Interviewing: How to do it?
Interviewing: How to do it?
For a reporter, the key to a good interview is knowing what you
want, and how to get it. For a news programme editor, the important thing is to
make sure that the interviewee has been carefully selected, and the designated
reporter well-prepared. In other words, the editor must be
sure a reliable reporter is chasing a reliable speaker. All interviews should be
thought out carefully beforehand, and fairly executed. At the BBC, ultimate
responsibility for this lies with programme editors.
What do we want?This varies, depending on the story.
Usually, the main aim of a news interview is to get 'soundbites' for use as
clips in a bulletin / package. This may simply be a matter of getting the
interviewee to 'tell the story' or express opinions about it. . If the interview
is not a news interview, eg. if we are interviewing a painter about his latest
exhibition for an arts broadcast, then the tone may be more conversational, the
framework less-rigidly structured.
Why do we want it?An interview should have a clear
purpose: don't ask people for an interview unless you have a clear idea of what
you want from them. Interviews can describe, explain, test arguments, convey
complaints. Not all interviews will be challenging news pieces. Some are meant
to entertain, and be funny. The interviewer needs to respond appropriately,
knowing when to prompt, challenge, ad-lib, or remain silent.
PreparationWe need to be well-informed on the
interviewee's position before we start, especially if he / she has already
expressed views elsewhere on the subject. There is little point in repeating a
previous interview by another organisation. We are more likely to break new
ground if we summarise the subjects' present position and discourage them from
repeating it. In other words, always try for new information from the
If an interview is likely to be controversial, or tricky in some way, the
production team (eg. editor, interviewer, researchers etc) should discuss
strategy beforehand. In other words, work out a framework, consider the possible
reponses, and how to follow them up. Poor research allows a competent
interviewee to sweep questions aside. This can be embarrassing for the
interviewer, the programme, and your organisation. Good preparation allows the
interviewer to be flexible in responding to what is said. It means he / she has
back-up material to support a fresh question.
Being impartial, fair, politeAnyone expressing
contentious or controversial views during an interview must be rigorously
tested. Persons in power, seeking power, advocating or criticising a policy must
be approached with a consistency of tone: we must not appear partial to one side
or the other. When an interview becomes charged with emotion, the emotion should
come from the interviewer, not the interviewee. The interviewer should appear
searching, sharp, sceptical, informed - but not partial, discourteous or
emotionally attached to one side of an argument. To avoid appearing timid or
biased during an interview with a politician for example, we should try to be
aware of a range of opposing positions with which to test the politician's
position. Generally, we should be known for our dispassionate approach to
Interviews should be searching and to the point. Avoid long-winded questions,
avoid making assumptions : both are easy to evade or challenge. Interviews
should be well-mannered not rude, whatever the provocation. Questions that try
to disorientate the interviewee (EG. "Are you in this mess because you are
dishonest or just foolish?") are discourteous and probably counter-productive.
They will often make the audience hostile to the interviewer, and sympathetic to
the interviewee. In a well-conducted interview, listeners and viewers regard the
interviewer as working on their behalf.
All interviewees should be given a fair chance to set out their full response
to questions. Many ordinary people are unlikely to be experienced with
broadcasting. We must be careful not to talk down to them, patronise them, or
upset them with brusque questioning. An eye-witness may need to be encouraged
rather than challenged. More experienced interviewees may try to evade the
question, or use the interview as a platform, avoiding its proper purpose.
Evasion should be exposed coolly and politely, if necessary by repeating the
question and explaining to the interviewee and the audience why the previous
answer did not address it. Some experienced interviewees are trained to pass
complimentary personal comments when they meet journalists, in an attempt to
subtly charm them away from asking tricky questions. (EG. "Nice tie!" "Nice
dress!"). Don't be dissuaded from your task.
Some interviewees may insist on rigid conditions: EG. a list of specific
questions agreed in advance. In this case, programme makers should consider
whether or not it is worth proceeding. If we do proceed, we should refer on-air
to the conditions under which the interview was conducted. Sometimes,
interviewees will make unreasonable demands to change the terms on which the
interview was agreed, to exclude certain questions, perhaps to arrive late or
delay the start of a live interview so as to reduce the time available for
follow-up questions. In such cases editors, producers and reporters should stand
their ground and if necessary withdraw. However, if the requests / delays are
justifiable, we may opt to proceed.
Remember that academics and experts from other organisations should not
automatically be assumed to be impartial. Some may be associated with a
particular standpoint, policy, person, group or even a commercial product. It
should be made clear to the audience if any such links exist.
Inteviewing our own correspondentsSometimes it is
appropriate to ask our correspondents (reporters) to express their judgement
based on their knowledge of a subject or situation. However, it is entirely
inappropriate to ask them things about which they cannot be sure, or on which
they can only speculate. Producers and editors should establish in advance just
how much a reporter knows about a subject, how much they will be able to clarify
a story, and move it forward. If poorly-informed they can do neither. So why
consult them ?
The live interviewThe crucial point here is that the
purpose of the live interview must be realisable in the time available. We
should try not to leave the audience suspended and frustrated in mid-argument,
or irritated by references to 'running out of time'. A good interview comes to
an orderly conclusion. So plan one.
Editing a recorded interviewWhen we interview someone
and plan to edit the results (ie. as we do most of the time!) we must treat them
fairly at every stage. This includes telling them that their contributions will
be edited. An interviewee who is being asked to reply to detailed criticism
should be given an opportunity to respond to each of the main points aired in
the programme. We must take care when editing : any substantial points made by
interviewees must be reflected in the final edited version. If we choose only
their weaker responses, and leave out their robust rebuttals of our questions,
this is unfair. The golden rule is : a reasonable person, having heard / seen
both the original and the final edited version, should conclude that the edited
version is a fair representation of what actually took place.
Recorded interviews should be well-focussed, and whenever possible, we should
try to match the length of the interview with the likely length of what will be
broadcast. In other words, if we know we'll be using just one or two clips, it
is pointless to interview someone for half an hour. Using brief extracts from
long and unfocussed interviews can cause justified ill-feeling.
As-lives: remember, take care when using as-lives. Circumstances may change
before transmission which might make it inappropriate for the recording to be
used in its entirity ie. a 'hot' news interview can easily be left behind by
subsequent events. If an agreement has been entered into, both parties must be
clear about what was agreed and the extent to which editing may be appropriate
And finally ...Remember: it is pointless knowing all
this if we cannot properly record a simple interview. So take care to check
batteries, levels, mixing desk connections, etc. On location, get close to the
speaker, even if you have to negotiate a private H2H. Try to reduce background
noise, unless it adds appropriate colour. Negotiate with other reporters or find
the best vantage point for an interview with someone obviously in-demand. Check
the place where you expect to do the interview as soon as you arrive, not during
the interview. Is it a big room? Sparsely furnished? Will it echo? Why is music
playing? Can I avoid it? These points should be considered before you begin.
The smallest thing can contribute to spoiling an interview, so be
extra-vigilant and learn to control the interview environment. If you don't like
it, say so and change it. Coming back to the newsroom with a provocative
statement from a politician down a well listening to The Bee Gees is not the
kind of thing you or anyone else wants to hear on air. It wasn't your fault? Too
bad. Next time it may not be your interview. (BBC)