As journalists we all need to talk to experts, but are we getting the best out of these conversations?
After talking to experts in academia and think tanks, and reflecting on my own experiences as an interviewee, I have identified a number of key ways that some journalists can improve their interviews with experts.
The most common complaint I heard during these conversations was that: “journalists already know the story they want to write, they’re just asking us to fill in the gaps.” This may not necessarily be true, but that’s often the conclusion our interviewees arrive at.
In an example, my colleague Hadil Abuhmaid told me recently about an experience she’d had: “The journalist basically directed what they wanted me to say.” She refused to play ball, taking issue with the approach - and conclusions - that they felt the journalist had already come to.
Others complained that journalists oversimplify or neglect nuance. Given that reporters are seldom as steeped in a subject as their interviewees, it may not be an unreasonable complaint. Nonetheless, this is a perception that journalists want to guard against.
Here are six suggestions to better manage relationships with expert sources, and to ensure the interview process goes more smoothly.
(1) Do your homework
This should go without saying, but unfortunately, it’s not always the case. Always research your subject beforehand. Look at their social media profiles. Identify and find points of commonality or something interesting that they have recently produced. Where possible, you can reference this as part of the small talk at the start of your conversation.
In my experience, you get a much better interview when your interviewee sees that you have done your homework. And as an interviewee, I am much more inclined to go the extra yard and to be helpful when I know the journalist has come prepared.
(2) Explain your purpose from the outset
Before even sitting down with an interviewee, explain what’s the piece about and what you are looking for. If your publication is not a household name, then tell them a little bit more about the audience and their interests.
Busy people are not going to say “yes” to every opportunity that comes their way, so you have to pitch the interviewee just as much as you do your editor. And when you do, please, please, please give a deadline. When do you need the interviewee to get back to you?
A deadline helps your source understand if they have time to prepare, and can also help them to get a sense of the level of depth you want to go into.
When I’m being asked for an interview and the request has to be turned around in a couple of hours, then I can make an educated guess that you’re essentially looking for a soundbite rather than a deep dive. However, I can’t do any of this if there’s no detail about the deadline — or the purpose of the interview — in your initial approach.
(3) Unpack the journalistic process
Most material from an interview ends up on the cutting room floor.
A 30-minute interview will typically end with a 4,500-5,000 word transcript, but only a fraction of that is going to end up in an 800-1,000 word article or two-minute package. If you’re not a journalist or an experienced interviewee, you wouldn’t know that.
You need to prepare your interviewee before the interview. Journalists should, as standard, manage the expectations of their interviewees.
I once gave a 15-minute interview to Marketplace Morning Report, an eight-minute program aired on National Public Radio. They used around seven seconds of the interview. If I had not understood the length of the show and the likelihood that most of what I said would end up being cut, then I might have been rather surprised — if not upset — when the sequence was broadcast.
The same can be said of print interviews lasting 45 mins for a single quote or two, or a 30 minute TV interview resulting in two to three soundbites. That’s the name of the game, but don’t assume your interviewees know the rules. Be sure to explain it to them.
(4) Cultivate sources for future stories
Journalists want reliable sources. But these aren’t just credible interviewees with a good grasp of the facts and arguments. They are also people that will give us good quotes, often in a time crunch. These types of sources can be worth their weight in gold, although reporters should avoid the tendency to be over reliant on them.
At the same time, many journalists can do a better job tapping into these sources for idea generation. Reporters do this in the field all the time, often ending interviews by asking “who else should I talk to?” or “What stories don’t you see anyone covering?”
Asking these questions in an authentic manner can result in great leads for future stories, as well as being a means to develop relationships with your sources. This is a great way to diversify your Rolodex as well as steal a march on potential stories to cover in the future.
(5) If you can, verify material with sources ahead of publication
A lot of experts, particularly those who are new to talking to the media, might ask to see a story before it is published. In most cases, that’s a journalistic no-no.
However, there’s nothing to stop you from fact-checking and double-checking the quotes that you have attributed to someone. This is particularly important when it comes to sensitive subjects or topics outside of your field of expertise.
My colleague, Amanda Cote, has been talking to a number of journalists about problems related to sexism in the gaming industry. That’s exactly the kind of subject where you want to make sure you get your quotes and facts right.
In those circumstances, if you can, it’s well worth checking in with your interviewee once more before you file.
(6) Say thank you
With trust in journalism at a low, it’s incumbent on all journalists to act as ambassadors for the wider profession. If a source sets aside time for an interview, acknowledge their time and be appreciative of it.
One simple way of doing this is to ensure that you always send interviewees a link to the story that they contributed to.
Doing that will only take a few minutes. You can even have an email template sitting in your drafts folder ready to go.
Being notified by a journalist when a piece you contributed to has gone live is better than discovering the feature through a Google Alert, an online search or when somebody else passes it on to you.
None of this is especially groundbreaking, yet often forgotten or overlooked, especially when on deadline. Journalists are under more time-pressure than ever, but that doesn’t mean that the media shouldn’t seek to treat expert sources better.
Putting yourself in their shoes can help. I’ve found that sitting on both sides of the fence has really helped me, I believe, to be both a better interviewer and a better interviewee. Ask yourself: how would you like to be treated if a journalist interviewed you?
Resolving to do better by our sources, may be one New Year’s resolution that we can all hope to keep.
Damian Radcliffe is the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon, a fellow of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, an honorary research fellow at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture Studies, and a fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). He also hosts the Demystifying Media podcast, in which he interviews leading journalists and media scholars about their work. Find him on Twitter.