Interviewing: What questions to ask, Part I
With few exceptions, interviewing people is part of every story a journalist, magazine writer or freelancer writes. There isn’t a story if the writer doesn’t have input from people “in the know,” those who have experienced the ecstasies and agonies of the topic and/or those who have a story to tell. Face-to-face interviews are the best. Try to interview people on their own turf. That way you see what’s important to them. What pictures or items are displayed? What’s on their desks? Do they use a desktop computer, tablet or laptop? How are they dressed? Who else is around?
How do you start?
1) Do the research before the interview:
a) Google the person you are going to interview. Maybe he/she is a marathon runner, founded a local club, won a little-known prize.
b) Google the topic. Get background information, get statistics.
2) Get facts. The traditional who, what, where and when must be part of the story.
a) Who: first and last name spelled correctly. Ask Mary Smith to spell her name. Is it Mary, Merry, Merrie, Marye. Smith, Smyth, Smythe, Smithe?
b) What: Give the exact focus, e.g., John Smith is petitioning his town council or neighborhood P.O.A. to change zoning so he can erect a flag pole in his back
c) Where: Does John Smith live in Chicago? Baltimore? If it’s Wilmington, which state is it. Illinois, North Carolina, Delaware?
d) When: Part of this depends on when the article will be published and which outlet will publish it.
Newspaper articles are current, so saying “in March” when the piece will be published in April is
Acceptable; “recently” is acceptable. Magazines and newsletters often have a long lead time so
saying “last year” isn’t enough. State “in 2013” or “in March 2013.” This gives a focus to the
3) Why: Give a reason. Why does this man want a flag pole in his back yard? Why is this so important
to him? Did the town object? Why or why not? Did neighbors object? Why or why not?
4) How: How did the man devise the project? How did he go about getting support for the project? How
did he get the money for it? How did he decide on a design? How did he get his idea?
5) Other factors:
a) What does his wife, children, other family and friends say about this project?
b) Can you ask them questions?
c) Which city council member or POA officer will give a statement?
a) What’s at stake for him?
b) What are the consequences if he completes the project? Doesn’t complete it?
This is a basic story. Know how long the editor wants the story to be. If it is 500 to 1,500 words these questions should fulfill your assignment. However, if you want to get at the heart of the story, you need to probe deeper. See Interviewing, Part II to learn how to do it.