As a journalist, interviews are at the heart of any good story. This is why it is so important to get them right!
However, whether you end up interviewing your next door neighbour or someone from your favourite band, interviews are always a daunting experience – even for the most seasoned journalists out there.
While nothing can replace that all-important practical experience when it comes to interviewing, we hope that this guide will give you enough confidence to take that first step or refresh a few things!
How do I find specific interviewees?
Finding the people you want to interview can be difficult, but knowing how to find them – whether it be for a full-length interview or for a comment related to your piece, is a great transferable skill that will help you in the future.
If you are looking to interview an especially high-profile figure, one option is to get in touch with them directly via social media. However, unless they are known for being responsive, you should be prepared to get little interaction via this method – they get hundreds of messages a day, and some figures rely on social media teams to run their accounts for them.
This is why, if they don’t have an official email address you can contact them on, your best bet is to get in touch with the public figure’s press/PR team, or their manager. Googling, browsing their official website or a little digging via social media will help you find out this information if you don’t have it to hand already, while an alternative to this is to use websites such as BookingAgentInfo.com – however, be wary of this latter option – there are fees involved so it really must be used as a last resort!
If you want to obtain a statement from a charity or other large institutional bodies, you can usually find a dedicated press email on their website.
Meanwhile, local politicians like councillors usually have their own email and phone numbers wherein they can be contacted directly.
As for local businesses, it is usually just a case of calling their number or sending them an email, while bigger chain brands and businesses will, again, have a dedicated press email.
How do I find interviewees based on an issue or theme?
Sometimes, you might not be looking to interview a specific person, business or organisation. For example, you might want to speak to an NHS doctor for an article about Covid-19, or speak to women who prefer to not wear makeup.
If you are looking to speak to people who have had a specific experience, or want to talk to someone who is an expert on a particular issue, the best way to do this is by Tweeting out a #JournoRequest. This is a hashtag journalists and bloggers use all over the world in order to get into contact with someone over a specific issue.
With a limited character count on Twitter, it is important to utilise SEO and make it clear exactly what you need from your source as well as including the relevant hashtags like #JournoRequest and #PRRequest. Be sure to also include an email address as well as inviting people to DM you.
Here is an example of a good #JournoRequest:
#JournoRequest #PRRequest #journorequests I am looking to speak to people in the education, mental health and social/youth work industries about Covid’s impact on young people’s mental health – especially since they’ve returned to school! DM or email me at email@example.com
You can also post a similar call-out for sources on social media, whether it be on your Instagram story or on Facebook groups that are relevant to the issue you’re writing about.
Another way to get an interview with an expert or get them to comment on your piece is through websites such as ResponseSource.
How should I conduct the interview?
There are many methods to conduct an interview. If you are running to a tighter deadline and want a generally more three-dimensional interview (pay attention to their body language, tone of voice and whether they laugh etc. when taking notes), it is best to conduct the interview via telephone, Zoom or face-to-face (provided you’re socially distanced!).
If you’re interviewing face-to-face, be sure to go to a quiet, professional environment like your student publication’s office. Alternatively, you could book a room on campus in advance. However, being mindful of the current health crisis, the best option for face-to-face interviews is probably an open space like a park or an outdoor coffee shop, depending on the restrictions in your area. Make sure to follow appropriate protocols like washing your hands, keeping your distance and wearing face masks.
If you or your interviewee are self-isolating, have symptoms or are clinically vulnerable, please don’t put either of yourselves at risk! You can rearrange for another time or conduct the interview virtually. In addition to this, if you yourself are clinically vulnerable, don’t feel bad about delegating a face-to-face interview to another member of your team. Safety of yourself, and those around you, always comes first.
Another option if you are running to a tighter deadline is to conduct the interview via DMs or WhatsApp. While this might make the transcription process easier, it can be a little bit time consuming, and questions and answers may be of poorer quality if you or your interviewee are on the go!
Another interview method is via email. While this will likely get you some substantive answers, you should allow yourself plenty of time before the deadline to get the ball rolling on this in order to give your interviewee time to reply.
Research ahead of time
While you might think you can ‘wing it’ and don’t need to research your interviewee, your interview will suffer if you don’t. Researching your interviewee will allow you to ask more nuanced and meaningful questions, which will make the quality of your work a lot higher and a lot more interesting to read.
The internet means that there is a wealth of information at your fingertips, so make sure to research not just interviewee themselves, but also the context and background themes of your interview. For example, if you’re interviewing a local councillor, you should make the effort to research the issues that are most important in their area.
Researching your interviewee and/or the subject matter you’re interviewing ahead of time doesn’t take long, but it really makes all the difference. As well as improving the content of your work, your interviewee will definitely appreciate it – after all, if they’re giving up their time to be interviewed by you, it is only polite to be prepared! It makes the experience a lot more fulfilling for you both.
Plan your questions
Based on your research, you should aim to write down a list of 10-15 questions to ask your interviewee ahead of your interview, although depending on how much time you have with your interviewee, you might not be able to fit them all in. When constructing your interview questions, consider what information you want to get out of your interviewee and how you want your story to take shape.
Make sure that these questions are open ended (ie. can’t be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’) to ensure the discussion remains lively.
Planning your interview questions will, again, help the whole interview experience run a lot smoother. However, don’t feel like you need to be limited to your list! If you feel like your interviewee didn’t sufficiently answer your question, or what they said had scope to be pursued further, feel free to ask a follow-up question. As a journalist, it is your job to scrutinise and get to the bottom of the story. Equally, if you suddenly get inspired by a really good question idea during the interview, go ahead and ask! The answer might really surprise you and bring a great dimension to the interview.
If you are planning to ask difficult questions, it is a good idea to structure it so that these are asked towards the end of the interview rather than at the start.
This is a good strategy for two reasons: firstly, the other questions will allow you to build a rapport (see below) and build up to the more risky questions. They’re more likely to answer the question this way than if you blindside them with hard questions as soon as you meet them.
Putting the difficult questions at the end also means that you have more material in the event the interviewee decides to end the interview in light of the difficult question.
Build a rapport
There’s no way of getting around it – interviews can be incredibly awkward for both parties. However, it doesn’t have to be that way! It is good to try and build up a friendly rapport with the interviewee.
On your end, it is important to show friendliness, enthusiasm and empathy – try and show that you see them as a person as opposed to a means of an end based.
Before you get on the questions, ask them how their journey was, thank them for their time and make some small talk with them. It might seem tedious, but it’s all about making your interviewee opening up – you can also throw in some fun questions to help break the ice!
Consent, transparency and anonymity
It is important to be mindful of ethics when you’re interviewing someone – this will save you and your publication a lot of time, money and paperwork. Make sure your interviewee is aware of when the interview is about to begin, so that they know that from that point onwards, whatever they say is ‘on the record’ and can be used in your final copy. However, if your interviewee specifically asks for something to be ‘off the record’, it is important that you’re respectful of this and don’t include it in your copy.
Establishing boundaries and being transparent about when something is on the record doesn’t just benefit the interviewee, but benefits you too – it makes it more difficult for your interviewee to complain about the content of the interview/how they were represented. If you were transparent, recorded what they said accurately and were clear about when the interview started, then you can’t really get in trouble – you can’t fault a journalist for telling the truth.
In relation to this, if you are recording your conversation with the interviewee, whether it be recording the phone/zoom call or recording the conversation via a smartphone/dictaphone, it is absolutely vital that you communicate this to your interviewee. Recording someone without their consent, which is known as ‘bugging’, isn’t just poor practise for a journalist – it is against the law.
There are some circumstances where you need to get prior consent before interviewing someone, such as if you’re interviewing someone under sixteen. Even if you know this person – they could be a neighbour or a cousin, it is still fundamental that you get written consent from a parent or guardian before conducting an interview with them. The law is really strict about how journalists interact with minors, so it is always important to follow the right processes, even if you think you could get away with skipping them.
It’s important to note that it may not always be possible to include a named source, for example if it’s something sensitive, like someone is describing their experience of sexual harassment on the condition of anonymity. Once you have said to your source that you will keep them anonymous, it is important to remember that, as per the Editor’s Code of Practise, you have an ethical obligation to keep to your word unless the issue is out of your hands and there are wider legal implications. If you are ever unsure, talk to someone you trust at your university or Students’ Union. You can find more guidance on the ethics surrounding anonymous sources with this article by the Ethical Journalists Network.
Methods of recording and transcribing interviews
There are many ways you can go about recording and transcribing a face-to-face interview. If you want to remain engaged in your conversation, it is always best to record your interview and transcribe it later.
The classic way to record your interview is with a dictaphone. If you’re part of a student publication or your university has a journalism/media department, it is likely that you already have access to free dictaphones.
If not, you can purchase them for cheap online – think of it as an investment into your future!
They’re easy to pick up if you haven’t used one before, and the interview can easily be uploaded to a computer.
An alternative to dictaphones that is becoming more and more popular among young journalists is the humble smartphone. It’s easy to use, and more likely than not has a voice recorder app built in.
When it comes to recording interviews via smartphones, one thing to keep in mind is to ensure the microphone built into your smartphone (usually indicated by a small grill at the top or bottom end of your phone) is pointed at the director of the speaker.
Whether you use the dictaphone or the smartphone, one of the most important steps is to do a brief test recording first – the worst thing is to sit down for a whole interview to find out that it wasn’t recorded properly!
After the interview, you will need to transcribe it – this can be a long and arduous process, but the more you practise transcription, the easier it will get.
Additionally, if you are transcribing a phone or Zoom/Teams interview, it may be easier to record the interview so you can playback and transcribe more accurately, although you can transcribe as you go along if you prefer. However, if you as with any recording, you’d need to get permission from the interviewee first.
As an alternative, with programs such as Zoom/Teams, you are able to generate a transcription of your conversation. You can also use apps such as TapeACall to record and generate transcriptions of phone interviews.
If recording isn’t your thing or isn’t feasible in the context, you can transcribe/take notes throughout the process of the interview. While you can write/type the answers to questions in full, this may be time consuming and can detract your attention from the interviewee.
This is why a lot of people in the journalism industry opt for shorthand as a way of recording interviews: it ensures efficiency and a high level of accuracy. While there are a lot of ways of going about it, the most popular type of shorthand is Teeline. You might already know it if you study an NCTJ-accredited course.
Even if you don’t already study shorthand, it is definitely something employers in the industry are a fan of – especially if you are able to write up to 100 words per minute in shorthand!
So, why not try an online course (such as one on the NCTJ website) or, if you can afford it, invest in a private shorthand tutor? Alternatively, there are a plethora of helpful resources on places like YouTube that can help you learn the basics of shorthand!
In order to get a well-rounded, fully holistic interview, you may find that it is useful to take notes of your interviewees mannerisms/body language while you are recording the conversation itself.
Structuring your interview
When it comes to structuring your final interview, there are two ways of going about it. The first way is through the Q&A format. While this is undoubtedly the easier form to master, it does unfortunately come at the cost of interesting and engaging work.
However, the Q&A format for interviews has certain perks, such as readability and transparency (which is especially important if you are interviewing a politician, a member of the University or a sabbatical officer).
If you find that your piece has a lot of good “soundbites” combined with interesting context and notes on your interviewee/the interview environment, you might want to undertake the challenge of building quotes from the interview into your piece, which would make for a more organic and colourful read!
Charlotte Colombo is Training & Opportunities Officer for the SPA and former Editor of Wessex Scene, University of Southampton. She is currently studying an MA in Magazine Journalism at City, University London and works part-time as an entertainment journalist.