What I learned: Handling tough interviews

In this edition of “What I learned,” staff reporter Braulio Tellez shares his notes on tough interviews, a session he attended the College Media Association/Associated Collegiate Press national convention in Austin. Thanks, Braulio, for sharing your advice to help move The Shorthorn forward.

Tough Interview? You Can Do It!

There’s been a huge fire in the science building! Students and professors have evacuated the building and now everyone’s watching the beloved chem lab go out in a blaze. Who saw what happened? Everyone!

When we walk into big crowds of people looking for a witness to something chaotic like a building on campus burning to the ground, it’s not hard to find someone who wants to talk. But they may not have really been there. David Simpson, adviser for The George-Anne at Georgia Southern University, explained that weeding out the real witnesses from people who showed up to the fire five minutes ago can be hard to do. Especially when you have just gotten there yourself. When speaking to these kind of sources, ask them to walk you through what happened chronologically. Do this with multiple people to determine whether there is a general consensus of what happened or if you have five different stories. Many of these people have convinced themselves they  were there and know what they are talking about. Good way to avoid all of this? Look at who the cops are talking to.

That wasn’t the topic of this seminar, but it was a good point.

Simpson touched on the topic of interviewing people grieving a death or speaking with a tough PR person.

When interviewing the relative of someone who has passed, remember that you are honoring them. In a way, you are writing their final goodbye. Simpson said that people who have never done these kinds of interviews always think it is going to be a nightmare, but that is hardly the case. He said that once you open yourself up to them and show empathy for the death, the interviewee will light up and begin to tell you all of the great things about their loved one. Always begin the process by telling the person you want to interview that you are sorry for their loss but don’t try and identify with it. Let their loss be the only one that has ever existed. Make them and their loved one feel special. He said crying should not scare you and sometimes you may end up crying yourself. All that does is make for a better story and create a bond between you and that person. Emotions will play a big part in these kinds of interviews but letting go of those initial fears will take you a long way.

It’s okay to say, “I know this is a tough question.” It gives the interviewee a heads up and also shows that you understand the severity of the situation.

Dealing with politicians is another tough interview and one that takes a much different approach.

Simpson said it can be easy to talk to PR because it is their job to speak to media. Even so, PR people love to give very vanilla answers. Don’t accept it. Acknowledge that “they work for the best university in the universe” and then ask them how they really want to answer the situation. If you are unhappy with their answers, don’t be afraid to read it back to them and let them know that is what you will publish next to their name. Obviously don’t harass them, just make them aware of they sound like. Just like you ask them to be transparent with you, it is your duty to provide them with the same clarity. Don’t lie about the reason for your questions or the interview itself. That can close a lot of doors. Also, don’t be afraid to look stupid. Always prepare yourself for an interview by researching and preparing good questions, but if there is something you don’t understand about the topic, just tell them. It will make for a good break down that you can use in your story.


Note from Beth: What are your thoughts? Add to the conversation by posting below. 

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