Here Are The Basics of Conducting Interviews for News Stories

Listening carefully to answer fairly
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Conducting interviews for news stories is an important skill for any journalist. A “source” – anyone a journalist interviews - can provide elements that are vital to any news story:

  • basic factual information
  • perspective and context on the topic being discussed
  • direct quotes
  • ideas on how to approach the story
  • names of other people to interview

Things You’ll Need

  • several pens and a pencil if it’s winter (pens freeze in cold weather)
  • a tape recorder or digital voice recorder (optional)
  • a video camera for interviews you plan to webcast

Preparing for the Interview:

  • Research – Do as much research as possible. If you’re going to interview, say, a cardiologist about heart attacks, read up and make sure you understand terms such as “cardiac arrest.” A well-prepared reporter inspires confidence in the source.
  • Developing Questions – Once you’ve thoroughly researched your topic, prepare a list of questions to ask. That will help you remember all the points you want to cover.

Keys to a Successful Interview

  • Establish a Rapport – When starting out, don’t abruptly launch into your questions. Chitchat a little first. Compliment your source on her office, or comment on the weather. This puts your source at ease.
  • Keep it Natural – An interview can be uncomfortable, so keep things natural. Instead of mechanically reading out your list of questions, weave your queries naturally into the flow of the conversation. Also, maintain eye contact as much as possible. Nothing is more unnerving to a source than a reporter who never looks up from his notebook.
  • Be Open – Don’t be so focused on getting through your list of questions that you miss something interesting.For instance, if you’re interviewing the cardiologist and she mentions a new heart-health study that’s coming out, ask about it. This may take your interview in an unexpected - but newsworthy - direction.
  • Maintain Control – Be open, but don’t waste your time. If your source starts to ramble on about things that are of no use to you, politely – but firmly – steer the conversation back to the topic at hand.
  • Wrapping Up – At the end of the interview, ask your source if there’s anything important that you hadn’t asked about. Double-check the meanings of any terms they used that you’re unsure about. And always ask if there are other people they recommend that you speak with.

A Note About Note-taking – Beginning reporters often freak out when they realize they can’t possibly write down everything the source is saying, word-for-word. Don’t sweat it. Experienced reporters learn to take down just the stuff they know they’ll use, and ignore the rest. This takes practice, but the more interviews you do, the easier it gets.

Taping – Recording an interview is fine in certain circumstances, but always get permission to do so.

The rules regarding taping a source can be tricky. According to Poynter.org, recording phone conversations is legal in all 50 states. Federal law allows you to record a phone conversation with the consent of only one person involved in the conversation - meaning that only the reporter is required to know that the conversation is being taped.

However, at least 12 states require varying degrees of consent from those being recorded in phone interviews, so it's best to check the laws in your own state. Also, your newspaper or website may have its own rules about taping. 

Transcribing interviews involves listening to the taped interview and typing out virtually everything that's said. This is fine if you're doing an article with an extended deadline, such as a feature story. But it's too time-consuming for breaking news. So if you’re on a tight deadline, stick to note-taking.

  • Finally, ALWAYS take notes, even if you’re using a recorder. Every reporter has a story about the time they thought they were recording an interview, only to get back to the newsroom to discover that the machine’s batteries were dead.