Interviews are the backbone of the information gathering that journalists do. Reporters should strive to find angles that are thought provoking and surprising by asking probing questions
Let’s learn more about how reporters should use follow-up questions to elicit fresh responses.
Play the video clip of Linda Mah, the arts and entertainment writer for the Kalamazoo Gazette, talking about interviewing and writing.
Read Mah’s stories on author Jim Harrison and on actor Tony Curtis. Mah often has to rely on telephone interviews for her stories, since she is writing in advance of a short-run production coming to town. Phone interviews rob reporters of acquiring information through observation. Mah works to enliven her articles with details she can hear or discern over the phone.
In both the Harrison and Curtis stories, look for phrases and details that Mah adds to try to bring color and spark to the writing.Read Story 1 Read Story 2
You are interviewing the university football coach about cuts in the school’s athletic programs. The university cut all sports programs except football. Write three possible follow-up questions to the following statement by the coach.
“The cuts in those other programs are understandable. It’s not like they are football after all. Those programs suck up money and use little talent.”
Share your answers in small groups.
A 20-minute interview with a busy rock star might be all a reporter gets for a feature profile. Pick a famous person who has obviously been interviewed often – it could be an actor, a politician, an an author. Using the Internet, research the background interests, current issues and relevant facts of that person’s life.
Write ten appropriate questions for a mini-profile on that person. Try to think of questions that might elicit fresh and unpredictable responses by that person.
Pair off and interview a classmate for ten minutes. One of you should be the reporter and the other should pretend to be the lead singer in a popular rock band – in other words, someone who has stock answers to every question. To combat those bland answers, the reporter should ask follow-up questions (“Why did you decide to do that?” or “What were you thinking at the time?” or “Tell me more about that.”)
After ten minutes, switch roles, with the interviewee this time taking on the persona of a seasoned pro athlete.
Writing Tip: Mah pays attention to the endings of her stories. She likes to have a strong ending to give her readers a payoff for sticking with her story to the last line. Read the endings of Mah’s stories and other news stories.
Compare a story with a strong, conclusive ending to one that feels like it was tacked on at the last minute. Note how you as a reader feel after finishing each story – which do you remember better a day later?
Discuss your impressions as a class.
Play the video clip of Mah’s colleague, general assignment reporter Craig McCool. When interviewing someone about a complex issue, McCool sometimes admits to his source that he needs educating on the topic. He looks to that source to clarify the issue.
In small groups, talk about the pros and cons of doing this. Find an expert in your community. Interview them about a subject that you know little about. Try McCool’s approach.
Write a one page story based on your interview. Then, share your impressions of this interviewing technique with your classmates.
Play the video clip of Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Tom O’Neil discussing interview questions. He emphasizes the need for probing questions – also called follow-up questions in every interview.
Practice asking follow-up questions by interviewing three people about a topic of your choice. Prepare only two questions for the short interviews and let the rest of the interview flow from the source’s responses.
Come back and discuss your experiences as a class.
Play the video clip of Chicago Tribune reporter Noreen Ahmed-Ullah on pacing an interview so it flows naturally, like a conversation instead of an interrogation.
Using Ahmed-Ullah’s advice, write ten questions for a classmate on the subject of their upbringing. Start with closed questions that only require factually yes/no answers, then move to more complex, open-ended questions.