To Get Good Quotes, You May Have to Interview A lot of People

Recently a student of mine complained about the difficulty she had in covering an event, a transfer fair designed to help community college students moving on to four-year institutions. The student told me she tried interviewing people but that few had much to say.

“How many people did you try interviewing,” I asked. “Four or five,” she told me.

“Well,” I responded, “if you interviewed four or five people and got zilch, then you need to interview another four or five people and see what you get.

And if you don’t get any good quotes from them, then you need to talk to still more people.”

I’m sure the idea of interviewing 10 or more people to get enough quotes for a news story probably seemed slightly crazy to my student, but in fact, that’s exactly what reporters often have to do.

Now, there may have been some issues with her interviewing style and technique. I always tell my students that the best way to get information from sources is to put people at ease. This can be done by making the interview as natural and conversational as possible. One way to do this is to begin by making small talk about unrelated topics like the weather or how the local sports teams are doing.

Then there are adversarial interviews, in which reporters are trying to get information from sources who are reluctant to speak. An example of this might be interviewing a politician suspected of engaging in criminal activity.

In this case, putting the interview subject at ease won't help you very much. You must ask very direct and confrontational questions in order to reveal the truth.

These interviewing techniques come naturally to experienced reporters, but aspiring journalists must develop them over time.

The real lesson here is about persistence and hard work, in particular the hard work associated with reporting.

Many students take my journalism classes because they are talented writers who find it easy to get good grades on research papers and essays for history and English classes. And while such assignments certainly involve research, it’s the kind that can increasingly be done by Googling whatever topic you’re writing about.

Of course, as I’ve said before, reporting news stories involves interviewing real people, a process that’s rarely as easy as navigating to the Google homepage.

But even when students understand how different reporting is from online research, they must also appreciate just how much work is really involved.

So, to continue with the example we started with, if you interview 10 people at a transfer fair and none of the quotes you get are particularly interesting, do you have the option of simply giving up?

Not if you are a reporter covering that event for a newspaper or news website. You have to come up with the story, and do so on a tight deadline, so if the first 10 people you interviewed had nothing interesting to say, then you'd better start interviewing the next 10.

In other words, you do whatever you have to do in order to produce a good story, and if that means interviewing 20 or more people, then so be it.

Is that hard work? Of course it is. If reporting were easy, anyone could do it.

There is a caveat here. Experienced reporters know that in a news story of say, 500 words or so, they may end up only using a handful of the quotes they’ve gotten. After all, a story should never be just a long list of quotes broken up by the occasional transition sentence. Good, interesting quotes should be used to breathe life into a news story, to make it more readable and interesting.

But to get that handful of interesting quotes you may have to interview lots - and lots - of people.

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