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Posts Tagged ‘interviewing’

Eric Nalder adviceIn last week’s post on interviewing reluctant sources, I cited Eric Nalder‘s advice on “ratcheting” to gradually get some or all of a source’s information on the record:

At the end of the interview, pick out a good quote in your notes that isn’t too damning and say: ‘Now what about this thing you said here? Why can’t you say that on the record?’ If they agree to put that comment on the record, go to another one in your notes and say: ‘Well, if you can say that on the record, why can’t you say this?’ And so on. I have gotten an entire notebook on the record this way. If they insist on anonymity, however, you must honor it.

Eric, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, responded on Facebook with more advice for dealing with reluctant sources (I added a link):

  1. If you already possess information the source would be curious about, use that to your advantage in approaching them. Former colleague Pete Carey approached a crucial source in New Orleans – post Katrina – and said, as the man was closing the door, “I didn’t come here to ask you questions, I just wanted to let you know what I know.” The door opened and the rest is history.
  2. Finish every initial encounter with the suggestion that the source will want to know – as time goes on – what you have discovered and what you plan to publish. Of course, you’ll need extensive personal information to re-contact them: cell phone number, home phone number, email address, home address, office address and, perhaps, some additional info (DOB, SSN) in case you lose track. I’ve gotten the whole nine yards that way. In one case, we were able to track a man’s criminal activity using what he gave me.
  3. Deeply background every source you approach, preferably ahead of time, and I mean scorched earth, without spooking the more sensitive ones.
  4. Sometimes my most aggressive backgrounding activities – including contacting neighbors, colleagues, etc. – have caused a reluctant source to contact me, instead of the other way around. People who contact you – rather than you contacting them – tend to be more supplicant, which can be an advantage to a reporter.
  5. Always ask sources for a list of their friends and enemies (sometimes this line of questioning requires subtlety). Then ask what each enemy would say about them.
  6. Never argue with a person about their reluctances. Simply interview those fears. You’ll be amazed at the results of that approach.
  7. In extreme cases – where sources must remain anonymous – get them to sign sworn affidavits. An added benefit — your readers will find these affiants more believe-able (see our Brock Adams investigation).
  8. Final point – the vast majority of sources should be on the record and all methods, including ratcheting, should be employed to assure that.

Thanks to Eric for adding this advice to what I offered in last week’s post. I also recommend reading his “Loosening Lips” handout, from the best workshop I ever attended on interviewing.

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Scott Blanchard

Scott Blanchard

Thanks to Scott Blanchard, Sunday Editor at the York Daily Record and York Sunday News for this guest post. Scott is a former Dart Center Ochberg Fellow, whom I invited to respond to my post on advice for steeling yourself to ask tough questions. I added some links to his email response and edited lightly:

I totally co-sign your post and the tips in it. Here are a few things your post made me think of:

  • Listening means being present to the person you’re talking to. Gavin Rees, director of Dart Centre Europe, says that in every interview, there are two conversations: The one in the foreground that you’re having with the other person, and the one in the background that you’re having, in your head, with yourself. When the background conversation overcomes the foreground one, the interview derails. That background conversation needs some room, but don’t let it dominate or distract you from being present with your interview subject. (Gavin has a great chapter in a book on trauma journalism; it’s embedded here.)
  • In terms of accountability questions, I think journalists need to make sure they know what specific question they asked when the subject gave a particular answer. It might make a difference in whether/how you are able to publish/frame the response — especially if the answer includes a pronoun. E.g. if you come back with a quote from an official who said, “No, I didn’t know about that,” you have to be able to say that response was to this specific question, so you understand exactly what “that” refers to.
  • I think it’s a good idea to make best practices for trauma coverage be part of news orgs’ orientation for new staffers (there’s a bunch of great material in your post for such an effort); and it’s a good idea for news orgs to make a point of bringing staffers together to have peer-to-peer discussions about what worked, what didn’t and what can be learned from their work in both trauma journalism and accountability journalism. We’ve been doing both since beginning a relationship with the Dart Center, and we believe those efforts have been productive. More on those efforts here.

As far as the question in the hed of your blog post (how to “steel” yourself to ask tough questions): Because I’m an editor, most tough conversations come to me now — if someone who is upset with us calls — as opposed to me going out on a story. But whether I have to call someone to ask tough questions or just field questions after I pick up the line:

  • I think about a survivor who might want to tell his or her story (as you noted).
  • I draw strength from my colleagues — for example, reporters and photographers in our newsroom — who face these situations far more than I do.
  • I draw strength from my Ochberg Fellowship friends. I know what they’re out there doing. Their support makes a difference.
  • I draw on Dart Center knowledge and our newsroom’s commitment to ethical journalism and to treating people like human beings. I feel as confident as I can that, although someone might rebuke me or us for our coverage, we are acting from a solid foundation and making the most well-grounded decisions that we can.

I welcome other guest posts on this topic: What are tips from your experience asking tough questions?

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Charlie Meyerson

Charlie Meyerson

One of my interviewing tips drew some criticism from veteran journalist and teacher Charlie Meyerson.

Charlie, news chief at Rivet News Radio, and I disagree a bit about whether using “uh-huh” in interviews is good or bad.

Here’s what I said in Thursday’s post, an updated version of an old handout for a workshop on interviewing:

Uh-huh. Move the interview along with responsive questions and statements that basically tell the character to keep talking: ‘Uh-huh.’ ‘Really?’ ‘What happened next?’ ‘How did you react?’

I think I was using “uh-huh” and other short verbal cues to keep talking back in the 1980s (or possibly 1970s), long before I first connected with Don Fry, one of the best writing coaches in journalism. But Don says, “The most powerful interview technique is nodding your head and saying, ‘Uh-huh.'” So, if I didn’t learn the technique from Don, he at least reinforced my belief that it’s an effective way to keep someone talking in an interview.

But Charlie has a lot more radio experience than Don or I have, and he sent me this note, disagreeing with my advice:

‘Uh-huh’ is a bad habit I’m still trying to kill among my students and staff. It ruins a lot of audio and video (makes excerpts unusable — a bad thing in this era when multimedia is an invaluable asset for digital journalism). It also makes the reporter seem sympathetic to an interviewee, compromising a sense of objectivity. My counsel: Ask good questions and get the hell out of the way, nodding (silently!) once in a while if needed to encourage someone to keep going.

Charlie sent along a link to his guide to interview techniques, which I heartily endorse. But I wasn’t going to give up right away on “uh-huh.” My response (Charlie got to the point more succinctly than I did): (more…)

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Steve Buttry interviewing Mikhail Gorbachev

Yes, I was nervous when I interviewed Mikhail Gorbachev.

In a Facebook group, a journalism professor this week asked a bunch of veteran journalists for help with a student who “is really struggling when he has to interview people in his intro to reporting class. He gets very nervous and just can’t do it.”

The resulting discussion thread was interesting and uplifting: lots of excellent journalists confessing to their own nerves and discussing how they gained the confidence (and the skill) to overcome the nerves and/or to interview effectively in spite of them. I’ve asked their permission to share some of their advice on my blog.

I posted that advice separately. I’d welcome your advice, too, either in a comment on this blog or by email (tell me what you’re doing now and please send a photo you have rights to): stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com.

Today’s installment will be my advice on interviewing (not just nerves, but techniques, too). Here I’m updating and reposting the handout from a workshop on interviews that I haven’t led in years. But it was a popular choice back in my writing-coach days. I posted it more than a decade ago on the No Train, No Gain website, but I’ve updated it a bit (the Word doc I had it on was dated 2003).

In my response to the discussion thread, I suggested that effective preparation would help the student struggling with nerves. (more…)

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Rolling StoneInvestigating an allegation of rape is one of the most difficult things for a reporter (or police detective or prosecutor) to do.

I’m not going to dwell here on the Rolling Stone reporting about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity party. Lots of excellent journalists have commented on Rolling Stone’s faulty reporting and the related issues, and I’ll link to some of the pieces I have seen at the end of this piece.

I will say this about the Rolling Stone story: If men from the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity didn’t rape “Jackie,” the Rolling Stone’s central source, the story irresponsibly smeared any innocent men in the fraternity. If “Jackie” was raped, the story irresponsibly gave millions of rape survivors one more reason not to tell their stories. Rape is the most underreported violent crime in our society and the greatest tragedy of this journalistic travesty is that the outcry over the Rolling Stone story will undoubtedly cause some rape survivors to keep the crimes against them secret, out of fear that they won’t be believed. When writing about rape, journalists have to get their facts right. Being wrong in either direction is grossly irresponsible.

My point here, though, is not to write one more commentary on the sins of the Rolling Stone. I am writing to provide advice for journalists writing about rape and other intimate and/or traumatic topics. (more…)

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