How to talk to the press

A short guide to what works and what doesn't when talking to reporters

Sometime around the year 2000 I started getting requests for interviews with reporters and it never really stopped. These days I talk to two or three newspaper reporters a week, amounting to hundreds of interactions with the press in the past few years. Based on what I've learned, here's a list of good and bad aspects, followed by my best and worst experiences, and some final thoughts.

Things good reporters do

This sounds simple, but few reporters do it well: know the subject. A good reporter does research on the interview subjects and knows the story they are covering forwards and backwards. The best interviews I've had were with people obviously familiar with my work. A great interview with a reporter feels like a natural conversation with a friend you've never met. They'll ask you questions that you haven't answered a hundred times before, and really dive into your experiences that led to something newsworthy. A good interview will feel open ended and go wherever the conversation leads. A good reporter will send you an email when the article is posted and thank you for your time. If you notice any of these qualities, relish the opportunity because these kinds of interviews account for maybe 5% of the interviews I've ever done. If you get a call from a fact-checker who verifies your quotes or information for an article, then go buy a lottery ticket, because you've just beaten incredible odds.

Things bad reporters do

The biggest sign you're in a bad interview is when you can hear a keyboard involved. Now, some good reporters might not be able to take notes on paper or remember the conversation afterwards and will ask for pauses to get some stuff down, but the worst reporters I've dealt with simply type everything they hear, as they hear it. The most astonishing thing is I'm often mis-quoted by one of these stenographer-interviews. You'd think they'd get the statements right if they were writing them down as they heard it. Bad reporters taking notes as they talk are often distracted because humans aren't that great at multi-tasking. They'll ask basic questions you've answered in other interviews. The interview will take twice as long as it should because you'll have to keep pausing while they type. It's a terrible, unnatural way to talk to someone and the resulting article is almost always lame.

Another bad sign is the reporter that calls and asks long detailed leading questions. When the interview comes out, you'll learn why the questions seemed so detailed: it was fill-in-the-blank reporting. Reporters that file stories like this will basically write an entire article and then at the end, call a couple people to fill in the blanks with quotes supporting points of view they already wrote about. They'll read a paragraph-long question to you and if you answer in a way that wasn't exactly what they want, they'll re-ask using the answer they wanted anyway (ex. reporter: "you said it doesn't seem that way? huh, you don't think it could all be a fake?" you: "I guess?"). When they get the slightest shred of a quote they wanted, that's all you'll see in the article the next day.

Lastly, I'd say watch out for reporters that delve deep and want answers to overly personal questions (keeping in mind we're talking about technology reporters that don't normally ask personal questions). This one took the longest for me to learn, but you don't have to answer any question you don't want to. Remember that being interviewed is entirely a volunteer effort on your part. Early on I had a couple tough interviews where reporters asked for how much money I was making, questions about my wife and family, and questions about where I lived. They'd remind me it was for the New York Times or Wall Street Journal and say their readers deserved to know, making me feel like the bad guy for not answering. As a meek computer dork, until recently I held onto a belief that every reporter I talked to was a respected, wise elder that was doing noble work. If you ever feel remotely uncomfortable answering a question, stop the reporter ASAP and say you won't answer the question and that they should move on. If you do say something you didn't want to, call back the reporter as soon as you can and tell them which question was off-limits and that they can't print it.

I remember complaining to a friend after such an incident, saying "Man, that reporter was brutal, we talked about all sorts of things I bet I'll regret later" to which he replied "Why did you say anything at all? He didn't have a gun to your head. In the future, don't say anything you wouldn't want to see plastered as the headline." It was blunt, but great advice, and something I've stuck to ever since.

Things all reporters do

Though it's tempting to see the press as either intimidating authorities or adversarial enemies, the truth is, you'll get the most value out of the press by having good relationships with the reporters that are most valuable for your industry or area of expertise.

One of the toughest things to keep in mind, especially if you haven't done a lot of press, is that reporters are just people doing their jobs. So that means they want to be good at it, please their bosses, and impress their peers. It also means they often want to get things done quickly or on time for their deadlines, they might be begrudgingly covering a story they were assigned that they're not that interested in, or they might be phoning it in while looking for another job.

If you want to increase the chances of good coverage, of getting a quote in a story, or having your work mentioned, one of the best things to do is simply make the reporter's job easier. Recommend other good sources of information (peers, people involved in the story, people that cover the subject), and have a portfolio or background info on yourself and your work available. A standard short biography and some quick links to information about your area of expertise are great for giving a writer the Cliff's Notes version of your life. If you're not familiar with their publication (and let's face it, most of the press you'll get, at least initially, is with papers that you might not read) take a quick glimpse and see what kind of pieces they usually do, and picture how you'll fit into the story. Google the reporter's name.

These days, a lot of reporters have blogs of their own. Skim through them, get a feel for what their personal obsessions or hobbies are, and drop in references to their own areas of interest. A genuine connection with a reporter doesn't just increase the chances you'll be happy with the story they write; It's also a great way to encourage them to come back to you for quotes or follow-ups in future stories.

On the record, off the record

We hear the terms "off the record" and "on the record" so often, it's easy to forget what they actually are supposed to mean. Though the specific definitions can vary, assume every single thing you say to a reporter is on the record and will appear in print and online, verbatim, with your name next to it, forever. And often out of the context in which you said it.

Now that can seem scary, but there are ways around the challenges that presents. The most boring is to just script what you're going to say, and repeat it over and over. But if you have a good relationship with a reporter, they'll cut you some slack and paraphrase your "um"s and "uh"s and false starts into coherent sentences. It's actually very rare for a reporter to try to do a "gotcha" and use your words against you, but it's not impossible, and if you're talking about something sensitive, be aware of that possibility.

You can also think about going off the record for information that's particularly sensitive, or for announcements that you'd like to embargo until a certain date and time. However, not all reporters are willing to do this, not all reporters who say they're willing to go off the record will honor it, and even those who say they'll honor an embargo will often "forget" and slip up, leaking your news early. Basically, these are advanced techniques and I rarely have to relate off the record information to reporters. Don't play with this stuff too much if you're just starting out, and be sure to say the exact words "This is off the record." clearly and out loud before you even start talking about anything that's not for publication.

The best interview ever

My best interview experience by far was with Austin Bunn, who wrote a cover story in the now-defunct Brill's Content. After the magazine flew me out to NYC, they picked me up early in the morning and we went to shoot the cover. Afterwards, I met Austin and we had a long lunch and hung out for another hour or two afterwards. He was writing a multi-thousand word piece so he had resources and time to do it right. He must have done hours of research on me and we did a couple phone interviews before my NYC visit, so the visit involved getting all the details right about my story. I guess it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime things where a reporter has all the time and energy in the world to properly research a story, but there was nothing I didn't like about the experience.

The worst interview ever

Imagine having to wake up at 5am. You throw on some sweats, drive ten minutes to your office and await a phone call. You have no idea what the interview will be about. The phone rings and an overly caffeinated host starts throwing three-part questions about the theory of meme propagation to you and asks your opinion. You go blank a couple times live on the air in a major media market. It sucks beyond belief. That was me about five years ago. It was a morning radio show in New York, and they required me to have a landline for sound quality, which forced me to borrow an office phone way too early in the morning on the West Coast.

Some final thoughts

  • If you have time, answer reporters as soon as you can and talk to them. I am probably quoted once a week somewhere in the press because I always call back.
  • Getting interviewed is fun and often leads to weird old friends and family contacting you out of the woodwork when they run across you in the newspaper.
  • Simply put, live radio sucks and you should avoid it like the plague unless you're a great extemporaneous public speaker. I've never done live TV before, but I bet it sucks even more. Podcasts are a great alternative and are easy because they're mostly edited to make you sound better.

(note: special thanks to Anil Dash for helping out on this)

May 9, 2007 at 06:40 #
Grant Barrett

Thanks, Matt. Very good. Having been a subject of interviews myself over the last four years, I'd add the following. My goal, in general, is to have a public face for the various enterprises I represent (a web site, a radio show, and an academic organization), so I do cultivate the media in some ways, and that is reflected in my advice.

Help the cubs. When you get a call from a media intern or a student reporter, do everything you can to help (though don't do their work for them: some will want that because they're reporting for a class). Last year in a single day two cubs told me, "You're the only person who responded out of everybody I contacted." Give them other contacts, recommended web sites, dis-recommended web sites (especially in my business—language, dictionaries, word origins—where so much that is out there is false or misguided), alternate avenues to explore, different lede ideas. There are two reasons you help them. One, newbies need guidance. You could be helping make a young reporter into a good one. Two, you could be creating a life relationship. Some of these people will go onto bigger things. They may well call you for decades.

Tell them when a question doesn't make sense. Ask, "Can you restate that? I'm not sure I get it." The second time around it's usually clearer or the foundations of the argument they are trying to make become more apparent. I hate to say they come with "an agenda," but they certainly come with a story direction in mind. Which leads me to:

If you don't agree with what they're saying, say so. I often do this off the record and I say something like, "This part is just between me and you, but I really think you're looking at this in the wrong way. What about..." They almost always appreciate it, because they like to know that you're not going to talk shit elsewhere about their bad questions: off the record works two ways. Although there is a certain breed of reporter who will simply ignore you, not quote you, and never contact you again. Which is just fine.

Tell them when a question is poorly phrased. This is similar to the above, but especially in email interviews (which are very common), rephrasing a question for them will often help you control the printed story more. They may even use your wording in the final story. It works less often for phone interviews, but you should do it there, too.

Ask them who else they've spoken to. There are more than a few reporters who now call me for other stories because I've saved them from looking like asses when they were going to quote somebody whose work has been discredited by professionals in my field. Also, if you know who else they've talked to, you can often just beg off. I do it all the time. "Well, if you've spoken to her, there's little more I can say. All I would do is summarize her work anyway." They love that from a source. It confirms for them that they're on the right track.

Another reason a typing reporter is bad: if you only hear them type when you say certain things, then you're going to feel compelled to say only more of the same certain things.

When you're desperate or tired, just glide right back into your own talking points, even if they don't answer the question. Reporters get this. They see it happen on television all the time. They'll often just use your talking points because they're desperate or tired, too.

Avoid the silence. It's a famous interviewing trick: they sit there silent, knowing you will feel compelled to speak. Silence is their way of getting you to ramble. When you'll ramble, you're going to say unguarded things. Try to turn it back on them. Pause after every question they ask. Pause between your own thoughts. Even say, "Hang on a second. I need to check something" and then just sit there scribbling notes until you figure out what you want to say (that, of course, doesn't work on live radio very well).

"Answer reporters as soon as you can and talk to them." I'd say answer back within an hour. Sometimes an hour is too long to wait, especially for radio: they may already have booked another guest in your slot. I've even lost a chance for a radio interview with an uncle, who booked a cousin-in-law instead.

Offer to help, even if it's only for background. You want them to get it right. There's one national journalist and another one in Florida who I help all the time. The national fellow quotes me about one in ten times I help. The Floridian never does. But I see my information in their columns all the time. I don't mind, because the key here is that if he's getting it from me, he's getting it right (in my opinion). Also, that's how log-rolling works. The next time I have a book or project to flack, he's going to be a soft target for my PR. There's one radio program for which a producer called me to sound out ideas for a show. I helped him develop a theme, recommended two other guests, and the show came off great, with my exact theme and the exact guests I had suggested. I've been back on the show twice.

Notice how you're misquoted or misreferenced. It can be pretty substantial stuff. I've had a Wall Street Journal reporter get my place of employment wrong—I had never worked at the company at all. Being misquoted or misreferenced means that you need to be sure to clarify that very point in the future, because reporters will continue to quote that original misquote without checking it with you. Ask for corrections: the Wall Street Journal not only ran a correction in English, they ran it in Chinese, too, since the misquote appeared in the Asian edition. Remember that the next time you want to criticize somebody quoted as saying something you deem wrong or outrageous. There's a good chance they've been misquoted too.

Live radio interviews do suck, except in Canada. Seriously. The four best interviews I've ever given were with Canadian radio stations. They were easy-going, had lots of time, they didn't try to yuck it up with forced laughter, and they listened to what I had to say and responded with questions that weren't from a cue sheet.

Always get the press person's contact information. Build your own media roll. Be bold about it. Name, title, publication, email address, phone number. Then add that information to your media black book so that when you've got something to publicize or a message to get out, you've got a ready-made audience. Be sure to make a note of what you talked about last so that you can mention it when you hit them up. Sometimes, too, when there's a hot issue about, you can email the journalist and give them your thoughts unsolicited—and that can lead them to write a story they hadn't considered.

Demand the link. Tell them how you want to be attributed. Ask that they mention your book, web site, or project.

Follow-up in email. Sending a follow-up in email increases the chances you'll be quoted, gives you more control over the story by reinforcing your points, and lets you restate things like name, title, project, etc., so they don't get it wrong.

May 9, 2007 at 06:53 #
Mark Mascolino

Good to hear that the Brill's piece was your favorite interview. I loved that article and signed up for MeFi shortly there after.

May 9, 2007 at 07:40 #
Alan Cordle

Helpful piece, Matt. Thank you. But I do wonder why you were willing to name your best interview conductor, but you were vague about the worst.interview.ever? Why not tell us who that was? It's "reporting" on your experience, after all.

May 9, 2007 at 07:44 #
Matt Haughey

Great points, Grant. I completely forgot to mention asking who else they've interviewed and how you won't always get quoted.

Alan, I didn't mention specifics on the radio interview because I don't remember any of it. I think the station was WNYC and I don't have a clue who the host was.

May 9, 2007 at 07:45 #
anonymous

Sorry for the anonymous, but as it touches on ongoing court matters...

I got stuck with dealing with the (non US) national press (TV, newspapers, magazines) after the execs falsified finantial statements and the company got delisted and have had the pleasure of dealing with the harsher side of the press. What you have listed rings all very true with my experiences and let me add one more.

I and the interim president were interviewed by a particular columnist that rakes "loser companies and their execs" over the coals. He just wanted to come and ask us about our "future". How we are going to pick up the pieces etc. We specifically made a requirement of meeting that the interview MUST not be for his regular column. As you would expect he asked rather penetrating questions (business, personal, leading etc) and we answered what we could and stonewalled the rest. At the end of the meeting he pulls out his column and thanks us for our time and says it will make a great column and he was not informed about any conditions for the interview thankyouverymuch.

However at our insistence the interview was held at our lawyers office (but without his presence). So instead of just whining and moaning at him, we left the room and got our high-powered and well-connected (and damn expensive) lawyer who was waiting the the next room to take over. After minor threats, some phone calls, and much fuss, the article never appeared.

The moral of the story being, if there is any risk (other than the usual) especially legal or financial risk, be sure you have some kind of leverage available before giving potentially damaging interviews. Many journalists will do whatever it takes to get the story they want, especially when what they want to write is not in your best interests.

May 9, 2007 at 11:07 #
alan bluehole

Matt: I've blocked a few of those interviews out of my mind too! Great info!

May 9, 2007 at 11:37 #
Jonathan Crowe

Excellent points that resonate with my own experience. Let me add another: you don't always need to talk to the press. Or at least not every time.

Let me explain. I got a lot of media calls after Matt posted DFL to MetaFilter back in August 2004. When the wire service stories hit the news sites, my traffic exploded. Media calls kept coming through the week, but towards the end, even though I was on the front page of a national newspaper and appearing on several radio and TV shows, my daily traffic was dropping every day. It turned out that appearing on offline media (live radio and TV, print) generated far less traffic than a web page with a convenient link to me, especially when many of those media outlets didn't bother with the URL!

The end result was that I was wearing myself out saying yes to media requests, leaving less time and energy to do the thing that got me the media attention in the first place, and for not very much tangible benefit (except for a platform to get my point across, which wasn't nothing). The media, on the other hand, were getting free and interesting content -- me. They needed me more than I needed them, in other words. Which is always true unless (a) you need the publicity and (b) talking to them will generate that publicity.

Once I realized that -- long after the fact -- it was easier for me to deal with the press. I set up my contact form to include media-specific fields, such as what kind of interview they needed and how soon they needed to hear back from me, which (at least in theory, since I haven't had to use it much since, my 15 minutes having long since expired) helped me figure out how to reply: if I was too busy to respond within their deadline, I could simply decline. A fast no helps them too. And, for the 2006 iteration of DFL, I put in a FAQ and a media page, which I know several reporters used: that time, I had media coverage without having to talk to anyone.

It's okay if you can't be available: I've gotten coverage simply by being the first person to respond to a reporter's e-mail, which is to say they often have other leads. You're not necessarily indispensible.

It's also true that reporters trade on people's awe at Being in the Paper or Being on Television. After a while, though, it wears off. When being interviewed stops being a big deal, you can approach media coverage a bit more ruthlessly. Do I need this coverage? Do I have time for it? What purpose of mine does it serve to be interviewed?

I agree that live interviews are the worst. Sure, you might only be on TV or radio for a few minutes, but even over the phone I was useless for about two hours beforehand as I tried to prepare myself mentally and choke down the stress.

May 9, 2007 at 12:13 #
Eric Eldon

This post is pretty good. As I am a reporter, here are some critiques from the other side:

Both typing and handwriting notes involves multitasking... I don't understand what exactly is less distracting about handwriting. Assuming I understand your point correctly, I have to respectfully disagree.

I think a typing reporter can be good for a source. Being able to record more information in detail during a conversation allows the reporter to go back and think through these details from different angles, sometimes leading to a more interesting story.

Good reporters also have a bag of tricks (such as bringing up personal issues or asking very blunt, hard questions) designed specifically to throw sources off-balance. Why? Because they know that sources are primarily focused on making themselves sound good while reporters generally try to be even-handed, weighing pros and cons of the topic even if it is not in the interest of the source. That's democracy in action.

Finally, simply not talking to the press tends to mean that the source's perspective will not be as clearly represented. If a reporter is working on a story and wants to talk to you, they probably already have substantive information.

May 9, 2007 at 12:55 #
David Reevely

I'm a journalist with some thoughts about going off the record.

To be safe, reach a mutual understanding with a reporter about what's reportable and what's not. Be clear. Ask if you can go off the record with something. If the reporter says no, don't say it.

As a rule, I don't go off the record -- there's no point in knowing something if I can't tell it to anybody. At most, I'll go for "background" or "not for attribution," which means I can't tell people who told me this, but I can tell them everything else.

I definitely don't let sources pop on and off the record at will, just by beginning a sentence with "Off the record...", because then how will I know when we're back on? I'd never get an interview done.

I expect, if I'm talking to a so-called sophisticated source, that he or she understands that we're not off the record unless we both agree we're off the record. I wouldn't apply this standard to some poor fellow who's lost his dog, mind you, but if you're the person your company or think tank or whatever puts up as a spokesman, I'll assume you know what you're doing when you're talking to me.

I agree with Eric Eldon's observation about blunt or personal questions, as well. Chances are that if I use that approach, I feel like I'm getting a message track rather than genuine answers and I'm trying to knock you off it by asking something you won't have a scripted answer for. If I can do that, I'm hoping we can continue on talking like normal people. I'm not necessarily hunting for something bad to balance off the good stuff you want to tell me, just something more authentic.

Finally, honest mistakes are about a thousand times as common as deliberate hatchet jobs. I've made errors that needed correcting, but never set out to make somebody look bad (although sometimes the honest facts do that on their own).

May 10, 2007 at 12:56 #
Jack

I'm surprised to hear of journalists typing or writing when conducting interviews - I record absolutely every interview, even if I'm just after a quick quote. Not just for accuracy, either - on two occasions I've been accused of misquoting, and both times was able to prove I hadn't. (And I'm an arts journalist, so it's not as if we're talking state secrets!)

Also, I've occasionally interviewed folk who've made recordings themselves - a bit paranoid, maybe, but if you're suspicious of the journalist's motives or ethics at all, it might not be a bad idea. (There are legal issues to be aware of, though - depending on where you are, it may be illegal to record a 'phone conversation without the other party's consent.)

Further to Eric's mention of the 'bag of tricks' - beware the pause. Some of the most revealing interviews I've done have rested on my just shutting up and letting the interviewee fill the silence after they pause, something which a lot of people seem unable to resist doing, especially face-to-face.

May 12, 2007 at 07:15 #
Darren

As a variation on the pause, beware of the 'just one last question' tactic. Traditionally this is done by wrapping up the interview, closing up notebooks, paying bills, and more or less implying closure.

Then the reporter says, 'oh, by the way, I wanted to ask...' and drops a sneaky question on you when your guard is a bit down. It's a clever tactic.

May 14, 2007 at 19:35 #
sho'fr

A sure fire way to generate some PR for a new product, service, or event as an interviewee is to sneak in the "off the record" bit. I've never met a journalist that could avoid using whatever sentence follows "off the record", so use it to your advantage.

May 18, 2007 at 11:43 #
Joe Clark

I’m sorry, but I was a working journalist for a decade and I was accused of misquoting somebody once in nearly 400 articles (and he was right, but it was a small discrepancy). I attribute that fact to a 90-wpm typing ability and a headset with a mute function. I did indeed sit there and type, to the best of my ability, what was being said. It was seldom necessary to transcribe many consecutive sentences, and I never, ever quoted a sentence fragment I wasn’t sure of (to the point of not using really necessary quotes because I couldn't understand my notes and couldn’t get the source back on the blower). I also stopped people and had them repeat things.

Perhaps a reporter who types 40 wpm is the kind of person you should be wary of. Without question, a reporter who writes things down in longhand or doesn’t record your interview is a person to be feared.

I just don’t buy this warning even if it seems on the surface to exactly describe your own specific and limited experience.

Also, your feathered stationary footer makes this blog impossible to read by paging down. Extremely precise scrolling is necessary.

May 19, 2007 at 17:15 #
Waldo Jaquith

I wear many hats, and one of them is that I'm a contributing editor to a national political strategy magazine. A lesson that I learned early on is that there is no standard meaning for "off the record," "on background," or "not for attribution." In fact, definitions vary wildly between journalists. When you use one of those terms in conversation with a reporter, never assume that the two of you are speaking the same language.

Be specific, rather than using jargon that sounds official. Say "I'm going to tell you something if you agree that you will not attribute it to me in any way," "here's some information that will be useful to you, but you may only use it if you can get a second source on the record," or "here's some information that you cannot print, but it may lead you to another angle on this story."

May 31, 2007 at 10:32 #
Jim

"The biggest sign you're in a bad interview is when you can hear a keyboard involved."
Are you serious? Even worse than an interviewer with a predetermined agenda and slanted questions?
As a reporter, I type during phone interviews because I take more accurate notes that way. What's wrong with that? And no, I don't transcribe every word I hear.
When I'm meeting someone in person, I use my digital recorder so I can keep eye contact. I use a notebook as backup.

May 31, 2007 at 10:39 #
Matt Haughey

Joe and Jim, I was probably a bit too misleading with that line about reporters typing. I'm sure it's possible to take accurate notes in a way that isn't distracting to you or the interviewee, but in my experience, the lame interviews I've done always included someone distracted by having to write everything down and ask me to repeat things several times.

I've met and talked to a lot of great reporters but I think in the cases I'm mentioning here, these were people tasked with talking to me or getting a quote and sort of phoning in the whole thing.

June 3, 2007 at 14:14 #
Josh

Matt, I'm glad to see you step back a bit from the typing bit. As a journalist myself, I was taken aback by it.

But I think I finally understood what you meant. You're mentally dividing reporters into two categories: (1) Reporters typing maniacally to get things down, and (2) the Austin Bunn-types who take the time to have lengthy chats at a leisurely pace. (Trivia: I used to edit Austin's stuff at our college paper, 10,000 years ago.) You associate typing-over-the-phone with the former and (presumably) tape-recording with the latter.

But the key difference between them isn't the tool they use to remember your words correctly. It's that the first group is in a hurry. Nothing wrong with that, of course — it's hard to put out a newspaper without occasionally being in a hurry — but it leads to a different kind of interview. And recording plus transcribing (a) takes substantially longer and (b) until transcription leaves you without an easily scannable text with which you can review what was said.

I just finished an investigative series I've been working on for six months, and 80%+ of the interviews were done over the phone. I typed through every one of them, since I'm a fast accurate typist. But I wasn't in a hurry, and I was taking my time to ask the right questions. I doubt anyone was bothered by my typing.

So I'd offer to your readers: Typing does not by any stretch of the imagination equal "bad reporter." Asking stupid questions can equal "bad reporter," and being distracted during an interview can equal "bad reporter," but typing doesn't.

June 25, 2007 at 22:31 #
Robert E. Simanski

In my early years, I was a newspaper reporter and editor. Later I became the editor of a university alumni publication and eventually a magazine editor and publications director for several trade and professional associations. I won a number of regional and national awards for this work, so I guess I was pretty good at it.

At the university, I did interviews with faculty in many different disciplines. In some cases I knew something about their subject; in others I did not. Regardless, I always started the interview with the statement "Pretend that I'm a reasonably well-educated person who doesn't know anything about your specific subject." This worked wonders because it forced the person whom I was interviewing to explain things in a way that the average person could understand.

As for note-taking, I never found tape-recording an interview to be of much value, except as a backup to my notes. (We didn't have computers in those days.) If I relied on it entirely, this just meant double work, because I had to go back and make notes as I was listening to the tape. If you're a reporter on a deadline, you may not have time to do this.

I almost never took verbatim notes. However, I did take fairly detailed ones that I could still understand later on. I also prepared as well as possible for the interview and went into it with a list of between six and ten questions. Sometimes I stuck to the list and other times I found the interview taking me down an entirely unexpected path.

The most important thing that I did, however, was to attempt to establish a trusting relationship between myself and the interviewee. I never took an aggressive approach, the way that Mike Wallace did, for example, because I found that it didn't work. You want the interviewee to open up, and they will only do this if they trust you. Ted Koppel was a master of this type of interview when he was doing NightLine.

The next most important thing that I did was listen. There should be a real dialog between the interviewer and the interviewee. Often this would take me down a path that I had not expected. Sometimes you have to go where the interview takes you.

Most of my newspaper experience was with Catholic papers. The ones that I worked for had high standards of journalistic integrity, but they still represented a specific point of view. I covered the Maryland General Assembly and Governor's office for one of these papers and sometimes had to interview politicians who had a very different point of view, particularly when it came to abortion legislation and state aid to private education.

I found that most of these people just wanted to be treated fairly and quoted accurately. This is how I treated them, and I earned their respect for it.

June 26, 2007 at 18:19 #
Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

As a reporter, my favorite non-F2F interview method is IM/IRC. There's never a misquote, and my interview subject has time to think about his or her answer.

Mind you, most of the interviews I do are with people I've met at trade shows or conferences, so I have a good idea how they think, look, and speak. And most of my interviews are about technology, where I'm looking for accurate information, not trying to get "gotcha" quotes. IM gives most of the interactivity of a phone interview, but I don't really recommend this style unless the two people doing the IM know each other reasonably well -- and the reporter knows the subject matter dead cold.

When doing phone interviews, sometimes I take paper notes and sometimes I type. I may or may not be typing or taking notes at a given moment, but that doesn't mean I'm not listening. And depending on the story, I may only need to quote 5 minutes' worth of talk out of a 30 minute interview (my usual maximum length), so those are the words I'll probably repeat back -- for accuracy.

In person, I'm moving toward video interviews. Why filter someone's answers through my own perceptions?

I'm also thinking about doing more recorded phone interviews and running the actual interview audio for site readers/users with the accompanying text serving primarily as background material and possibly as a time-saver for people who don't have time to listen to the whole thing. And even with video or audio, I tend to edit heavily, not to make the person on the other end look or sound stupid or to change their meaning, but to save our site users time. We all say a lot of things that are essentially verbal "filler," and the interview subject will sound smarter if I leave out the filler, anyway.

One last thing - I know a great deal personally about some of the people I interview, which is typical when you cover a niche beat, but I don't use personal information or reveal nonessential secrets without the interview subject's knowledge and permission. Even then, it's usually to help "bring someone to life" for our readers/users. Even the most focused programmer sometimes likes to know how another programmer spends his or her non-programming time, and how he or she got into the field.

Now back to typing up a story I'm writing from hand-taken notes. :)

Take care,

- Robin

July 18, 2007 at 03:59 #
Michael

You advise: "If you do say something you didn't want to, call back the reporter as soon as you can and tell them which question was off-limits and that they can't print it."

As a working journalist with 20 years experience I can confirm that the first rule is that there is no such thing as "retrospective off the record"! When someone rings back to take back some comment that's usually a sign of the most newsworthy quote in the interview.

You are more on the money later in the article when you say: "assume every single thing you say to a reporter is on the record and will appear in print and online, verbatim, with your name next to it, forever."

That's the game. Live with it.







 


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