Asking good questions is the most important part of a journalistic interview, but there’s much more to the art of the interview. Successful interviews often require a good amount of preparation and etiquette behind the scenes. Journalists who take the time to select a good interview setting, remember to check their equipment, and know how to use silence to their advantage tend to elicit better interviews.
Here are some things to consider as you prepare for and conduct your journalistic interviews.
A good interview setting can make a big difference to your source’s comfort level and the quality of your interview. If you are conducting an in-person interview, select a comfortable, quiet interview setting that is private enough for your source to feel comfortable talking openly. Avoid background noises, such as coffee machines brewing or cars honking, and steer clear high-foot-traffic places such as playgrounds or malls. Your setting should also be a place accessible to both you and your source and in which you can use whatever equipment you need to conduct your interview. (For example, if you need to plug in a device to a power source during the interview, don’t meet at a public park.)
Consider asking your source to suggest an interview location where they feel comfortable. They may suggest their office because it is convenient for them, but they may also prefer to go elsewhere where they can speak more privately. Don’t be afraid to politely request small changes, such as turning off background music or moving a pet to another room. That will reduce distractions and increase the quality of your recording, should you choose to make one.
As a journalist, you are in charge of making sure your interview goes smoothly. This starts by ensuring you look the part — so dress for the occasion. Often, it also means making sure your technology is your friend. Before you begin (or leave for) an interview, make sure that you have everything you need — your notepad, pen, recording device, interview questions, and so on — and that everything is in good working order. Are your devices fully charged? Did you pack the charging cable for your phone or recorder? Is your recorder or phone app set up with your preferred settings? Do you have a back-up battery? If you are video recording the interview, are the camera settings set to the right defaults?
Don’t start an interview until you are ready. Many journalists have lost important details because they forgot to toggle a setting on their recorder, or had to fumble their way through an interview because they forgot their notes in the office. Taking the time to prepare and double-check your equipment will thus keep you from embarrassing yourself or losing access to information during an interview. (In fact, some junior journalists will keep a pre-interview checklist to make sure they don’t forget anything.)
Sources may get nervous when they are being interviewed — especially when that interview is being recorded. (Many journalists don’t like being interviewed themselves!)
Take a minute or two at the start of an interview to make your sources more comfortable with the interview process. Re-introduce yourself and the topic of the interview. Walk them through the trajectory of your interview questions, briefly mentioning the different topics you plan to touch on over the course of the interview. Explain how your recording equipment works. Start with simpler questions that are easy for your source to answer. If it’s helpful, consider starting with a creative practice question such as, “What did you eat for breakfast?” to set the source at ease. Or, if you had a funny or interesting thing happen to you that morning, you can share that anecdote to humanize yourself and make the source feel more at ease.
Journalists and their sources should negotiate a clear understanding of what may be quoted and how the source may be identified in a story. This is called attribution, or the descriptor the journalist uses to identify the source of a quote or piece of information featured in a story. There are four main levels of attribution for journalistic interviews: on-the-record, on background, on deep background, and off-the-record.
On-the-record means that you can freely quote or reference anything the source and attribute it directly to them by name and title. You should try to keep as much of the interview on-the-record as you can because it allows audiences to see or hear the source’s exact words. Complete identification also allows audiences to have a better sense of where a source get their expertise from, as well as the potential biases they’re likely to have.
On background (also called ’not for attribution’) means that you may quote the source directly but you may not attribute the statements to the source by name. Usually, journalists will provide a general description that gives audiences a sense of the source’s position but makes it difficult to positively identify them. An example of such a description is: “according to a senior military officer with direct knowledge of the program.” This level also includes quoted statements that have no attribution, such as: “according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity.”
On deep background means that you may not quote a source directly or identify them in any way. An example of such a description is: “The Times has learned that … .” This is a seldom-used level of attribution, and is usually reserved for sensitive affairs.
Finally, off-the-record is a fuzzy term that often means a different thing to different sources. Usually, it is used to refer to an on-background arrangement, where the information can be used but not be attributed (i.e., an anonymous quote). However, the term is also often used to describe information that journalists cannot use in their story or directly reference in conversations with other sources. For example, a source may tell you, off-the-record, that a state actor hacked the servers handling the e-mails for a political party. While you cannot publish that information right away, you can start chasing other leads. For example, you might want to ping an Information Technology administrator who works with that political party and see if you can get them to bring up the hack. Additionally, even if you can’t publish the off-the-record information, the information may prove useful for understanding a different story (e.g., why party officials suddenly proposed new legislation pertaining to cyber security).
Once an interview has begun, your source is speaking on-the-record unless you and they have agreed in advance that the interview should be carried under a different level of attribution. Put another way, the ‘default’ mode is on-the-record. However, it is good practice to be clear about the level of attribution you intend to abide by.
Sources may ask to change the level of attribution at different points of the interview. It is often okay to give the source the opportunity to go on-background or off-the-record at any point. However, if the source says something particularly interesting, try to come back to it in an on-the-record exchange. It is often helpful to explain to the source why it is important for your audiences to know that information, and who shared it. (Moreover, it is possible that the source will start to trust you more as you demonstrate your aptitude as an interviewer.)
Recording an interview is generally regarded as a best practice because it allows journalists to accurately transcribe full quotes and to return to the interview to check some details after the fact. (For example, was a key phrase expressed in a sarcastic tone? Or, what was the context around a particular quote again?) It also helps provide corroborating evidence for the journalist’s account, especially for stories in which conflict is a key news value.
However, in many states, such as Massachusetts, you are legally required to gain the source’s consent before you can start recording the exchange. (Asking for permission is a good, ethical practice in every state.) So, before you begin an interview, ask your source for permission to record it — either through audio or video, depending on the medium through which you plan to tell your story. Sources will typically agree to be recorded, especially if you explain to them that the purpose of the recording is to make sure you’re quoting them accurately.
If you can, try to take interview notes even if there is a recording. Recordings sometimes fail and the notes prove essential. Additionally, you often don’t have time to listen to an entire recording again before publishing a story. Notes help highlight the key points from an interview, and can be essential to keeping your head straight when you’re conducting multiple interviews in a short span of time. When your source says something that you anticipate you’ll quote, note the rough timestamp of the recording so you can quickly return to it when it’s time to write.
Strong interviews involve a good deal of preparation, and it can be tempting to look over your questions and interview notes during the interview itself. Try not to get too distracted.
Stay focused on your interview subject throughout the interview process, and engage with them and their answers. Make direct eye contact, and provide clear non-verbal cues to show your source that you are paying attention. For example, when they make a key point, you might nod or even give a thumbs-up if the situation warrants it. If they share a humorous story, you might smile. If they’re describing a difficult time in their life, you might frown. By using your facial expressions and body language to indicate that you are following and understanding what your source is saying, you are showing them that you are engaged and encouraging them to keep going.
Avoid using verbal cues, such as, “mmm-hmmm” or “gotcha,” though. Speaking out loud might accidentally interrupt your source’s train of thought or create an interference in your audio recording that will make it harder for you to understand it later on. (This is especially true if you intend to publish a portion of that recording.)
Also, remember: You are here to get the source’s expertise and perspective, not to share your own. Avoid interrupting your source unless it is absolutely necessary. And, don’t interject your own opinions or editorialize with your own thoughts. Doing so uses time you could be dedicating to gathering new information. It may also influence the source to agree with you or provide a response they believe you would like. Again, the interview should not be about you.
As the journalist, you should be in control of the focus, content, and direction of an interview.
Don’t allow your source to take control of an interview, either accidentally on purpose, by changing the subject, going off topic, asking you questions, or dedicating too much time to a particular topic. As needed, politely redirect the interview to the next key topic or return to a skipped-over topic. Although you want to avoid interrupting your sources, you may occasionally need to do so in order to regain control of an interview. Key phrases that might help you redirect an interview include: “I’d like to return to X,” “I want to make sure we fully discuss Y,” and “Your response has me thinking about Z.” (Remember, sources often have their own agendas and reasons for speaking with you, and they may thus try to take control of the interview to maximize their interests. Don’t let them succeed.)
One of the most valuable tools a journalistic interviewer has is silence.
When a conversation lapses and the speakers are silent, people generally feel nervous and are compelled to start talking again in order to break the silence. Use that habit to your advantage. If a source doesn’t answer your question, or if they answer a question too briefly, don’t immediately continue on to the next question. Stay silent for a bit to encourage your source to continue speaking or elaborate on an answer. (If silence makes you feel uncomfortable, start counting to eight in your head when the feeling of discomfort sets in.)
When you reach the end of your interview, double-check your questions and notes to make sure asked everything you needed to. It is okay to politely ask for a moment to do that. Before you leave the premises, check your recording itself. Did the recording capture the entire interview? Is the audio quality good?
It is important to do double-check everything because you may not be able to interview that source again before your deadline. Thus, you might be saving yourself a headache by just taking an extra couple of minutes to make sure everything is as you expect them to be.
Finally, never leave an interview without asking your source to provide critical attribution information. This includes the spelling and pronunciation of their name, their full professional title (or other descriptive information about their credentials, in the context of the story), and any contact information you need to get in touch with that person again. At the end of the interview, consider asking your source to recommend additional sources that might provide additional information for this story or topic, such as another knowledgeable person or a relevant document.