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Interviewing: A Guide for Journalists and Writers

Interviewing: A Guide for Journalists and Writers

by Gail Sedorkin

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A new edition of a practical guide to all aspects of interviewing for writers and journalists—from how to use digital tools effectively to what to do when you have no time to prepare Good interviewing is the key to good reporting and great stories, and this book demonstrates step by step how to manage the process. It's a difficult skill to acquire and it can


A new edition of a practical guide to all aspects of interviewing for writers and journalists—from how to use digital tools effectively to what to do when you have no time to prepare Good interviewing is the key to good reporting and great stories, and this book demonstrates step by step how to manage the process. It's a difficult skill to acquire and it can be stressful, but readers will learn how to approach a total strangers and elicit information on a topic about which the reader knows nothing. This guide explains how to prepare, outlines the difference between "soft" and "hard" interviews, and discusses how to make the most of any interview situation. With tips and examples from leading journalists, and covering basic to advanced techniques, this is an essential tool for journalists, journalism teachers, researchers, and writers.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Sedorkin and McGregor provide journalists and writers with a wide-ranging, detailed, and eminently useful guide to the art of the interview. From basic research to legal traps, they cover the subject fully. Newcomers to the craft will find this an invaluable book.” —Kim Lockwood, Editorial Online Training Manager, News Limited

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A Guide for Journalists and Writers

By Gail Sedorkin

Allen & Unwin

Copyright © 2011 Gail Sedorkin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74269-239-5



Karl Stefanovic: Are you a monster?

Anne Hamilton-Byrne: I'm not conscious of what you're saying, I should be conscious of.

Karl Stefanovic: Are you a monster?

Anne Hamilton-Byrne: Certainly not.

Karl Stefanovic: Are you evil?

Anne Hamilton-Byrne: Well, what do you call evil?

Karl Stefanovic: The systematic abuse of children is evil.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne: No.

(Excerpt from 60 Minutes, Channel 9 2009)

If the purpose of this exchange was dramatic television then it could certainly be seen as a successful interview. If, however, the aim was, as for most journalistic interviews, to illicit 'information and insights' (Brady 2004: 1), very little was achieved in this clash. The interview was conducted by Karl Stefanovic for 60 Minutes, questioning alleged cult leader and child abuser Anne Hamilton-Byrne.

Today interviews, particularly those broadcast on television, can attract very large audiences. But what is an interview? Is it a conversation between two people or an exchange in which one person challenges the other, a way of tricking people into revealing facts or an argument in which two opponents are pitted against each other? Is it an opportunity for the interviewee to give a speech, or is a journalist merely a conduit for channelling information from the source to the public? It could easily be argued that interviewing is all of these, and more.

Journalism educator and publishing consultant Professor John Brady states that interviewing is 'a little bit like going on a blind date. It's basically a process of getting to know someone by asking questions and getting answers. In many ways, this is something we've been doing all our lives, and it is usually a very comfortable process.' (Brady 2004: 1).

Today an interview can be anything from a rapid exchange to get a small 'grab' or 'sound bite' (an answer or part of an answer that can be as short as one second for broadcast), to a lengthy feature interview in which the whole exchange — questions and answers — are published or broadcast.

Bashir: Did your relationship go beyond a close friendship?

Diana: Yes it did, yes.

Bashir: Were you unfaithful?

Diana: Yes, I adored him. Yes, I was in love with him. But I was very let down. (PBS 1995).

The two questions and dramatic answers — above — came from one of the most talked-about media interviews of our times. The one-hour interview with the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and BBC1's Martin Bashir broadcast in November 1995 was viewed by millions of people around the world. The Panorama interview was promoted as one in which Princess Diana 'talked openly about her life, her children, her failed marriage, her eating disorders and depression, her husband's relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles and her own infidelity' (PBS 1995).

A popular definition of interviewing is that it is a conversation with a purpose — to inform, entertain and challenge audiences. The interview is the main way in which journalists collect information for news stories. The better the interview, the better the information and the stronger the story. Inter- viewing is an integral skill for the journalist and one that is difficult to master.

All interviews are different. They may involve trying to elicit opinion or emotion, or just gathering fact. Author of The Electronic Reporter Barbara Alysen makes a distinction whereby 'the tone of the interview will also vary, from hard, to soft, to emotional ... Reporters are also called upon to conduct emotional interviews such as those with the victims of crime or accidents, or their relatives' (Alysen 2000: 130; original emphasis).

Mainstream news media rely on fact and opinion interviewing, and magazine journalism uses human interest interviewing for soft news and feature pieces. On the other hand, newer media formats are rewriting traditional definitions to respond to technology and changes in public taste and consumer patterns.

Fact and opinion interviews relate more to hard news, while the human interest interview is used for soft news or feature pieces. The fact interview usually concentrates on the Who, What, When and Where questions, and is used for print news briefs and broadcast news stories where space and time are limited. The interview for opinion or comment emphasises the Why and How questions, and is more commonly used in longer stories. As Masterton and Patching note: 'A journalist wit is supposed to have said that while the broadcast news reporter chases fire engines, the current affairs reporter is down at the fire station talking to the fire chief about how to improve the service' (Masterton and Patching 1997: 239). The human interest interview also includes fact and opinion questions, but concentrates on the emotions and the soft news angle (as in the interview with Princess Diana).

The Compact Oxford English Dictionary of Current English defines the interview as 'an occasion on which a journalist or broadcaster puts a series of questions to a person of public interest', with its French form entrevue derived from s'entrevoir, 'see each other' (Soanes and Hawker 2008). However, not many interviews are conducted s'entrevoir — face-to-face — today. Tighter deadlines and generally smaller newsrooms have resulted in fewer of these 'meetings'.

Journalists, particularly electronic journalists, are increasingly reliant on telephone interviews, media conferences, doorstop interviews (where you catch someone as they are leaving another appointment), as well as email and satellite interviews. Skype is also rapidly becoming a very popular interview method, with the exchange frequently broadcast for immediate use. This immediacy was demonstrated in the Haiti earthquake reports on Wednesday 13 January 2010, delivered by Haitian radio and television presenter Carel Pedre, which is covered later in the book. One of the few sources of information for journalists, Pedre was linked with Skype interviews shortly after the disaster, while journalists on site faced difficulties broadcasting using satellite technology with no sources of power — except batteries of abandoned cars (according to news reports at the time).


Vox pops

Vox pops (vox populi: voice of the people) are used regularly by print and broadcast journalists and have the benefit of immediacy and spontaneity. Essentially they are street surveys to canvass people's feelings about a person's actions or a topical issue. For instance, numerous vox pops have been conducted on smoking in public and on the popularity of political leaders. The question should be short, easily understood and 'open' (that is, the question should elicit more than a yes/no response). Everyone who is interviewed should be asked the same question to ensure the validity of the results.

Doorstops and ambushes

There are some drawbacks to spontaneity, and the doorstop method is one that should be used with great care to gain an interview. A doorstop interview in which the interviewee is asked to respond to accusations or allegations of serious mis-behaviour is usually an adversarial situation. The interviewee can be inexperienced and at a disadvantage when appearing on television.

Doorstops are now used regularly — but not always as an aggressive technique. It is sometimes the easiest way for journalists to catch busy sources when they are on their way to or from an appointment. For instance, you may catch a politician after a media conference or a celebrity leaving a concert or launch. Television journalists regularly use this technique, and in fact may doorstop an interviewee as they leave another media interview. Often doorstop interviews will be prearranged. Catching celebrities at airports or on the red carpet at premieres is now very common.


Deathknocks are interviews in which the journalist knocks on the door of relatives and friends of someone who has just died to talk to them about the deceased for a story. Print and electronic journalists are expected to do deathknocks, which can be a difficult part of the job, particularly for cadets. Sharon Hill, editorial staff manager at Nationwide News, says their reporters are trained to conduct deathknocks politely and carefully: 'The fact is our journalists are very rarely turned away. People actually do want to talk about their loved one, and a story in the paper — so long as it is accurate and positive — is a great comfort to them.' She has developed a number of hints to deal with this sort of interview. They include:

• Put your notebook and pen in your back pocket. It's threatening to open a door and see a stranger with pen and notebook poised.

• Always introduce yourself.

• Check details with the family as information from the police can be wrong.

• Use open body language and try to behave as any other professional who comes into contact with a family when someone has died suddenly. The police, the ambulance, solicitors and funeral directors are all part of the process, and so, often, are journalists (personal interview with Sharon Hill).

Sometimes a deathknock is not always a bad experience, as in the case of the interview with A Current Affair host Tracy Grimshaw with a young Cowra policewoman, Shelly Walsh. On telling her story of the murder of her children and her mother by her father, Walsh said after the interview that it was 'life-changing for her. It was very cathartic for her to tell it' (Grimshaw in Reinhold 2009: 21).

Senior police reporter Jodie Munro O'Brien says the deathknock would have to be the worst interview for a journalist because of the sensitivity of the situation. 'I don't know any reporter who likes intruding on a family who has just lost a loved one, in order to write a story. These, along with some court stories, are among the interviews you are most likely to be verbally abused at' (personal email interview with Jodie Munro O'Brien).

Jodie recounted her first deathknock as a young journalist in America, published by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, University of Washington, together with a helpful guide, as a resource to help journalists who cover violence. An excerpt appears below.

It was late July 2000. As I drove the 45 minutes to the small country town, all I could think was 'please don't let them cry in front of me'. I was a young journalist and I was off on my own to interview the family — a mother specifically — of 12-year-old Billy Huddleston whose murdered body was found only the night before. No one taught us how to handle such a situation ... Many thoughts went through my head as I drove — how do I approach the grieving family? ... In this case, fortunately, the family was willing to talk because, at this point, their son's murderer had not yet been caught nor even identified ... I did not, at first, pick up my notebook. I offered my condolences ... I expressed that I did not know what they were going through, that I could only imagine, how it was unfair. I said it gently, compassionately, delicately. I apologised for being there at all and for having to meet under these circumstances. I offered them thanks for being courageous enough to talk to the media about the situation ... I took it slow. (Munro O'Brien 2007).

Years after this first big traumatic news report in North Carolina Jodie and her husband returned to Australia to live, where she is now the senior police reporter for The Courier-Mail in Brisbane. She is still occasionally in touch with Billy's mother.

Rounds and events

The work of the journalist can be roughly divided into three main 'beats' or events, which include: general or daily rounds; managed events; and spontaneous or on-the -spot events. These all involve different interview contexts.

General rounds involve interviewing sources such as police, fire and ambulance services several times a day — usually by telephone. This round is often given to cadets, or less experienced reporters, and while it might seem tedious it can result in some of the best stories and leads. Please do not be discouraging in your questioning like the cadet who used to ask: 'You don't have any news for me, do you?' Not all rounds are daily. For instance, in Far North Queensland one round involves annually calling the local wildlife park to find out if the crocodiles are nesting (a sign that the wet season is on the way).

Managed events include media conferences and launches and are a common source of information for journalists today. The managed event is ideal for the organisers, giving them the opportunity to disseminate information to a large number of people at one time — a 'group interview'. One of the few advantages for the journalist is the chance to ask questions of a person who ordinarily would be impossible to catch on a one-to-one basis. The journalist can also use the answers to other journalists' questions in their story.

However, this definitely was not the case with the press conference held by golfer Tiger Woods on 20 February 2010, viewed by millions around the world. While he apologised for his behaviour and his many affairs with a prepared statement, no questions were allowed, much to the frustration of jour- nalists. Golf commentator Frank Nobilo of New Zealand says he was displeased by the absence of a question segment. As Nobilo points out, the questions don't have to be about the number of women he had affairs with or who they were (Both 2010: 110).

On the other hand, there is no opportunity for an individual reporter to get a scoop, or an exclusive, when they ask their questions in public at a media conference. The organisers might allow individual time at the end for journalists, but generally it is a matter of trying to conduct a doorstop as they leave if you want to ask a question solely for your own benefit.

Spontaneous events can include anything from allegations of corruption to disasters and accidents. They offer the most interesting interviews and often supply the best stories, but are generally the most difficult situations for journalists because of the lack of preparation time.


Journalists use different styles or approaches (genres). These can range from the aggressive interviewer who argues with the interviewee at every point to the interviewer who is overawed by the 'talent', agreeing with every word and allowing the interviewee to remain unchallenged.

I'll adopt an adversarial approach and from one day to the next and from one hour to the next I may argue opposite points of view. If you interview the man from the bank on the day of the tellers' strike, I might put to him all the union's arguments, and then five minutes later I might be interviewing the union rep and I'll put to him all the employers' arguments. What I'm doing is I'm trying to test their points of view. And in order to put their point of view to the test I have to understand the opposite point of view and be able to follow it up (personal interview with Jon Faine).

Other styles include the conversation and the challenge. Highly respected Australian political journalist Kerry O'Brien, who won the top award in Australian journalism, the Walkley, in 2000, uses the challenge style for most of his interviews. The following segment was taken from a television interview he conducted on 15 May 2000 on the ABC's current affairs program The 7.30 Report with International Olympic Committee (IOC) vice-president Kevan Gosper. Gosper had been publicly accused of nepotism for allowing his daughter Sophie to be the first Australian to run with the Olympic torch in Greece. After a brief introduction Kerry does not waste any time getting to the point with his first question.

Kerry O'Brien: Kevan Gosper, you've acknowledged an error of judgement, how serious an error?

Kevan Gosper, IOC Vice-President: It's serious for me, be- cause I allowed my personal feelings towards my daughter and I guess in my Olympic heart, to make a wrong call and I regret that and I've tried to express my apology as sincerely as I can ...

Kerry O'Brien: I have to ask — why did it take so long for you to realise the error of judgement?

Kerry O'Brien: Did it occur to you that the Greeks might have been currying favour with you as a very powerful individual inside the IOC ... given the problems that they're having in preparing for the 2004 Olympics?

Kevan Gosper: The fact is it never entered my mind.

Kerry O'Brien: It sounds like you're still not absolutely convinced it was the wrong thing, rather than it's wrong because of the way it was perceived. Isn't it true, though, that the only reason Sophie was invited — given that privilege — is because you were her father? (ABC TV 2000).


Excerpted from Interviewing by Gail Sedorkin. Copyright © 2011 Gail Sedorkin. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Gail Sedorkin is a radio and newspaper journalist, a journalism teacher, and the coauthor of Get Your Message Across and Reporting in a Multimedia World.

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