When a journalist has identified an appropriate interview source and scheduled the interview, the next step is to prepare their interview questions.
The best interview questions are often simple, clear, and well-informed. Think of your interview as a two-way street: Although the journalist should be in control of the interview, its content, and its aims, the journalist and their source will need to get to know about each other, and perhaps even to trust each other, over the course of the interview process. A journalistic interview should feature a well-structured but flexible series of questions in which both the journalist and their source play equally important roles.
Here are some tips to help you craft strong interview questions that can elicit useful information for a news story.
Before you interview a source, you should always research them, their experience, and their expertise.
Start with a simple Google search, and then continue with a more strategic search based on the information you need for your story. For example, if you were interviewing me, a professor of journalism, you might begin by reading my faculty biography on the UMass website and skimming my course descriptions and published research on my personal website. If I have conducted a study that is relevant to the story, you might even read through its Abstract, or summary. You may even want to look through my public social media accounts and search for recent interviews I have given. If I’m the centerpiece of your story, you might even talk to other people who know me before speaking to me.
There are several reasons why it’s useful to research someone before talking to them. First, you want to make sure this potential source is the right person to interview for your story. Second, you want to prepare yourself for interviewing them. Researching a source will help you develop interview questions that are well-informed and specific — and much stronger than the vague, general questions that you could ask anyone. This research will also help you to use your interview time more strategically by avoiding questions that are easily answered through cursory research, as well as questions that your source may have been asked many times already. Finally, your source will notice, based on your questions, that you did your homework. Sources always appreciate that and are consequently more likely offer you both more of their time and better responses.
As you begin to write interview questions, ask yourself: Is this question easy to understand? Could I answer it?
Chances are that if you have to re-read a question to understand it, your source won’t have an easy time with that question either. The strongest interview questions have a clear focus on one specific topic, and they are phrased with simple, easy-to-understand wording. Interview questions should also be short and direct. They should be something this particular source can answer based on their own expertise, experience, and/or position.
Avoid asking your source to speak for an entire group or population, rather than answering for themselves. For example, it would not be fruitful to ask me, a single journalism professor, a question like: “Are all journalism professors socially awkward?” (In addition to being rude, that question asks me to make a generalized statement about a big group of people that I am not qualified to answer.)
Don’t ask your sources compound, or double-barreled, questions, either. These are confusing and long questions that usually pack two or more questions into one, such as: “Do you support building a new elementary school and increasing teachers’ salaries?” Compound questions can be tricky for sources, who will usually only remember to answer one branch of the question. Instead, break these questions out into multiple, simplified and focused questions, such as: “Do you support building a new elementary school?” and “Do you support increasing teachers’ salaries?”
There are two main types of questions that you’ll ask your sources: open-ended questions and close-ended questions.
Open-ended questions are those that invite a source to elaborate on their response. For example, you might ask your source: “Why do you support the Minnesota Vikings?” In order to respond to that question, a source will usually feel the need to construct full sentences that establish and explain their perspective. Open-ended questions thus tend to generate more complete and more thoughtful responses.
On the other hand are close-ended questions, such as yes-or-no questions. Close-ended questions compel sources to respond with short, undetailed responses (such as a simple “yes” or “no”). For example, a yes-or-no question might simply ask, “Do you support the Minnesota Vikings?” A source could answer that by just saying, “yes,” which is neither very informative nor a good quote. That question might be okay to set up an open-ended follow-up, such as the aforementioned “Why do you support them?” question. However, they’re usually insufficient on their own.
Similarly, you will often want to avoid leading questions, or questions that lead a source toward a specific response. Leading questions can cue sources to answer in the specific way that they believe the interviewer wants them to. This thus influences them to mirror your thinking instead of contributing their own. An example of a leading question might be: “Do you agree that the Minnesota Vikings are the best team in the NFL?” If you are a Green Bay Packers fan, you might no longer feel comfortable being interviewed because you may start to worry about how you might be depicted in the story. There are times, though, when a leading question can be used as a signal to your source. For example, to illustrate that you understand their pain after they’ve described a harrowing incident, you may ask: “That must have felt awful. What was running through your mind when you received such terrible news?” However, those instances where a leading question is appropriate are relatively uncommon.
Although you might write your list of interview questions down in the order in which you think of them, take some time after brainstorming those questions to put them in the best order in which to ask them.
It is generally helpful to start with some simple, introductory questions that help to ease the source into the interview and make them comfortable with both you and the process. After that, group all questions that pertain to a specific topic or aspect of the story together, and complete an entire topic before transitioning to the next set of questions. Structure your interview in a way that guarantees you will get all the information you need while, ideally, sticking to the time estimate you provided for the interview.
If you have a particularly difficult or uncomfortable question, put it further down on your list — even if it breaches your topical organization. You don’t want that difficult question to be so low that you may run out of time before getting to it, but you also don’t want to risk the source abruptly ending an interview before you have gotten at least some useful information from them.
Although you did your research and wrote a list of informed, clear, and well-organized questions, you may find that, during the interview, unanticipated questions start popping into your head.
Do not panic! These follow-up questions are natural, and they often provide some of the best information and quotes. Good follow-up questions usually request additional context or explanation and begin with “why” or “how.” It is important to listen carefully when your source is talking so that you can catch and write down potential follow-up questions. You also need to be flexible enough to know when to introduce those follow-up questions. Often, it is best to do so immediately. However, sometimes, it makes sense to return to them a little later in the interview. It is thus useful to both record an interview and take notes while the source is responding. This way, you can write down follow-up questions and other key information without worrying about missing the exact phrasing for a quote.
If a source’s response does not fully answer the question you asked, don’t hesitate to ask that same question in a new way. Sometimes, the non-response is due to a misunderstanding of the question. Other times, it is because the initial question gave them room to wiggle out of a full response. Be persistent, and keep asking until you get a satisfactory answer.
Additionally, a source’s response might create a better opportunity to follow up with a question you intended to ask later in the interview. Thus, although you might have planned to ask a source about the Green Bay Packers with your fifth question, they may bring up the Packers in their answer to your second question. If that is the case, reorder your questions on the spot to keep a good flow for your interview. If they have fully addressed a question you intended to ask them later on, do not ask the question again. That tells the source you weren’t listening.
One of the best parts of being a journalist is that you get to learn and produce stories about many different subjects. Journalists do this by researching new topics and interviewing expert sources about those topics. However, at the end of the day, it is the sources who are the foremost experts — not you.
If you find yourself confused or unsure about a key fact or piece of information during the course of your interview, always, always clarify that information with your source. Ask for an explanation or a simplification. One good way to do this is by summarizing a key point and asking your source if you got the information correct. For example, you might ask: “So, you are saying that if I need to clarify information during an interview, I should take some time to do that with the source. Is that correct?”
Nobody likes feeling dumb or revealing that they don’t fully understand something. But not fully understanding something is normal for journalists, especially when they are tackling new topics or digging deep into a particular topic. Sources will often appreciate your honesty and feel more confident that you will accurately portray their perspective if you ask for clarifications. Moreover, even in a pessimistic scenario, it is far better to look ‘dumb’ to one person than to the potentially large audiences who will come across your work (and who you would be misinforming as a result).
Once you have asked all the questions you brainstormed — and all the follow-up and clarifying questions that arose during the course of the interview — try to end with a final open-ended question that allows your source to share anything else they think you ought to know about the topic. This gives the source a chance to bring up something you or they may have forgotten, or simply to contribute information that may be outside of the scope of your questions.
A couple of examples of this type of question are: “Is there anything you’d like to add?” and “Is there anything else I didn’t ask you about that is important for me to know?” Oftentimes, the source will say “no” but will nevertheless feel empowered (and thus end the interview on a good note). However, some of the best scoops and story ideas have come from giving sources a chance to tell the journalist information that the journalist didn’t even think to ask the source about.
By the end of your interview, the source will have shared something precious with you: their time. Thank them for it! This wraps up your exchange in a polite way and lets your sources know you appreciate their time, information, and perspective. This is also a good moment to ask the source for additional contact information, such as an email address or phone number at which you can reach the source should you need to ask a last-minute question or follow up in some manner.
If they were a central source in your story, or if they are the sort of person who does not often get interviewed, you may even opt to send them a copy of your story after it is published. This might make them feel even better about choosing to speak with you, and the extra attention might even make them more likely to respond to you in the future. There’s a decent chance another story will come around that requires you to speak to that source, so it is good to treat every source as a potentially recurring one.