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The Art of Interviewing

Researching a term paper and researching for a journalistic article are slightly different as a journalist will interview people for their article.

This process gives the journalist a chance to get information straight from the source.

When a skilled journalist does an interview, it sounds almost effortless. You would think he or she was just sitting down for a chat with an old friend.

But there's a lot going on behind the casual conversation. The journalist has done research on the topic, decided what he/she needs to know and has come up with a list of questions to ask their source.

Think of an interview as a conversation with a purpose. Your job is not just to talk but to leave the interview knowing the answers to some specific questions.

Getting ready for the interview
Would you walk out onto the stage during a school concert and start singing without knowing the melody or the lyrics of the song? Probably not - unless you wanted the audience to laugh! Well, the same holds true for an interview.

Here are some things you can do before an interview:

1. Start by doing some reading on the topic.

  • Surf the Web (using your school's guidelines for searching the internet)
  • Check out newspaper articles
  • Go to the library
  • Find out what has happened in the past
  • What the current developments are and what's expected to happen soon.
  • You may also want to know what's going on in other cities, provinces or countries.

2. Decide on a focus for your story.

  • Figure out who you need to interview.
  • Who can give them the facts and figures?
  • Who will help them put a human face on the story?
  • Write down the questions you want to ask the person during the interview. (See section on Asking the Right Questions)

3.Setting up the interview
It is a good idea for you to call people on the phone and set up a personal interview. Interviews tend to work best face-to-face because you can observe the person's expressions and gestures and you can see the place where the person lives or works.

However, there will be times when you won't have time to meet with a source in person because of time or distance. That's when a phone interview can also work. You must be clear at the start of the phone conversation that you are doing an interview and would like to use your source's comments in a story.

As a last resort, you can interview people via e-mail. However, keep in mind that people don't often write the same way they speak so you may wind up with quotes that sound stiff and unnatural. Plus, by sending a list of questions, you give the interviewee control of the interview.

In doing the interview by email, you decide which questions you want answered and in what order. Then it is left to your source to decide how much detail information to offer you. In person, you can follow up immediately and ask for more information.

4. Asking the right questions
Your goal as an interviewer is to get another person to speak openly and share relevant information and opinions. Some kinds of questions will help them do this and some will make it harder to get the information and comments they need.

Here are some of the most common types of questions that journalists ask and which ones work best:

Open-ended questions encourage the person to talk and share their thoughts and feelings on a subject. It allows them to tell their own story without much prompting from the reporter. For example, here's what a you could ask a boy who rescued his little sister from drowning in a river:

"What were you thinking when you saw your sister struggling in the water?"

You have opened things up for the boy to tell his own story of the rescue. That question will probably get a more interesting and complete answer than a question like this:

"You must have been terrified to see your sister struggling in the water, were you?"

The second question is known as a closed question, probably because it doesn't help a interviewee to open up! Closed questions usually prompt a person to answer with a simple "yes" or "no". However, keep in mind that it can be the right questions to ask at certain points in an interview. They help you pin down important information and get a definite answer.

"Mr. Brown, did you take the money from the school lunch fund?

At this point, Mr. Brown will have to say "yes" or "no", which is something you will need to know in order to write your story.

Many reporters believe that they must take a tough approach to their interviews to get people to answer their questions. But the opposite is often true. That's where neutral questions come in. A neutral question is straight-forward. It doesn't have the reporter's opinion in it. They aren't assuming they know the answer already. The question is clear and gets right to the point. In return, the reporter will probably get an informative answer.

Principal Smith, why has the school decided to cancel the Senior Prom for this year?

That's more effective than a question like this:

Ms. Smith, why have you ruined graduation celebrations for the students by axing the Senior Prom?

The second question has what are known as loaded words – words that leave people with a distinct and often negative impression. That can prompt your source to get defensive or to disagree with your question – and that won't help you get an answer to your question!

Leading questions do just what you'd think they do – they try to lead an interviewee in a certain direction.

Double-barreled questions include two or more parts. Reporters often ask them in order to get as much as they can from their interview or their opportunity to speak at a news conference. But they don't always work that way.

Mr. Jones, will students be allowed to ride the skateboards in the school parking lot next year and why does the school need to hire security guards to supervise the school grounds after classes?

Principal Jones may not hear both questions and may only answer one. Or he may choose to answer only one. And that means you have to try again to get your question answered. It's usually better to ask each question separately and get a complete answer.

Wrap-up questions help you make sure you have all the information you need. You can ask your source questions like this to end the interview and clarify information he/she has given you during the course of your conversation. That way, you can tie up loose ends before leaving the interview -- not when you sit down to write!

"Is there anything else I should have asked you?"
"Let me be sure I have everything...."
"So, as I understand it, there are three main issues here...."

5. Keeping notes
When it comes to recording a person's interview, you have several options. You can write down the information you get in a notebook or record the interview on audio or video tape.

 Here are some tips you can use for taking
good notes:

  • Focus on the interviewee and concentrate on what's being said.
  • Write down the important details as fast as you can.
  • Come up with your own shorthand for words.
  • Read your notes right after the interview to refresh your memory.
  • Fill in any blank spaces in your notes.
  • Try recording the interview on tape and taking notes. That allows you to concentrate on the person's answers instead of note-taking. However, you can make a note of where an important fact or quote occurs in the interview. That will save you time later when you are going back through your tape.


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