When a journalist has identified a few potential sources for the story they are reporting, the next step is to reach out to those sources to request an interview. When journalists request an interview from a source, they are requesting the source’s time: time away from their work, their families, and their hobbies or responsibilities. Thus, it is important that journalists approach sources thoughtfully and with a clear objective. The former increases the likelihood that the source will agree to give you their time; the latter helps ensure that you use their time thoughtfully.
Here is some advice for effectively contacting sources and securing a contribution to your story.
You can request an interview with a potential source in a variety of different ways. The primary ways are in person, over the phone, and via email.
Regardless of how you reach out, always be polite and professional and include all of the essential information that a source would need to know about you and your story. In a friendly and polite phone call or email, briefly introduce yourself, the topic of your story, and the angle of your interview. Give the interview source your name and title, and tell them about the outlet you are reporting for. If you are writing for a publication or for a class project, make that clear. Explain whether the eventual story will be published, and if so, where. (It is good to assume that all stories will eventually be published. Even if you are just doing a class project, you might stumble into a great story that interests local, regional, and national media. You might be surprised by how often that happens.)
Then, give the source an overview of your story and the topic of the interview you hope to conduct with them. Provide them with your best estimate of the amount of their time that you are asking for. (This should be based on the amount of information you are hoping to get from this interview, as well as how many questions you plan to ask this source. Some interviews are much longer, or shorter, than others.) Be sure to let your source know how you intend to conduct the interview: in person, over the phone, over video chat, and so on. It is helpful to give them options instead of dictating the medium.
It is usually best to interview sources in person because doing so helps you get to know the source a bit better, pick up on body language and other non-verbal cues, and foster a stronger relationship with the source. When an in-person interview is not possible, perhaps because you and the source live thousands of miles apart, a video or phone interview is an appropriate substitution. Email interviews are almost never a good method for interviewing a source, in large part because communicating via email makes follow-up questions difficult and allows interview sources to practice or prepare canned responses. Put another way, use email as a last resort for conducting the interview.
Once you have made all of this information clear, try to schedule the interview. Provide a time frame by which you hope to speak to this source, and suggest a few potential dates and times for your interview. Be flexible with timing, though. Because you are asking for your source’s time, it is always best to be open-ended with your own schedule to accommodate theirs. Finally, politely thank the source for their time and provide multiple ways for them to contact you with a response, such as your phone number and email address.
If you are contacting a source via email, the tone of your entire email should be respectful and professional. Call your source by their name or title, depending on their profession. Use professional language, and avoid slang. Do not be overly personal. If you send an email request, it is crucial that you offer a clear and concise subject line, such as “Media Request: Interview for a story about climate change.” Remember that you are asking this person for the favor of their time, and you must craft an email that makes clear how their time will be used and why they should give you that time. With emails in particular, try to keep them as short as possible while including all of these crucial details. A long email may seem intimidating (especially on a busy day) and is thus more likely to be ignored.
Finally, your interview request is just that: a request. Sources might respond to your request to ask for more information or detail about the interview. If they do so, share that with them. But an interview request is not an interview itself. If a source asks you to provide them with a list of the interview questions that you plan to ask, or if they ask you for a draft of the story you are planning to write, always say no. It is poor practice to allow sources prior review of your journalism. It also complicates your reporting process, as sources may seek to tweak or edit aspects of your draft, or adjust their own answers based on what you have written. Allowing your source to review a list of interview questions before the interview provides the source an opportunity to practice their responses, create memorized answers, or prepare a way to avoid answering your questions. If your source requests these things, it is best to just say no and move on to someone else.
Ideally, your interview sources will be happy to speak with you, but this isn’t always the case. Some sources may be nervous about being interviewed and reluctant to accept an interview request. Your sources may also be busy or difficult to get in touch with in the first place. Just because they did not immediately respond to your request for an interview does not mean that you should give up on interviewing them.
To be a strong journalist is to be a persistent one. You might have to reach out to a potential source multiple times in order to get a response to your interview request, and you should do so politely and creatively. Instead of simply sending the same request over and over (and potentially annoy your source and make them even less likely to participate), try contacting that source through different mediums (e.g., voicemail, email, text message, and in person). Use all of the contact methods you have available, such as both their work email address and a personal email address. Explain to this source why it is important that you speak with them, and why you selected them as a key interview source. If this explanation doesn’t motivate the source to say yes, try again with a different angle. Remember that you chose this source because they can provide important information or perspective to your story. Keep in mind that you are doing this to serve your audience, so don’t be afraid to be politely persistent.
At the same time, don’t rely too heavily on a single source. Always have back-up sources in mind, such as a second expert whose research, while perhaps not as closely tied to the story as your first-choice expert, is still relevant to a story you intend to write. If your first-choice sources don’t respond in a timely fashion, start reaching out to your back-up sources even as you continue to reach out to the first-choice sources. Waiting too long for your ideal response can cause you to miss your deadline.
Before you reach out to a potential source, do your research on that person, their experience, and their expertise. Get to know everything you can about them and what makes that person relevant to your story. Apply that knowledge to your interview request, and be respectful to your source throughout the entire interview process. Sources can tell when you have done your homework, and they invariably respond in a more positive and helpful way when you know a bit about them.
The way you arrange and conduct an interview has an impact on the results of that interview. If you are rude or unprofessional, or if you clearly did not do your research, your sources may become uncomfortable with you, limit the amount of information they share with you, abruptly end an interview, or refuse to speak to you again. Additionally, it is helpful to think about each interview source as a potentially recurring source of information that you might return to throughout your journalistic career. Treat them in a way that fosters a long-term professional relationship.