12 dos and don'ts of journalistic interviews

Nov 6, 2023 in Journalism Basics
Man and woman in recording studio for TV interview

As every journalist knows, interviews make stories real. They bring us closer to the truth,  give the news a voice and supply readers with first-hand experiences that deepen their understanding of the world. They also provide different perspectives that illuminate the complexities of events, issues and narratives. 

However, conducting an interview for a story is not easy. It can be difficult to grapple with a blend of humanity, ethics and accuracy, especially when veering into sensitive topics and managing time constraints. 

"Too often, as journalists, we're simply out there, just getting the news, and we forget to consider how our sources are being represented or want to be represented," said Jennifer Cox, an associate professor at Salisbury University and author of “Feature Writing and Reporting: Journalism in the Digital Age.” 

To help journalists improve their interviewing skills I asked Cox and Amy Forbes, associate professor at James Cook University, and co-author of "Interviewing - A Guide for Journalists and Professional Writers," for some guidance.  

Here’s what they shared: 

DO: Conduct pre-interview and follow-up research

"Do as much research as possible, even if it's checking the person's Facebook, before the interview," said Forbes. This will not only help you formulate better questions, but also develop an effective icebreaker and establish a rapport. 

For extensive pieces, consider interviewing in various settings and consulting additional sources like friends and family for a more comprehensive perspective. In investigative work, this cross-checking is crucial. 

"Conduct follow-up research and interviews, verify the information given to you and don't be afraid to ask tough questions,” said Cox. “Maybe rephrase and ask again. If you still don't get the answer, call attention to that, [hold your source] accountable."

DO: Demonstrate empathy in representation

Understand and respect how interviewees wish to be represented, particularly in stories that require your sources to identify their gender, race or other personal details.

"We need to recognize that our sources are giving us information. They're telling us their story and trusting us to tell that story the way that it should be or the way that they see it," said Cox. It's crucial to approach their narratives with empathy and care, and to ensure that their perspectives are honored details. 

DO: Set clear ground rules

Early in the interview process, clarify the ground rules. As Forbes advised, make it known that everything said during the interview could be published. This transparency helps manage expectations and builds trust. 

If a source wants to retract something, weigh the importance of that information. "If you can acquiesce, do so, especially if you expect to interview the person again. It is better to keep communication lines open," said Forbes.

DO: Ensure credibility and authenticity

In journalism, credibility is paramount – and this extends to the interview setting. Displaying credentials, such as badges or business cards, solidifies your legitimacy in the eyes of a source. 

"Approaching somebody with a business card [and] saying this is who I am, this is what I'm doing, can alleviate some of that doubt that people have when you approach them, and can make [them] feel more comfortable right off the bat," said Cox. 

Affirming your identity and intentions lays a foundation of trust, which is essential for a forthright and genuine interview.

DO: Treat interviews as conversations

Cox also pointed out the importance of comfort and familiarity when conducting interviews, especially for beginners. "Remembering that an interview is really just a conversation where one person is taking notes is a good way to deal with interviewer anxiety," she said. 

She recommended practicing with friends or acquaintances. Over time, this can diminish your apprehension toward talking to strangers, enabling a more natural and authentic dialogue.

DO: Listen actively and ask follow-up questions

Listening is an invaluable skill that emerging journalists often overlook, said Forbes. It's not merely about asking questions but genuinely absorbing the responses and allowing them to guide the subsequent dialogue. 

"By all means, ask your question, but listen to the response and ask follow-up questions," she advised. These follow-ups, though potentially unscripted, can provide deeper, richer and broader insights.

DON'T: Impose on grief

Approach challenging situations involving death, loss or trauma with sensitivity and respect the emotional state of subjects. 

"Act ethically. Think of how you would want to be treated if it was you or your family being interviewed," Forbes suggested. "In particularly difficult circumstances, [do] not impose on grief."

DON'T: Rely solely on digital interviews

Ater the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a significant decline in interpersonal skills, said Cox: "We just don't want to talk to people face to face or over the phone. It's much easier to conduct an email interview, but too much is lost.”

While Cox recognizes the convenience of digital interviews, she advised against them. "It ruins the authenticity of the interview, it gives sources too much time to plan and think ahead of their responses," she said. 

Use online platforms and messaging services as initial points of contact, but collect your stories in person or via phone to better capture the emotions and nuances.

DON'T: Begin with controversial/challenging questions

Launching into contentious or challenging questions could jeopardize the entire interview. 

"Don't start with difficult or controversial questions right off the bat, as the person may walk out on you,” said Forbes. “This is especially important for recorded or video interviews. Remember that you have no program if you have no footage, so it is better to get some questions asked before launching into the difficult ones." 

While there are exceptions, such as impromptu, brief interactions (like doorstops), maintaining a considerate and strategic approach is generally prudent.

DON'T: Interrupt and ask leading questions

"One of the biggest mistakes is that we might interrupt our sources," said Cox. This can be particularly problematic in broadcast, where an interruption might render a segment unusable. 

Allow the conversation to flow naturally and avoid asking leading questions. "You're interviewing an athlete, and you're like: 'Hey, that was a really easy game, wasn't it?' You're leading the athlete to say: 'Oh, yeah, it was super easy!' You're trying to get him to give you the soundbite you need," she said. This risks portraying you as biased and may manipulate the interviewee's narrative.

DON'T: Neglect details and interpersonal relationships

Take meticulous notes, ensure accuracy in names and titles, and be courteous to everyone, including office staff. "Nothing [is] worse than doing a great interview, writing a great story, then spelling the person's name wrong or giving them the wrong title," said Forbes. 

Ensuring every detail is correct validates you and your publication’s professionalism and credibility. Also, remember to maintain cordial relations with administrative or PR personnel – they’re essentially gatekeepers to potential interviewees.

DON'T: Break confidentiality

Maintain the confidentiality of off-the-record information and sources. 

"As they say in the industry, you are only as good as your sources and your reputation regarding keeping confidentialities. No one wants to talk to a journalist they can't trust," Forbes noted. 

Breaking trust can not only damage your reputation but also close off future lines of communication.

Photo by Jonah De Oliveira on Unsplash.