News training: Preparing an interview

As a new reporter I was once asked to go and interview a lady whose surname was said to be ‘Robertson’. We did the interview, the story was published and she contacted me afterwards. She had no complaint about the story except for the fact that I had misspelled her surname. It wasn’t ‘Robertson’ at all, she explained, but the much rarer spelling of ‘Robison’, pronounced identically if you say it quickly. She hadn’t thought to raise it during our interview and, more to the point, I hadn’t checked.

Preparing for media interviews is one subject covered in Deep South Media's online journalism course.

Preparation is key

It was a salutary lesson of the need to prepare as fully as possible in the interview situation. The understandable drive to secure the news angle can be undermined by avoidable mistakes involving spellings and other straightforward facts. The message is to check and double-check. See the bigger picture but don’t neglect your attention to detail.

Preparation, before diving into the meat of the matter, is key. While the newsroom can be a chaotic place with seemingly no time to gather your thoughts, just taking a few seconds to run through the basics can pay dividends later. Establish as much detail as you can about the person before you do the interview. Check cuttings and online sources, think of a few questions to get the ball rolling and ensure you arrive in plenty of time if you are travelling to speak to the person face to face. Don’t be embarrassed about checking the basics such as the spelling of names, the person’s job or position, and any place or company names involved in the story. It’s far better to have these issues sorted out to start with than play catch-up later. Accuracy is the cornerstone, as media organisations often say.

Another important point is to try to put yourself in the place of the person you are going to interview. An experienced politician who is used to robust questions is an entirely different prospect from an innocent party caught up in a news event who has never been in the media before. They may be petrified, suspicious, not especially articulate, or all three. Try and assess the sensitivity of the situation and approach accordingly. Gaining trust is essential if you want someone to talk freely. Show an interest in them, empathise, be respectful. If you have someone trying to avoid issues they shouldn’t, a basic rapport to start with can help you unlock the door to the truth.

This post is part of a series reflecting themes from our online practical training course for working journalists.  The course was launched recently with a video announcement by Lord Black, CPU Media Trust Chairman.

Next time, we’ll be looking at how to dress for interviews. Tie or no tie, smart or casual?

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SCOTT SINCLAIR – Deep South Media