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Guidelines for reporting

Guidelines for Interviewing

By Robert Greenman

General skills and principles

  1. During interviews, think of yourself as a reporter, not a student.
  2. Take notes in a reporter’s notebook or steno book.
  3. Recognize the fact that, even as a high school reporter, you can interview virtually anyone a professional reporter can, and sometimes have even greater access.
  4. Do not interview friends unless they are the only ones who can provide you with what you need to know.
  5. Try not to be intimidated by an interviewee.
  6. Try not to be timid because you like the interviewee. Don’t let his or her warmth and niceness keep you from asking the questions you want to ask.
  7. Discourage off-the-record information. There is usually more than one person to go to to find out what you want to know. You might tactfully indicate that to someone who is reluctant to talk to you.
  8. Never ask an administrator’s permission to do a story.
  9. It should be a policy of the newspaper not to allow an interviewee to see an article before publication. Decisions to depart from that policy should be made by the editor after discussion with the adviser. At the end of an interview, you may offer to read back the interviewee’s quotes, but do not offer, or agree, to show the finished article. There are exceptions, of course, such as asking your school’s college counselor to vet an information-filled article about college admissions, but only after the paper’s editor and adviser have agreed to that departure from policy.
  10. At the end of an extended interview, get the interviewee’s phone number in case you need additional information or to clarify something.
  11. All  the information you received from interviews and research must be attributed in your article to a person or other source.

Contacting people

  1. The phone is the reporter’s best friend and still the quickest way to contact someone.
  2. Yellow and white pages on the Internet are invaluable tools, too.
  3. Web sites make it easy to find the phone numbers and e-mail addresses of experts and institutions whose names appear in newspapers and elsewhere.

Preparing for the interview

  1. When possible, make appointments for interviews rather than approaching someone on the spot — or putting them on the spot. The nature of the story dictates the length of time you think you’ll need for the interview.
  2. Research your subjects before interviewing them. Research issues before you interview people about them. The importance of doing your “homework” before an interview cannot be overestimated. And interviewees appreciate it.
  3. Prepare questions in advance, but don’t be tied to them. Be prepared to improvise based on how the interview is going.

Making the interviewee comfortable

  1. Be personable but not too informal.
  2. Make sure you know how to pronounce the interviewee’s name.
  3. Gain the interviewee’s respect through your language, behavior and dress.
  4. It’s OK to chat about nothing in particular when you first meet, but be sincere.

Press conference questioning

  1. If you have a second question, say you do before you ask your first, so the interviewee knows it’s coming. Otherwise, someone else gets called on immediately.
  2. If you have a follow-up question, ask it immediately, before the interviewee calls on someone else.
  3. When the end of the question period is announced, there’s no reason why you can’t call out politely, “Just one more, please?” And if that doesn’t work, you can approach the interviewee when the session ends.

Conducting the interview

  1. Be sincerely interested in listening.
  2. Don’t be afraid to say, “ I don’t understand,” or “Let’s see if I have this right,” or to ask the interviewee to speak a little slower.
  3. Be  responsive. There’s nothing wrong with reacting to what an interviewee has said, even if it’s just “Uh huh.” “Wow!” “Fantastic!” “Really?”  “I’m sorry to hear that.”
  4. Begin with easy questions. Save the touchy, sensitive, personal ones for later.
  5. People will be frank and personal. They will open up. But you have to be someone they feel comfortable with, someone they can reveal their inner lives, insecurities, hearts and souls to.
  6. Avoid using a tape recorder, but if you must use one, take notes anyway.
  7. Don’t be afraid to ask questions that you think may anger people.
  8. Don’t be afraid to question an interviewee’s contradictory statements.
  9. Ask open-ended and close-ended questions. 
  10. Take more notes than you think you will need, including description. Observe your surroundings.
  11. During the interview, place a check next to notes you feel will be especially important to your story, or good places to open or close the story.
  12. People may lie if they have something to lose by telling the truth.
  13. Anonymous quotes are permissible 1) when you consider them important to your story, and 2) when you tell your editor and/or your adviser the source’s identity and you all agree that your source has not requested anonymity as, in the words of The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, “a cloak for attacks on people, institutions or policies.”
  14. A final question reporters often ask is, “Is there anything I should have asked you, but didn’t?”

Writing up the interview

  1. Go over your notes right after the interview.
  2. Save your notes for several months.
  3. Whatever appears in the newspaper between quotation marks must appear exactly as it was spoken, with nothing changed. However, do not print a direct quotation that contains an error in grammar, usage or speech. Either paraphrase it entirely, or, if it is an entire sentence, recast it, paraphrasing part of it and putting between quotation marks whatever words you consider important to quote directly. Remember the AP Stylebook  injunction: “Never alter quotations even to correct minor grammatical errors or word usage.” However, errors in punctuation, spelling and capitalization that occur in written material that is being quoted should be corrected.
  4. Don’t use brackets [like these] in direct quotations to fill in missing words or for clarification. To avoid the need for brackets, combine partial quotes with paraphrasing.
  5. Do not use an ellipsis (…) to indicate that part of a direct quotation has been omitted. Instead, make separate quotations of the words on either side of the ellipsis, or paraphrase the first or second part of the quotation.
  6. Newspaper articles should rarely begin with a direct quotation or a question.
  7. Don’t be afraid to have three or more paragraphs of direct quotations in a row if they serve your story well.
  8. Most feature articles end with a quotation that makes for a satisfying close.

Finally

It is perfectly OK for a reporter to write a note of thanks to an interviewee or to send him or her a copy of the story, asking, “Did I get it right?”

Robert Greenman is a writer, educator and speaker with major interests in journalism education, vocabulary acquisition, and education in general. Reprinted with permission. http://www.robertgreenman.com/

© by Robert Greenman. This material is available without charge to teachers and students at all levels for their personal and classroom use.