A reporter’s email asked for advice on “steeling oneself to ask the tough questions? I ask as someone who tends toward introversion when the going gets tougher.”
Effective tough questions (and good answers to them) result from a combination of:
- Recording and photography.
- Advance review.
That combination doesn’t necessarily make tough questions easy. They’re tough and introverts need to learn how to ask them if they want to succeed as reporters. But I’ll provide some tips in each area.
Another aspect of tough questions deals with confidentiality. I address that topic extensively in a separate post: Anonymous sources: Factors to consider in using them (and don’t call them anonymous).
Tough questions seem to fall into two categories (unless I’m overlooking one):
- Accountability questions. These are the potentially confrontational or contentious questions about possible failure or wrongdoing by the person you’re interviewing, often a public official, but maybe a criminal suspect, business executive or other target of investigative journalism.
- Emotional questions. These are questions about emotional personal issues, where you fear that the person might break into tears when answering or become angry and refuse to answer. Often the interview subject here is not used to dealing with the media — perhaps a disaster, crime or accident victim (or a family member of the victim). Or you may be talking about an experience such as war or fleeing a dangerous situation.
For those emotional interviews, I recommend that you browse the resources of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and attend a Dart Center seminar (or invite them to train in your newsroom) if you can. My tips here will repeat some that I offered in connection with a Dart Center program that Digital First Media offered last year.
I have invited Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center, and my former DFM colleagues, Dart Award winners Jason Plotkin and Scott Blanchard, to share any tips they have from that program and their own experiences. If they respond, I’ll either add them to this post or let them elaborate at length in guest posts, or link to tips they have published before.
For my own answers, I’ll run through the aspects I mentioned above of “steeling” yourself for each of these types of questions:
You can answer questions better if you understand why the questions (and answers) are important. The outlook differs considerably between the two situations:
Accountability: These questions go to the heart of the First Amendment and why journalism is important. We need to hold the powerful accountable. In asking these questions, you are performing the highest form of journalism and acting on behalf of the public, trying to serve their right to know about the government and other powerful institutions of society. If that doesn’t motivate you to overcome your fears and pose your questions, you might want to examine whether you really belong in journalism (or whether you need a different role than reporter). I don’t know if this ever gets easy, but I was always successful in steeling myself for these interviews.
Emotional. Your outlook is completely different with these tough interviews with victims and survivors. They are not accountable to the public or you, and they don’t owe you answers. But if you’re going to write about the situation that thrust them into the news, you owe them an opportunity to talk, if that’s what they want.
One of my basic rules of journalism and life is “never say no for someone else.” It definitely applies here. I felt like a vulture when I called on the mother of a teen-age girl who had died in a bizarre accident (I won’t use names or details here, to avoid showing up in Google searches that might renew her hurt decades later). I thought there was no way she would want to talk to a damn reporter. But she did. She poured her heart out to me. I barely made deadline because I couldn’t get her to stop talking. She needed to tell the story, and it would have been cowardly of me not to give her the opportunity, just because I feared a door slamming in my face.
A police reporter once confessed to a half-hearted, unsuccessful effort to reach the family of a child whose death he was writing about. The reporter vowed never to repeat that mistake after getting a call the next day from a parent who asked, “How could you write that story without talking to me?”
As difficult as it is to approach people who are grieving or traumatized, they have important stories to tell. Some want to tell them or are willing to tell them, and you need to give them that chance. You will get cold and hostile turndowns, to the interview itself or to particular questions. But it is arrogant and unfeeling to presume you know which people will want to talk and which won’t, and which questions they want to answer. Give the source that decision. Sometimes they will give you great stories.
Whatever the situation, preparation makes a huge difference, both in the success of the interview and in your confidence in asking questions.
Accountability. A “gotcha” interview only works if you really have them. If you’re going to ask someone to explain apparent wrongdoing, make sure you have thoroughly investigated and documented your accusations. Have dates, printouts, spreadsheets, photos, documents, etc. ready to show if needed. Make sure your case is compelling, and you will be surprised how often a well-prepared “gotcha” interview brings responses, sometimes defensive, sometimes confessional, sometimes both.
An equally important accountability interview is the baseline interview. This is when you interview a person about a topic early in your reporting, before you have anything more than suspicion (and sometimes not that yet). But let’s say you are suspicious, requiring some advance steeling: You’re not asking the pointed questions yet. You’re asking open-ended questions now. Instead of asking “why did you …?” or “how did you ..?” You might be asking “who did …?”
The baseline interview is an invitation to lie, which can detour your reporting or give it focus. And it’s an invitation to tell the truth, which can streamline your reporting (but requires verification, which the source also can provide or point you to).
A baseline interview shouldn’t require a lot of advance fortification. It’s not inherently confrontational, and open-ended questions are some of the easiest to ask. Any interview can be a challenge for an introvert, but the easiest are usually the tell-me-your-story interviews where you mostly listen and take notes.
Emotional: Prep is definitely tougher for the emotional interview. If it’s a breaking story and you’re interviewing a survivor of trauma or a grieving relative, you don’t have much time for prep. You may just have time for a deep breath and moment to collect yourself. If you pray, this is an appropriate time to pray for compassion and clarity for yourself and for comfort for the person you’re interviewing.
At the very least, take a moment to put yourself in his or her shoes: What would you want people to know about the loved one you’ve lost? What will you be telling friends about what you endured? Those are areas where you might want to start and focus? What are the darkest areas you might not share? You’ll want to approach them last.
If it’s not a breaking story (or if it’s a continuing story and you can’t get the interview when it first breaks), you have more time for prep. My prep to interview Vanessa Forsberg about her murderous ex-husband literally took 10 months. She had fled him one night for her own safety and was hiding in another state. I had to negotiate the interview through a niece, telling her why I wanted more on this story and sending her clips that I thought would show how I handled sensitive issues in my writing and reporting. When Jim Forsberg pleaded guilty in the case I was covering, Vanessa finally felt safe (he had been acquitted a few years earlier of murdering their daughter), and I got the interview.
Control is an essential factor of any interview, and it plays out differently in the two types of interviews we’re discussing. Whatever the setting, the source absolutely controls what she will say. No one has to talk to you. Ever. Reporters don’t have subpoena power. But you absolutely control how you will write the story. Sources can blog their own stories, but they cannot dictate yours. So the effective interview is about managing and sharing control: You want to get the source to give you good material for the story; the source wants to influence what you write. Control issues play in all of the sections to follow, but I will address them briefly by overview first.
Accountability: While you can’t force someone to talk even in this setting, you can use your role as a conduit to the public to provide pressure to talk. The fact that you are writing the story (if you can do it without the interview) can also provide the pressure to talk. I have been so blunt as to tell sources they have no choice in whether I write the story; their choice is in whether it will include their voice.
You seek to share control in the accountability interview by having a strong story, explaining why it’s in that person’s interest to talk (or why he owes the public an explanation). But once you get the interview rolling, you want to maintain most of the control. You need to get your questions answered.
Emotional: In many of the situations that bring reporters into people’s lives at emotional times, one of the most traumatic aspects for the person you will be interviewing is the loss of control: In sexual and domestic violence, other crimes, disasters and illness, loss of control can be overwhelming. But they can control this interview just by saying no. No to the interview or no to any question.
In the emotional interview, you share control more. I’ll elaborate in each of the areas below, but my most successful pitch to get (and start) an emotional interview is simple and direct: “I want to tell your story.” It’s her story, and I respect that at every step of the way.
You don’t always control the setting of an interview, but it affects the subject’s comfort and confidence (and yours). So you should control it when you can (but not get into a power struggle over setting) and adjust to it as needed, regardless of where the control lies. Sometimes circumstances present the setting and no one is in control. When possible, I prefer to interview someone in his or her own environment: home, work, school, church, athletic field, vehicle, favorite places to visit or play. Unless I have reason to fear a person might be violent (which has been rare), I strive, when possible, for an intimate setting with just the two of us, or with the subject and someone close to him or her.
Accountability. If you have an issue “steeling” yourself for an interview, you may be more comfortable doing an accountability interview in a neutral setting — perhaps over lunch, where the person may be less likely to make a scene if angry. (But be aware that audio recordings suck in restaurants. Key quotes will be drowned by background laughter and clinking silverware, or the person’s talking while chewing.)
You could invite the subject to your offices for a gotcha interview (maybe after having visited his office for the baseline interview). This shifts the psychological home-court advantage and, again, might lessen the possibilities of an attempt to intimidate you with visible anger. However, the source may insist that you come to her.
Sometimes you have to negotiate the setting for an accountability interview with an intermediary such as a PR representative. I once was profiling a powerful CEO who had engineered a pending merger, and the PR rep would give me only half an hour in his out-of-state office. My editors and I decided it would be worth the trip. The PR rep said the CEO’s drinking was off-limits (he had been in the news recently for a drunken-driving arrest).
I accepted the conditions for the interview, including that the PR rep would be there recording it all. It started as stilted as you can imagine. We spent very little time on the merger, because I was doing a profile story, not a merger story. I asked good questions (more on questions later) and got him talking comfortably, probably because we were in his office, where he was in control. I didn’t ask about drinking; he brought it up. The PR rep reminded me of the ground-rules when I asked a follow-up on the drinking and the CEO waved him off. The PR rep reminded the CEO of the time when a half-hour was approaching and the CEO waved him off. He was comfortable and in control and on a roll and I was getting a great interview.
So I swung for the fences: He had mentioned his marriage multiple times and his wife’s important support throughout his career, so I said I wanted to interview her: Could I get their home number and call her that evening? Better yet, he said, drop by the house this evening (an invite to me, but not the PR rep, who did not look happy). I dropped by. He offered me a beer (had something softer himself), I spent 2-3 hours with the couple and got much greater depth from him. And she gave me the anecdote that I used in my lead.
Emotional. Settings for the emotional interview vary widely, depending on whether they are breaking stories. You’re less likely to deal with a PR rep in emotional interviews, but still often negotiate through third parties: family members, funeral directors, pastors, friends, counselors.
It’s a good idea to interview participants in the same event separately, if you can. Sometimes you might be suspicious of conflicting stories (honest stories will conflict, too, just because of differences in perspective and memory), but you also have different personalities. You want to hear the stories of the both the introvert and the extrovert, and you’ll only hear one if you interview them together, unless you ask good questions directly of the quiet one.
But friends and counselors can provide important emotional support during interviews. I have interviewed dozens of survivors of rape and domestic violence, and they often asked friends to accompany them for interviews. Sometimes the friend was a secondary source, who witnessed or experienced some of the same story. Most times they just offered comforting looks, a reassuring touch or a tissue.
When I was doing a story on women’s abortion experiences, the friend who accompanied one source offered moral support for an hour or two, but she was watching me closely throughout the conversation. I passed her audition, and when I finished interviewing my original subject, I heard about the friend’s abortion. She became the lead in my story.
That interview took place entirely in a restaurant, never the perfect setting, but some people feel better handling the emotional interview in a restaurant. They are going to be telling you intimate things, and inviting you into their home seems a step too intimate.
But after I courted Vanessa Forsberg by long distance for 10 months, she invited me into her living room alone and I interviewed her for about three hours.
If interviewing a survivor of a crime or disaster, I would advise against pushing a return to the scene (if that’s even possible). But if someone wants to meet you there or take you there, get moving quickly. That may be a powerful and perfect setting. If the emotional event had a happy ending, you might suggest a return to the scene for the interview.
I am a fan of the rolling interview. I described one (with an introverted subject) in my story about the Farragut Admiralettes girls basketball team. I was able to start the interview in the home of the former star of the team, who was veterinarian in Calgary. She had warned me when I set up the interview that she had moved beyond basketball.
In her living room, a cat jumped on her lap. Even shy people will talk about their cats. Soon she was telling me about her upbringing on an Iowa farm (with lots of cats). We went out to dinner. Even shy people grew up talking over dinner, and I got her talking more there. Then she took me to her vet clinic: more cats. By the time we got back home, she was ready to tell me about basketball. In fact, we went down to the basement to find her ball (it was flat).
For a project about gays in the ministry, a pastor who left his ministry after coming out met me at my hotel and took me on a rolling interview. He took me first to the botanical center that was one of his favorite places to visit with his partner (but the partner wasn’t with us yet). Later he took me to lunch in a funky entertainment district, then to a beautiful civic building overlooking a lake. Finally he trusted me enough to meet with his partner at a neutral location. But he never invited me to their home. The rolling settings were absolutely critical to steeling us both for the increasing intimacy and discomfort of my questions and his answers. (A photojournalist in a later visit went back to the botanical center, spent some time there and got a great shot of them kissing).
Recording and photography
I worked most of my reporting career when recording was optional for newspaper reporters, a supplement to a reporter’s notes and a help in quoting accurately, but not audio and video digital content. I had some great working partnerships with many visual journalists, especially at the Des Moines Register, Omaha World-Herald and Cedar Rapids Gazette (I did a bit of reporting, even as the editor), and saw them effectively help me put people at ease.
But many journalists have to operate solo today, shooting video and photos as well as recording audio. Whatever your working situation, recording can be a comfort factor (either way) for your source, so you need to gauge the situation carefully.
Whether you record audio or video, take notes as though you weren’t recording, because all recording equipment fails sometime (or background noise drowns out audio), and usually on the best quote. You use recording to ensure accuracy and collect digital data, not as a substitute for accurate note-taking.
Accountability: I can see few reasons not to record at least audio for an accountability interview. When I used to use a tape recorder, I used its introduction as an opportunity to show the source my commitment to accuracy. In this kind of interview, a chief concern is being misquoted, and you can use your ability to record audio as a reassurance (but then you have to be sure that you use the recording and check your quotes for accuracy).
Still, if a person is nervous about speaking on camera, I would be willing to start with an off-camera interview and attempt to persuade him to go on camera later. That’s sometimes an efficient way to streamline the video editing: Conduct a long interview with just your notebook (and an audio recorder, if that’s OK), then follow up on camera, re-asking your key questions or seeking elaboration on those topics.
Emotional: You need to read the situation carefully in emotional interviews. I’ve worked with photojournalists who excelled in helping me build rapport with people discussing emotional issues, despite their sometimes-intimidating equipment. I’ve seen other sources recoil at the sight of a camera or recorder.
I was covering a murder story in Chicago once and not getting anywhere in my initial interviews. I was finally hopeful when I got into the office of the victim’s best friend. But two minutes into the interview, she asked me to turn off my tape recorder. Even my note-taking was making her jumpy. She asked if we could put away the notebook and take a walk. I said sure (on a chilly February day), and we walked miles from downtown, to the neighborhood where the woman’s body was found.
We made a deal that everything would be off the record, but I could come back to her later, trying to persuade her to say something for the record, relying on my memory of what she said and asking her to confirm it for attribution. Not an ideal situation at all. But it’s what it took to get her talking. She gave me great insight and background on the people and relationships of the story. I memorized a great quote that I wanted to use, and tried to get it into the story later(I can still recite the quote today, word for word). She wouldn’t go on the record or even attribute the quote to a friend of the victim. So in one sense, the interview was a complete bust.
But it was also a huge success: She gave me the background I needed for my prep in all the interviews that followed, and pointed me to the people I needed to interview who would talk, some of them for the record. She helped me see the lay of the land. She persuaded someone else to talk to me. The understanding and contacts that I gained in that long walk were the foundation of the story, even though I couldn’t use a single quote from her.
But I don’t recommend doing that, except in extreme cases. A better approach usually is to build some rapport in an interview using just the notebook (or notebook and audio recorder), then get out your camera and tripod to continue the interview on video.
The tough questions usually need some setup.
Accountability: The setup in an accountability interview will depend heavily on whether you have done a baseline interview.
Almost any interview can start with some small talk, especially if you haven’t dealt with the source yet: Get the name and title right, some background, etc. This establishes that the interview is on the record and gives you both a few minutes to gain some level of comfort before things get contentious (and gets you some basic facts, in case the interview ends abruptly when the tough questions start).
If you’ve done the baseline interview, the setup can be pretty brief. But if you have some basis for small talk — weather, sports, family, unrelated news, something that catches your eye in the person’s office — that might ease tensions a bit before you get down to business.
Emotional: Unless my time is severely limited, I never get to the point quickly in an emotional interview. I want to learn about the person I’m interviewing and I want him to know that I see him as more than just this dire circumstance that brought us together. I may ask about work, family, background, interests. Showing a genuine interest in the full person, even if she knows what you’ve come to interview her about, is one of the best ways to set up tough personal questions.
Now that we’re steeled, we finally get to the questions:
Accountability: I need specific questions answered in the accountability interview. But the character knows answers to questions I’m not smart enough to ask. So I’m going to ask some open-ended questions that invite conversation. The baseline interview may be mostly open-ended questions, but if I haven’t done a baseline interview, I almost always start with open-ended questions, especially if I’m not pressed for time.
In an accountability interview involving possible wrongdoing or responsibility, I like to ask how or why someone did something, not whether. If you ask whether, that signals to the source that you don’t have it nailed down yet, and why would she want to help you with answers that might be harmful to her self-interest? But if you ask why or how, that indicates that you have the whether, and the how or why answer may give you the confirmation you wouldn’t get by asking whether. Be sure to backfill, though, confirming the who, what, when and where, all the basics of whether.
For example, I once was having trouble nailing down accusations that a priest had left town after an allegation that he had fondled a boy in a hospital visit. I could not nail that down sufficiently that either my editors or I were ready to publish the story. But I had confidence in it. I persuaded my editors to let me drive to the town were he was working as a parish priest and confront him.
If I had started out by asking him whether he molested the boy, he would have denied that (he eventually did), but the interview might not have gotten anywhere. Instead, I asked him to tell me about the investigation of the allegation. He thought I had the whether of the investigation, and he confirmed to me that his religious order had investigated and cleared him. This helped me nail down two important facts of the story: confirmation on the record of the investigation and of the fact that the allegation had not been reported to police (as required by law). I was able to get subsequent confirmation of the investigation from the religious order, and I had my story, including his denial that he had molested the boy.
Go into an accountability interview with a list of questions you need to get answered. Refer to the list toward the end of the interview and make sure you have the answers. Nail down details.
Ask if the person has anything else to add.
Sometimes the “Columbo” question is a great way to end the interview: Just one more question as you’re on the way out the door, catching the person off guard and picking up another key detail. Don’t count on it always working, but sometimes it yields a gem. My “Columbo” questions are usually spontaneous, but sometimes you’ll think of a good one during the interview. I don’t recall ever being smart enough to think of one before the interview started.
Emotional: I often don’t have to ask the tough questions in an emotional interview. The source knows why I’m there. If I ask her to tell me her story, she gets to the tough answers in her own time and in her own way.
Sharing control is essential in the questions of an emotional interview: But if you invite him to tell the story, he’ll provide answers to questions you never would have asked, or known to ask about. When the source starts going on a detour, don’t steer her back on course. The detour might be the route she needs to take to the answer you need. Or it might take you somewhere you never could have imagined. Or it might just be an emotional delay, helping the source steel herself for the heart of the story.
Sometimes you do have to ask the tough questions, though. Some sources won’t get there on their own. Still, try to keep them open-ended, invitations to tell you the story: What happened next? Why did you do that?
Unless you’ve lucked into a great storyteller, you will need to ask some specific questions to nail down details or perhaps to help move the story along. Sometimes it’s helpful to ask a source to recount a full scene, including setting and dialogue: What did you say? How did he respond? What was the weather like? Where were you standing? What could you see?
Composure is important in an emotional interview. But you’re a human and your humanity helps you get and understand and tell the story. Don’t be ashamed of brushing away a tear. Take a restroom break if you need to (the source probably does, too). If she offers you something to eat or drink, that may be more than a gesture of hospitality. Maybe she needs a break from your questions, a moment to regain composure herself. Accept the offer — and the break — gracefully.
Use your judgment about situations that become highly emotional. Once, when I was interviewing the mother of a teen-age suicide victim, she got up from her sofa and went across the room, embracing a huge portrait of the daughter and weeping uncontrollably, addressing the girl as if she were in the room. I could only remain in my seat so long. Eventually I had to go and put a comforting arm around her.
By then I had most of my questions answered, but I couldn’t leave her like that. We covered some lesser issues for a while and I didn’t leave for probably another hour or so. Then about a half-hour later, I called her from the road on a bogus premise. “You’re checking up on me, aren’t you, Steve?” she asked after giving me my trivial answer. I confessed that she had me worried. She reassured me that her husband had long since locked away all her weapons and pills and I didn’t need to worry. But I did. She was OK. I heard from her after the story was published how much she appreciated the story and my approach to the interview.
Vanessa told me through tears that she knew, after Jim Forsberg’s acquittal for murdering their daughter, that he would kill again. That was powerful, but not as powerful as reading it in her journal, in a letter addressed to her slain daughter, years before the murder that eventually sent Jim to prison.
Watch and ask for the things that can help you tell the story (and that might ask some of those tough questions for you): photo albums, old letters, scrapbooks, videos, keepsakes.
As important as everything I’ve already covered is, listening is the heart of a good interview.
Accountability: Listen for the carefully chosen words that show that someone is trying to mislead you or steer you in the wrong direction. Listen to see whether the person really answered your question. Ask it again if he didn’t. Listen for the gaps that you can fill in by asking a more specific follow-up question. Asking open-ended questions to start the interview requires careful listening, so you’ll know where you have to get specific.
Emotional: Sometimes you need to steel yourself for the silence that follows a good question. If you ask thoughtful questions, you need to leave time for thoughtful responses. I’m not suggesting a staredown that says you won’t move on until the person says more. But sometimes you can tell that more is coming. Be patient and comfortable with the silence. Or prod for a little more with a gentle question: What happened next?
Follow-up is an important part of getting the most from a tough question.
Accountability: You might ask a question the person honestly can’t answer without more research. (Or maybe he hopes that dodge will help evade answering.) Follow up and nail down your facts.
Emotional: Have you ever thought, after the interview, of a question you should have asked? Of course. We all have. Call, email or physically return to get your question answered. After an emotional interview, the source does the same thing, wishing he had remembered to tell you something important. Maybe your questions prompted a sleepless night or some research in old emails or records stored in the basement. Many of my best stories got important nuggets, or even the heart of the story, through a follow-up call or a second in-person interview. A good first interview sometimes plants seeds. Be sure to come back and harvest.
A potentially controversial aspect of control may be whether you will grant any level of advance review of a story before publication. I deal with those issues in detail in the posts linked above, but briefly, in an accountability issue:
- I would be clear with a source that I and my editors would have the final say over the writing and presentation of the story.
- I would be happy to extensively fact-check the story (or at least the portion dealing with that person) with the source before editing.
- I would be especially happy to go over any technical, legal or process-oriented information or a timeline with the source before publication, to make sure that I have that person’s version of the story correct.
- If I gather information that conflicts with the person’s account, we will go over those differences before publication.
- I would not email a story to a source before publication (too much possibility of forwarding to lawyers, PR aides, trying to scoop us, etc.). Any review of the story must be by telephone or by reading a draft printout in my presence that stays with me (no photocopies).
In emotional interviews, I have, with my editors’ agreement, made a variety of arrangements involving advance review that have protected my control over the writing. In the most extreme case, we agreed that I could tell women talking about abortions that they could decide after the interview whether I could use their names. In most cases, that got me the interview, and then my interview earned their confidence and I was able to use their names. They did not see the story in advance of publication, but I read one woman the section about her. She did not suggest any changes and agreed to the use of her name (and a photograph).
How do you ‘steel’ yourself?
I’d love to add some of your advice to what I’ve offered here. As I said, I’m going to invite some colleagues directly to share their tips. Consider this your invitation.
Update: Scott Blanchard offers more advice on this topic in a guest post. Also, Katherine Reed of the University of Missouri has blogged at MediaShift about teaching journalism students to cover trauma.
Earlier posts with interviewing advice
I deal with interviewing in several other blog posts: