Take Notes

Take detailed notes, but be engaged in the interview. Make eye contact or nod your head occasionally to show that
you are listening and understanding. Don’t just read questions straight from your notepad. An engaged reporter will adjust questions based on the source’s answers. If you lean too heavily on your prepared questions, you may not catch new story angles that develop during the interview.

You will get more natural responses without a tape recorder. Just the sight of one can make some inexperienced sources nervous or more guarded than usual. If you decide you absolutely need a recording device, reveal your intentions at the beginning of the meeting and be transparent. The source will appreciate your honesty.

6. Save Tough Questions For The End

iStock_000015731499Small Remember, your source has no legal obligation to talk to you. They can choose to end the interview at any time. So save your tough questions for the end to ensure that the interview isn’t over before it begins. Sometimes you can’t help offending your source with a tough question, but keep things polite and respectful so you can keep the relationship.

7. Check the Facts

When the interview is over, your work is not done. Just because your source may have an important title does not mean that he or she is always right. Public figures cite fake statistics or stretch the facts all the time. Sometimes they use buzz words and talking points to hide behind the truth. They can be persuasive but don’t let them fool you. It’s your job to verify their statements and make sure their previous actions align with their words.

*Have you had a difficult interview? Do you struggle with the right questions to ask? I would love to hear your stories and help you improve the interview process. Email me at MaryEllen.Beatty@franklincenterhq.org



Mary Ellen Beatty

Director of the Citizen Watchdog program. Contact me at MaryEllen@citizenwatchdog.com

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