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(Media Helping Media) - Always be polite, know what you want, do your research, listen to the person you are interviewing and remain alert for unexpected news angles - just a few tips for getting a strong interview.
The following module was written for media trainers at the Media Resources and Training Centre (MRTC) in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, who requested some tips for their students on how to prepare for and conduct an interview.
The MRTC runs various journalism diploma courses. It is attached to the University of Jaffna. This module, and two dozen others have been translated into Tamil and will be used to train local journalism students at both the MRTC and the university.
Interviewing tips for journalists
1: Always be polite
When you request an interview you are asking someone to give their time so that you can gather information for a news story. You must remain polite throughout the interview and at the end thank them. Members of the public are under no obligation to agree to be interviewed, and you have no right to intrude on their privacy without their consent.
However public figures are expected to be accountable; your interview is a way for their actions to be scrutinised, although even they are under no obligation to agree. They may have reasons for avoiding you and your questions. So you need to understand that obtaining an interview is never guaranteed and, when someone agrees to be interviewed, you need to be civil and treat them with respect.
Remain polite throughout the interview
2: Don't show your emotions
Whatever you feel about what the interviewee says, try to avoid agreeing or disagreeing or showing signs of approval or disapproval. If you are a TV reporter avoid nodding or shaking your head, smiling or frowning when an answer is given. Your job is to report on the topic you are covering objectively and not get involved emotionally.
It's natural to be affected by news, but a professional journalist will be true to their job of uncovering and producing facts.
You must remain objective at all times
3: Be clear on what you want
Tell the interviewee what you want to talk about and why. Be honest about the context at the outset. You should not - other than in exceptional cases where you feel information cannot be obtained any other way –interview on false pretences. If you feel this is needed to get to the truth of the matter you must consult a senior editor before going ahead.
Never conduct an interview under false pretences
4: Don't provide a script
Although it’s important to give an interviewee fair warning of the areas you want to cover, you must never set out the questions as a list and hand them over. To do so would be turning the interview into a public relations exercise. If you give the interviewee enough time to prepare you may produce a better, more informative interview.
Don't let your interview turn into a PR exercise
5: Respond to news angles
Make it clear that, although the interview is for a particular purpose, you may ask supplementary questions if anything unexpected arises. If during an interview, a new piece of information is revealed that is of interest, you need to be able to follow it up. That’s why it’s important to give the interview an outline only rather than limiting yourself to set questions.
Listen out for the unexpected and act on it
6: Do your research
Make sure you know your facts before you carry out the interview. You owe it to the person you have arrange to talk to, and to your audience, to be as informed as you possibly can – you must not waste the time of the interviewee – or your audience. There is nothing more embarrassing than making a silly mistake or being corrected by the interviewee. You should also spend enough time researching the background of the interviewee, as well as the topic being covered. It may help you understand why they say what they do.
You must know what you are talking about
7: Don't be judgemental
Even if you think the interviewee is in the wrong, you have to treat the person with respect. A reporter should not be swayed by their gut feelings. You should always remain objective, fair and impartial, whatever the topic and no matter how you feel about what is being said. What you feel doesn’t matter, you are paid to report.
Your opinion doesn't count, what is said counts
8: Don't try to appear clever
An interview is about uncovering facts that, had it not been for your interview, may never have surfaced. It is not about making you look and sound great. If you try to be smart, members of the audience may sense this and you may lose their respect. It could also lead to tension in your interview that could distract.
If you try to look smart you could alienate the audience and the interviewee
9: Pay attention
Never be so engrossed in thinking about your next question that you fail to hear the previous answer. It is extremely annoying for a journalist to ask a question that has just been answered. Equally, it is embarrassing for a journalist to fail to pick up on a line given in the previous answer. Your audience will know you are not listening, and, if it is an important point you missed they will feel let down by you.
Listen to the interviewee at all times
10: Don't fidgit and fiddle
Try to avoid anything that could distract from what is being said. Move papers, pens, cups etc out of reach of both the interviewee and you. Also, try to avoid sitting on chairs with wheels or chairs that rock - this can also be distracting. Avoid obstacles between you and the interviewee, such as a large desk; it creates barriers. Ask the interviewee to sit in a comfortable relaxed position so that they can concentrate on your questions and giving their answers.
Avoid anything that could distract from what is being said
11: Check for outside noises
Check for external sounds that could disrupt the flow. The exception is where the noise is part of the story. The last thing you want to do is return to the studio with a great interview in terms of the content but which is unfit for broadcast.
Avoid anything that could distract from what is being said
12: Summing up
Try to sum up the main points of the interview at the end. It’s a way of confirming any news angles that were raised during the interview and also a nice way to end the interview. The last words should always be thanks.
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Note: The image used at the top of this page is adapted from an photograph taken by Media Helping Media and is one of a set available under the Creative Commons.