The great interviewers — Oriana Fallaci, Charlie Rose, Bill Moyers, David Frost, Silver Donald Cameron, Terry Gross, Susan Orlean, and others — seem to have a spark, an abiding curiosity, a friendly search for the truth, and deep respect for their fellow human beings.
Watching great interviewers in action is one way to become a better interviewer yourself, and you may click on some of the links above or listen to programs and podcasts.
There are also a few practical and ethical perspectives to bear in mind as we approach this key elements of our craft.
Ethics: (In general) Read and understand the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. (In an interview): Always identify yourself and your organization. Always ask permission for any recording, stating the purpose and eventual use, and then ask permission again as you start the recording so that permission is on the recording. If you are interviewing or taking photos of children or teenagers, always ask permission of a parent or guardian.
Public figures versus private figures: American media law distinguishes between public and private people and issues. If your subject is a private person, you must avoid intrusion and disclosure of private information. (This can be a problem for oral histories, and historians & journalists will often identify subjects only by first name if very private information comes out.)
Preparation: Learn about your subjects, their backgrounds, their publications, and perhaps something about their motives. Prepare a list of questions for yourself, but think of new questions as you go along. Always be prepared to follow up.
Advance questions: Many journalists and oral historians will describe the information they are seeking without submitting exact questions; others will submit questions but insist that there is more to the interview not be limited to those questions. For journalists and most others, the overarching personal ethical concept is to seek the truth and act independently. In practice, this means never agreeing in advance to limits on your questions.
Attitude: The best interviews are exchanges of information between equals. Interviews can be interesting and even fun, and you should go into them with a positive attitude. Comments such as, “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you” or “Im very interested in your work” can help break the ice, so long as they are sincere and delivered professionally. Be empathetic while maintaining a reserve of professionalism. Avoid fawning or flattery on the one hand, and arrogance on the other.
Three levels: You’re working at three or more levels when you interview someone. You need to think about what they are saying, and also how they are saying it, and also the context in which it is being said. It’s usually helpful to have a voice recorder so you don’t have to focus on level 1. If they are nervous or reluctant to talk, this is a level 2 problem, and you might try to put them at ease and make this more of a conversation. If they are rambling, and the context is that of a limited time frame, then you may have to interrupt them and try to refocus the interview.
Taking notes: Not everyone trusts their voice recorders. Often we take notes of key points just to be safe, and usually on long reporters note pads that you can hold in your hand while standing up. Sometimes taking notes can be helpful in establishing trust at the beginning, especially if you make a point of taking down exactly, word for word, what your interviewee said, and then reading it back. This takes practice, and for most writers, the time is better spent in other areas of the craft than sheer stenography. But it can be a useful skill.
- Listen, wait, be patient, most of all be quiet and use the silences. Avoid the temptation to talk about yourself.
- Follow up on obvious points to encourage the interviewee. Don’t stick to a script. Nod or make small encouraging comments.
- Continue to put yourself in the other person’s position as a reality check. How must they feel being interviewed on this topic? This is important when interviewing survivors of tragedies.
— Several lists of specific questions are available on the web:
- Storycorps has a guide with some suggested questions for NPR interviews.
- Sandy Goldberg compiled a list of questions for Holocaust survivors. It’s very compelling.
- Throughout the movie Almost Famous, the question that comes up is: “What do you love about music?”
— Along with your specific questions, you should have a few general questions designed to open up new areas of information, such as:
- How did you become interested in _____ ?
- What do you like about _______ ? What is most frustrating?
- What are (have been) your goals? What are (have been) your obstacles?
- What other questions would you ask if you were the interviewer?
Ending the interview:
- Express your thanks, again.
- Explain again how the information will be used, and assure them you will be available if they have any further questions for you.
- Followup: For journalists, its absolutely vital to obtain follow up phone / cell / email information so that facts can be double-checked or new developments can be explained. Make sure that if you are on deadline, there is a way to reach your interviewee before the deadline.
IRBs: Generally, journalism does not fall under IRB (Institutional Review Board ) guidelines, and college journalism faculty have a responsibility to resist unnecessary intrusion into news reporting and journalism education from well-meaning individuals who would like to see committees approve all questions journalists ask on campus.
In other fields, IRBs are vital ethical tools. They protect human subjects and researchers in psychology, sociology and other fields, helping to avoid harm (as in the 1963 Milgram experiment).
However, journalism and public issue reporting should not require approval from a university IRB. For more information see CFR 46.101 [b]  U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Also see Evergreen College guidelines: http://www.evergreen.edu/humansubjectsreview/nonhsr.htm