Reporters conduct two kinds of interviews:
· News interview: The purpose is to gather information to explain an idea event or situation in the news.
· Profile: The focus is on an individual. A news peg often is used to justify the profile.
For effective interviews, reporters prepare carefully, and they ask questions that induce the source to talk freely. Questions are directed at obtaining information on a theme that the reporter has in mind before beginning the interview. If a more important theme emerges, the reporter develops it.
The reporter notes what is said, how it is said and what is not said. Sources are encouraged by the reporter's gestures and facial expressions to keep talking.
In the stadium locker room, the half-dressed hurdler was stuffing his warm-up suit and track shoes into a battered black bag. Seated on a bench nearby, a young man removed a pencil and a notepad from a jacket pocket.
"I'm from the paper in town," the young man said. "You looked sharp out there. Mind if I ask you some questions?"
The athlete nodded and continued his packing.
"First time you've been to this part of the West or this city?" the reporter asked. Another nod. This was not going to be easy, the reporter worried. The editor had told him to make sure he brought back a good story for tomorrow's paper, the day the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics would begin its outdoor track meet at the local college. The tall, lithe young man standing in front of the bench was a world record holder in the hurdles, the editor had said, and worth a story for the sports section.
The reporter tried again. "What do you think of our town?" The athlete seemed to see the reporter for the first time.
"I don't know anything about this town," he replied. "I'm here to run. I go to the East coast, the West coast, here. They give me a ticket at school and I get on a bus or a plane and go. My business is to run." He fell silent.
Rebuffed, the reporter struggled to start the athlete talking again. In the 20‑minute interview, the hurdler never really opened up.
Back in the newsroom, the reporter told the editor about his difficulties. They seemed to begin with his first question about whether the athlete had been to the town before, he said. His boss was not sympathetic.
“First, you should have checked the clips and called the college for information about your man,” the editor said. “That way you could have learned something about him, his record or his school. You might have used it to break the ice. Or you could have asked him about the condition of the track, something he knows about.”
Then the editor softened. He knew that interviewing is not easy for young reporters, that it can be perfected only through practice.
“I think you have a good quote there about the business of running,” he told the reporter. “Did you get anything else about the places he's been? That could make an interesting focus for the piece.”
Yes, the reporter said, he had managed to draw the hurdler out about where he had been in the last few months. With the editor's guidance, the reporter managed to turn out an acceptable story. This incident illustrates the four principles of interviewing:
1. Prepare carefully, familiarizing yourself with as much background as possible.
2. Establish a relationship with the source conducive to obtaining information.
3. Ask questions that are relevant to the source and that induce the source to talk.
4. Listen and watch attentively.
Because much of the daily work of the journalist requires asking people for information, mastery of interviewing techniques is essential. The four principles underlie the various techniques the reporter uses. Clearly, the sportswriter's troubles began when he failed to prepare by obtaining background about the athlete he was to interview. Lacking background, the reporter was unable to ask questions that would draw out his source. Furthermore, he had failed to establish a rapport with the hurdler, so that the session was more like dentistry than journalism, with the reporter painfully extracting bits and pieces of information from an unwilling subject. Fortunately, the reporter had listened carefully so that he managed to salvage something from the interview.
If we analyze news stories, we will see they are based on information from several kinds of sources: physical sources, such as records, files and references; the direct observations of the reporter; interviews with human sources; online sources. Most stories are combinations of two or three of these sources.
Glance at today's newspaper. Listen carefully to tonight's evening newscast. You will be hard‑pressed to find a story that lacks information from an interview. A front‑page story about a court decision on welfare assistance, for example, has a quotation from the governor about the consequences of the decision. A story about the city's plan to put desk officers on the street quotes the police chief. An obituary contains an employee's comments about the generosity of his late boss.
Straight news stories seem to consist of physical sources and observations. Yet if you examine them closely, you will more often than not find information a source has supplied through an interview, brief as that interview may have been.
Let's examine in detail the four principles of interviewing that we mentioned following the young reporter's frustrating interview with the hurdler.
There's a saying in newsrooms that good interviews follow the two “P's” ¾ persistence and preparation. Persistence is necessary to persuade people to be interviewed, and it is essential in following a line of questioning that the subject may find objectionable.
Preparation may consist of a few minutes spent glancing through a story in last week's newscast before dashing out to interview a congresswoman on a flying visit to look at the local Veterans Hospital where cutbacks have affected care. It may be a prolonged examination of clippings, material from Nexis and articles that databases have turned up for a profile of the new university president.
Clyde Haberman, a New York Times columnist, says “exhaustive research is the basic building block of a successful interview.”
A.J. Liebling, a master reporter who moved from the newspaper newsroom to The New Yorker magazine, is quoted in The Most of A.J. Liebling, edited by William Cole: “The preparation is the same whether you are going to interview a diplomat, a jockey, or an ichthyologist. From the man's past you learn what questions are likely to stimulate a response.”
Research begins with the library's clippings about the subject. If the topic has more than local importance or if the interviewee is well‑known, The New York Times Index, Facts on File or a database may have a reference that can be useful. The Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature may list a magazine article about the topic or the person. Who's Who in America and other biographical dictionaries can be consulted. Most of these reference works are on CD‑ROM and are accessible online. People who know the interviewee can be asked for information.
These resources provide material for three purposes: (1) They give the reporter leads to tentative themes and to specific questions. (2) They provide the reporter with a feel for the subject. (3) They provide useful background.
This was the fifth session Claudia Dreifus was spending with Dan Rather for a profile, and she knew a mile‑high barrier separated them. Finally, she told Rather, “This isn't working.” Rather agreed and he invited Dreifus to accompany him in his pickup from Sam Houston State University in Hunstville, from which he graduated, south to Wharton, where he was born, and then over to Austin for dinner.
Back home, Rather relaxed and opened up, complaining about his ill‑fated pairing with Connie Chung on “The CBS Evening News” and worrying about the cost‑cutting that has affected news coverage.
“At CBS News, we're down to the bone, past the bone, and we've been there a long time,” he told Dreifus.
With experienced subjects, interviews usually go smoothly as both stand to gain from the interview: The subject will have his or her ideas and comments before the public, and the reporter will have a story.
But with less‑experienced sources or with those who are reluctant to speak to the questions the reporter is there to ask, there can be tension. The reporter has to find ways to reach the source.
Fred Zimmerman, a long‑time reporter for The Wall Street Journal, has these suggestions about how to prepare for an interview:
1. Do research on the interview topic and the person to be interviewed, not only so you can ask the right questions and understand the answers, but also so you can demonstrate to the interviewee that you have taken the time to understand the subject and also that you cannot easily be fooled.
2, Devise a tentative theme for your story. A major purpose of the interview will be to obtain quotes, anecdotes and other evidence to support that theme.
3. List question topics in advance ¾ as many as you can think of, even though you may not ask all of them and almost certainly will ask others that you do not list.
4. In preparing for interviews on sensitive subjects, theorize about what the person's attitude is likely to be toward you and the subject you are asking about, What is his or her role in the event? Whose side is he or she on? What kinds of answers can you logically expect to your key questions? Based on this theorizing, develop a plan of attack that you think might mesh with the person's probable attitude and get through his or her probable defenses.
Give and Take The early stage of the interview is a feeling‑out period. The interviewee balances his or her gains and losses from divulging information the reporter seeks, and the reporter tries to show the source the rewards the source will receive through disclosure of the information‑publicity, respect and the feeling that goes with doing a good turn.
When the source concludes that the risks outweigh the possible gains and decides to provide little or no information or is misleading, the reporter has several alternatives. At one extreme, the reporter can try to cajole the source into a complete account through flattery‑or by appearing surprised. At the other extreme, the reporter can demand information. If the source is a public official, such demands are legitimate because officials are responsible to the public. The reporter can tell the source that the story‑and there will be some kind of story‑will point out that the official refused to answer questions. Usually, the source will fall into line.
A public official cannot evade a question with a plea of ignorance. A city controller, whose job it is to audit the financial records of city agencies and departments, told a reporter he had no idea whether a bureau had put excess funds in noninterest‑bearing bank accounts. Told by the reporter it was his business to know that and that the story would state so, the controller supplied the information.
Careful preparation leads the interviewer to a few themes for the interview, and these, in turn, suggest questions to be asked. But before the specific questions are put to the interviewee, a few housekeeping details usually are attended to, vital data questions. For some interviews, these may involve age, education, jobs held, family information. For well‑known people, the questions may be about their latest activities.
Questions of this sort are nonthreatening and help make for a relaxed interview atmosphere. Also, they are sometimes necessary because of conflicting material in the files, such as discrepancies in age or education.
People want to know these details. Harold Ross, the brilliant and eccentric former newspaperman who founded and edited The New Yorker, slashed exasperatedly at the pages of profiles and interviews that lacked vital data. “Who he?” Ross would scrawl across such manuscripts.
Even the obvious questions about background can result in fascinating and revealing answers. For a personality profile, the interviewer asked Whoopi Goldberg why she adopted Goldberg as her stage name. She replied:
“It was my mother's idea. It's a name from the family past. There are lots of names hangin' on our family tree, Jewish, Catholic, Asian . . . Black folks, white folks. I'm just the all‑American mutt.”
Simple question. Fascinating quotation.
Direct Questions Most questions flow from what the reporter perceives to be the theme of the assignment. A fatal accident: Automatically, the reporter knows that he or she must find out who died and how and where the death occurred. The same process is used in the more complicated interview.
A reporter is told to interview an actor who had been out of work for two years and is now in a hit musical. The reporter decides that the theme of the story will be the changes the actor has made in his life. He asks the actor if he has moved from his tenement walk‑up, has made any large personal purchases and how his family feels about his being away most nights. These three questions induce the actor to talk at length.
Another reporter is to interview a well‑known entertainer. The reporter decides to ask about the singer's experiences that led him to write songs that call attention to war, poverty, sexism and racism. “Bread,” says the singer in answer to the first question the reporter asks. “Money,” he explains. There is a good market in such songs. The reporter then quickly shifts themes and asks questions about the economics of popular music and the singer's personal beliefs.
Open‑ and Closed‑Ended Questions When the sportswriter asked the hurdler, “What do you think of our town?” he was using what is known as an open‑ended question, which could have been answered in general terms. The sports editor's suggestion that the reporter ask the athlete about the condition of the track would have elicited a specific response‑fast, slow, or slick‑as it was a closed‑ended question.
The open‑ended question does not require a specific answer. The closedended question calls for a brief, pointed reply. Applied properly, both have their merits. Two months before the budget is submitted, a city hall reporter may ask the city manager what she thinks of the city's general financial situation‑an open‑ended question. The reply may cover the failure of anticipated revenues to meet expectations, unusually high increases in construction costs, higher interest rates and other factors that have caused trouble for the city. Then the reporter may ask a closed‑ended question, “Will we need a tax increase?”
As we have seen, reporters often begin their interviews with open‑ended questions, which allow the source to relax. Then the closed‑ended questions are asked, which may seem threatening if asked at the outset of the interview.
Television and radio interviews usually end with a closed‑ended question because the interviewer wants to sum up the situation with a brief reply.
The reporter who asks only open‑ended questions should be aware of their possible implications. To some sources, the open‑ended question is the mark of an inadequately prepared reporter who is fishing for a story.
Some television reporters tend to ask open‑ended questions, even when a specific one is more appropriate. A Chicago TV reporter in an interview with orphans asked a youngster, “Do you wish you had a mother and father?” The most familiar of all these open‑ended questions asked by poorly prepared TV reporters is, “How do you feel about . . . ?”
Good questions are the result of solid preparation, and this requires more than reading the local newspaper and chatting with authorities. Reporters who hold to these narrow confines usually operate only in a linear fashion. That is, today; s coverage is built on yesterday's newspaper stories and the council meeting of the day before. Good stories‑informative journalism‑are spurred by the questions that break the chain of events. Remember Copernicus. All he asked was what would happen if the sun and not the earth were the center of the universe, and centuries of linear thinking shot off onto a new plane.
Tough Questions Sometimes a young reporter finds that posing the right question is difficult because the question might embarrass or offend the interviewee. There is no recourse but to ask.
Oriana Fallaci, an Italian journalist famous for her interviews, says that her success may be the result of asking the world leaders she interviews questions that other reporters do not ask.
“Some reporters are courageous only when they write, when they are alone with their typewriters, not when they face the person in power. They never put a question like this, 'Sir, since you are a dictator, we all know you are corrupt. In what measure are you corrupt? “
Remarkably, heads of state, kings and guerrilla leaders open up to Fallaci. One reason for this is her presumption that the public is entitled to answers and her unwillingness to be treated with indifference. When the heavyweight champion boxer Muhammad Ali belched in answer to one of her questions, she threw the microphone of her tape recorder in his face.
Another reason for her effectiveness is “her talent for intimacy,” as one journalist put it. “She easily establishes an atmosphere of confidence and closeness and creates the impression that she would tell you anything. Consequently, you feel safe, or almost safe, to do the same with her,” writes Diana Loercher in The Christian Science Monitor.
Kissinger the Cowboy In her interview with Henry Kissinger, the U.S. secretary of state at the time, Fallaci had him admit that his position of power made him feel like the “lone cowboy who leads the wagon train alone on his horse.” His image of himself as the Lone Ranger caused an embarrassed Kissinger to say later that granting Fallaci the interview was the “stupidest” act in his life.
A political reporter who accompanied Sen. Don Nickles on a tour of Oklahoma towns noticed an apparent inconsistency in Nickles' public statements. Nickles often described himself as a conservative who was tough on federal spending. Yet in Eufaula, Nickles announced “good news” from Washington, a commitment of federal funds for a new housing project.
The reporter then asked if the Republican senator's approach was consistent‑condemning government spending in one place and welcoming it in another. Nickles' answer: He would vote against federal housing funds but as long as they were available, “I will try to see that Oklahoma gets its fair share.”
The quote ends the story, and the reader is left to decide whether the senator is an opportunist.
Some reporters gain a reputation for asking tough questions and not wasting time on preliminaries. When Jack Anderson, the Washington columnist whose specialty is exposés, calls a congressman, the politician knows that he is unlikely to be asked for the text of a speech he is to give in Dubuque. Anderson is after meatier game.
Intrusive Questions Still, there are questions that few reporters like to ask. Most of these concern the private lives of sources‑the mental retardation of a couple's son, the fatal illness of a baseball player. Some questions are necessary, some not. The guidelines for relevance and good taste are constantly shifting, and reporters may find they are increasingly being told to ask questions that they consider intrusive. This is the age of intimacy.
Reporters who dislike asking these questions, preferring to spare sources anguish, are sometimes surprised by the frank replies. A reporter for Newsday was assigned to follow up on an automobile accident in which a drunken youth without a driver's license ran a borrowed car into a tree. One of the passengers, a 15‑year‑old girl, was killed. In doing his follow‑up story, the reporter discovered that most of the parents were willing to talk because, as one parent said, the lessons learned from the accident might save lives.
Junk Questions Wendell Rawls Jr., a veteran newsman, describes his interviewing technique:
Don't tell people what you know. Ask questions. Then back off. Use diversion. I love to do that ¾ talk with people about things you're not there to talk to them about. You ask a question that may be very meaningful. Then you move away from it. I do it sometimes even if the person doesn't get particularly fidgety, because I don't want him to think that I think what he has told me is necessarily important to me. I'll move to another question and say, “What is that on the wall? That's an interesting sort of. . . .” Whatever. Anything that will divert him, and he will start talking about that. And then maybe ask two or three questions about junk, and then come back and ask another very pointed question.
“Great reporters are great listeners,” says Carl Bernstein of the Woodward‑Bemstein reporting team that exposed the Watergate cover‑up that led to President Nixon's resignation.
The good listener hears good quotes, revealing slips of the tongue, the dialect and diction of the source that sets him or her apart.
In an interview with Luis Manuel Delgado whom Diana Griego Erwin encounters at a motor vehicle office in Santa Ana, Calif., she finds Delgado unable to tell the English‑speaking clerks what he needs. Does that bother him? Erwin asks. Here is an excerpt of their conversation from The Orange County Register:
“I should know how to speak English,” he said with a quiet simplicity. “This is the United States.”
“My kids are very good,” he said. “They get good marks in school. They speak English. No accent. One wants to be a doctor. When they first came here I told them to study English and learn it well. Don't let them treat you like a donkey like they treat your papa.”
I asked him if it didn't hurt, being treated “como un burro,” as he said.
“No, I am not a donkey and my children know it. They know I do all this for them.
“They are proud of me. Nothing anyone else says or does can make me sad when they have pride in me.
“And they will never be donkeys.”
Sometimes, a single quote can capture the person or illuminate the situation the interview is about. In an interview with a former governor of Arkansas, Sid McMath, a single quotation told a great deal. First, the background.
School Desegregation In 1957, Gov. Orval Faubus defied a federal court order to desegregate Little Rock's Central High School. Although President Eisenhower responded by ordering the 101st Airborne to enforce the court order, Faubus had legitimized resistance and there was mayhem when the few black students tried to enter the high school.
Faubus was a small‑time politico when McMath plucked him out of Madison County.
After the Little Rock spectacle, McMath was asked about Faubus and he replied: “The sorriest thing I ever did as governor was to build a paved road into Madison County so Orval Faubus could come down it.”
School Cruelty Listen to Wendy Williams, a bright 13‑year‑old, talk to a reporter. She lives in a trailer park in Dixon, Ill. Her teacher recommended her for an advanced math class, but she said no. “I get picked on for my clothes and for living in a trailer park,” she said. “I don't want to get picked on for being a nerd.”
Types of Interviews
The major story on page 1 of a September issue of The Hawk Eye in Burlington, Iowa, was about a three‑alarm fire that destroyed a two‑story building that housed an automobile sales agency and a body repair shop. The reporter interviewed several people for information to supplement his observations. Here are the people he interviewed and a summary of their comments:
· The owner: 15 cars destroyed; exact loss as yet unknown.
· A fire department lieutenant: The building could not have been saved when firefighters arrived. They concentrated on saving the adjoining buildings.
· An eyewitness: “I didn't know what it was. It just went all at once. I seen it a‑burning and I was scared to death.”
· The fire chief. The state fire marshal will investigate the cause of the fire.
Although the reporter was not present when firefighters battled the fire during the early morning hours, the interviews with the lieutenant and the eyewitness give his story an on‑the‑scene flavor. Because these interviews help explain the news event, we describe them as news interviews.
Another local front‑page story also relies on a news interview. A head‑on automobile crash on Iowa Route 2 near Farmington took the life of a Van Buren County woman and caused injuries to four others. The story is based on an interview with the Iowa Highway Patrol.
The Interviewer's Ground Rules
Both parties in an interview have certain assumptions and expectations. Generally, the reporter expects the interviewee to tell the truth and to stand behind what he or she has told the interviewer. The interviewee presumes the reporter will write the story fairly and accurately. Both agree, without saying so, that the questions and answers mean what they appear to mean‑that is, that there are no hidden meanings.
Having said this, we must admit to the exceptions. Sources may conceal, evade, distort and lie when they believe it is to their advantage. The reporter must be alert to the signs of a departure from truth.
The rules that govern the reporter's behavior in the interview can be detailed with some certainty. Reporters, too, conceal, mislead and, at times, lie. Few reporters justify these practices. Most agree the reporter should:
1. Identify himself or herself at the outset of the interview.
2. State the purpose of the interview.
3. Make clear to those unaccustomed to being interviewed that the material will be used.
4. Tell the source how much time the interview will take.
5. Keep the interview as short as possible.
6. Ask specific questions that the source is competent to answer.
7. Give the source ample time to reply.
8. Ask the source to clarify complex or vague answers.
9. Read back answers if requested or when in doubt about the phrasing of crucial material.
10. Insist on answers if the public has a right to know them.
11. Avoid lecturing the source, arguing or debating.
12. Abide by requests for nonattribution, background only or off‑the-record should the source make this a condition of the interview or of a statement.
Reporters who habitually violate these rules risk losing their sources. Few sources will talk to an incompetent or an exploitative reporter. When the source realizes that he or she is being used to enhance the reporter's career or to further the reporter's personal ideas or philosophy, the source will close up.
Sources also risk trouble when they exploit the press. Reporters understand that their sources will float occasional trial balloons and give incomplete, even misleading, information. But constant and flagrant misuse of the press leads to retaliation by journalists.
When Sheryl James of the St. Petersburg Times was interviewing sources for her prize‑winning series on abandoned infants, she realized that many of those she was interviewing were unaccustomed to talking to a reporter. “I was dealing with good but somewhat unsophisticated people,” she says, “who would have been easy to manipulate. It was a challenge to be sure they understood what I was doing and to keep promises made during the reporting process that I could have broken with impunity.”
James focused on a woman who was charged with leaving her baby in a box near a dumpster. She had to develop a relationship with the woman. “I simply tried to be straightforward about what I was doing,” James said, “and get her to trust me, to know that I would keep my word to her.
“Aside from that, when I finally did interview her, I felt as I do with many people I interview ¾ I try to establish a relaxed rapport, to be human myself so that they know I'm not a media monster.”
The News Interview
The extended news interview can provide readers and listeners with interpretation, background and explanation. When Douglas Watson, a Washington Post reporter, was covering the extortion and tax evasion trial of a Baltimore County official, he heard the testimony of a stock manipulator who was a confessed white‑collar criminal and political fixer. Watson was told that the witness was being held by the United States Marshal's Service in a special facility while testifying for the government. Watson learned there were several of these facilities ¾ known as “safe houses” ¾ and he decided to do a story about them. After the trial, he spent several hours talking to officials.
“In the interviews, I learned about other interesting and unreported aspects of the organization besides 'safe houses.' “ Watson said. “One of the Service's activities is giving new identities to people who had been government witnesses. This enables them to start new lives in another part of the country.”
Here is how Watson's story begins:
“Restricted Area ¾ U.S. Govt. Training Center,” says the sign on the barbed wire-topped fence surrounding a barracks at Ft. Holabird on the edge of Baltimore.
The sign doesn't say it, but the barracks is one of several “safe houses” that the U.S. Marshal's Service operates for the special care and feeding of very important prisonerwitnesses such as Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt, political saboteur Donald Segretti and stock manipulator Joel Kline.
Three to five “safe houses” have been in existence around the country for about a year, usually holding about 50, mostly white collar, “principals,” as they like to call themselves. They are federal prisoners who usually were involved in organized crime and who are considered too valuable as government witnesses or too endangered by threats to be incarcerated in the usual prison . . . .
Bomb Designer The news interview can emphasize an aspect of a continuing story that the reporter considers to have been overlooked or neglected. When the debate over nuclear weapons heated up, Jimmy Breslin of the Daily News interviewed I.I. Rabi, one of the nuclear physicists who built the first atomic bomb.
Breslin wondered if Americans weren't too casual about nuclear weapons. A master journalist, Breslin let Rabi speak:
“You're a Queens Catholic. Get on your knees and pray,” Breslin quoted Rabi as telling him.
“Nuclear weapons are entirely beyond the people in our government today. It doesn't take much to know that.”
Rabi recalled that during the 1980 Reagan‑Carter debate, Carter had talked about his daughter Amy's concern over nuclear weapons. “The newspapers said it was stupid,” Rabi said. “I never did. It was the little girl who was going to be killed . . . .”
Rabi is quoted extensively because he has something to say, has the authority to say it and says it well. Young reporters are often surprised at how eloquent the subjects of interviews can be if they are encouraged to speak.
The profile should be seen as a minidrama, blending description, action and dialogue. Through the words and actions of the subject of the profile, with some help from the reporter's insertion of background and explanatory matter, the character is illuminated. Profiles should include plenty of quotations.
For a retrospective piece on the 1980 championship University of Georgia football team, U.S. News & World Report interviewed the starting offense and the punter in the team's Sugar Bowl victory over Notre Dame. The magazine found: 9 of the 12 did not graduate; none of the 6 black starters received degrees.
In a series of miniprofiles, the magazine reported on the players' careers in school and later. Herschel Walker, the star of the team, left the team after three years. “I had to worry about what was best for Herschel ¾ and leaving school was best for Herschel,” he is quoted as saying. He was signed for a reported $5.5 million by a professional team.
Not so fortunate was Walker's gridiron blocker, Jimmy Womack. Like Walker, he did not graduate. But he had no professional career and regrets his role in Walker's shadow. “If I had gone to Florida State, I could have been in the NFL somewhere,” he said. There were, the magazine reports, “compensations . . . in the form of wadded‑up $100 bills, passed along in 'padded handshakes' from alumni and boosters.” Off the field, he remembered, there were “these girls that liked football players, not one at a time either.”
Nat Hudson, who went on to play in the NFL for five years, says that when he goes to a Georgia game or to the athletic area, he feels “like a social outcast.” The attitude, he says, is that “we've exploited your talent and we're through with you, so you go back to your business.” Racism, he says, is the source of his cool reception.
The profile consists of:
· The person's background (birth, upbringing, education, occupation).
· Anecdotes and incidents involving the subject.
· Quotes by the individual relevant to his or her newsworthiness.
· The reporter's observations.
· Comments of those who know the interviewee.
· A news peg, whenever possible.
Interviewing only the source will lead to a thin, possibly misleading story. When a young New York Times reporter turned in a piece about an alcoholic nun who counsels other similarly afflicted nuns, the story did not move past Charlotte Evans, an editor.
“As it stands,” Evans told the reporter, “all you have is a moderately interesting interview with Sister Doody. You sat in a chair, and she sat in a chair and you had a chat. That's not very good, considering the story material.
“Did you talk to any nuns in treatment or just out of it?
“Where is the anguish, the embarrassment, the guilt?
“It doesn't sound as if you had done any real reporting, digging, pushing. Where are the people, the quotes, the color?”
For her profile of Les Brown, a black preacher and radio personality. Itabari Njeri of The Miami Herald talked to other ministers, a community activist and the directors of the local chapters of the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, as well as to Brown. Assessments of Brown diverged widely: “I will not allow anyone to manipulate or prostitute the black community, and that is what Les Brown is doing to the nth degree,” an Urban League official said. The activist had a different view: “He is different . . . he's got guts. He is a challenge to the traditional black leaders here.”
Reporting Is the Key
Reporting makes the profile. Joseph Mitchell, whose profiles for The New Yorker are considered the standard for the form, is described by Brendan Gill in Here at The New Yorker, a history of the magazine, as having had the ability to ask “just the right questions.” The questions would open up his sources, and Mitchell would closely attend their recollections and reflections. He encouraged sources to a loquacity no one suspected they possessed. Mitchell knew that everyone has a good story and that good reporting will flush it out.
In the dedication of one of his books, Calvin Trillin, a New Yorker writer, wrote, “To the New Yorker reporter who set the standard, Joseph Mitchell.” Note Trillin's description of Mitchell as a “reporter.” Trillin, like all good writers, knows that reporting is at the heart of the journalist's work.
. . . . As the novelist Elmore Leonard says, “When people talk, readers listen.” In interviews, the writer listens for the telling remark that illuminates the person or the situation. Leonard says he lets his characters do the work of advancing his story by talking. He gets out of the way.
“Readers want to hear them, not me.”
Listen to the singer Lorrie Morgan talk about her problems: After her husband, the singer Keith Whitley, died of alcohol poisoning, Morgan was only offered slow, mournful ballads by her songwriters, she said in an interview with The Tennessean of Nashville.
“I mean, it was all kinds of dying songs,” she said. But then she fell in love with Clint Black's bus driver, and she decided to change her tunes.
“I said, 'I'm not going to do that. I'm not basing my career on a tragedy.' I live the tragedy every day without it being in my music.” Her life, she said, has turned around, thanks to her new love. “He's a wonderful, wonderful guy. This guy is very special, and I'm into him real bad.” However, not too long afterward Lorrie’s love life took a detour ¾ her affections switched to a politician.
For reasons unknown, reporters have a tendency to paraphrase rather than to quote directly. In fact, several articles have appeared in journalism publications advocating paraphrasing as an efficient way to tell a story. Efficient? Maybe. But so are telegrams. For reader interest, for enthralled reading and viewing, direct contact with the individual interviewed is best achieved by letting interviewees speak.
Research shows that quotations are useful. S. Shyan Sundar of Pennsylvania State University found “the credibility and quality of stories with quotations to be significantly higher than identical stories without quotations.”
Actions Can Be Revealing
Watch the dean of students as he discusses a student disciplinary case. As he answers your questions, is he fiddling nervously with a paper clip, leaning back in his chair, looking at the papers on his desk? Is he tense, relaxed?
Do the quarterback's fellow players joke with him in the locker room, or do they avoid his company?
Does the grief seem genuine or forced?
Sometimes, sources reveal themselves as much, perhaps more so, in their actions as they do in their statements.
The revealing profile blends background, quotations and observations.
We live in an entertainment‑driven period, and the media reflects this preoccupation. Look at the covers of magazines. Most of them display a popular personality. (A side comment: In order to be able to profile these stars, the magazine usually allows the personality to choose the questions that will be asked, is given approval rights over the photos to be used and often is shown the piece before publication.)
The journalist who wants to show the diversity of American society has a more fascinating story to tell.
Listen to Linda Raisovich‑Parsons, one of the first women to go into the coal mines, talk to Bharati Sadasivam:
I went into the mines when I was 18 years old and had just finished high school. There was not a whole lot of career opportunities for a girl back then in West Virginia. My father was a coal miner. He had multiple sclerosis and I didn't want to burden him with the expense of a college education. . . .
Initially, he didn't like the idea because he didn't want his daughter working in that kind of environment. But when he saw that I was not just testing the waters and was determined to make a go of it, he taught me the ropes and looked out for his baby daughter. . . .
There was a lot of heavy lifting and carrying to do and that was what I found the most difficult. Most of the men took the position that well, if you're here, you've got to pull your weight and I was determined that no one was going to prove that I wasn't able to do the job.
Sadasivam's magazine article consists entirely of direct quotes. She allows Raisovich‑Parsons to tell her story. After several years in the mines, the United Mine Workers union offered her a job as a mine inspector. She would have been the first female inspector. At first, it was not easy.
There were some safety committees that simply couldn't accept a woman and would bypass me and go to my male co‑workers. And I often got the same reactions from the coal companies. But there were others that were more accepting of me. I found the older miners more helpful and respectful than the younger ones. Sexual harassment was a problem initially but we've grown with these men and I think we're just one of the crew now.
I found women on the whole more safety‑conscious than men. They took all precautions, made sure that all the equipment was working properly. You find a very low accident rate among women.
I'm comfortable here, but there are times when I've felt like a token woman. But the few women that are there are very outspoken, the type of people who get out and get involved because they've had to be fighters and scrappers to get the job. I have a button from a women miners' conference that says, “Just Another Mouthy Union Woman.”
Sadasivam wrote the story just this way, a first‑person account.
Good interviews make for good stories. They provide insights into people and events. Here is some advice from practitioners of the trade,
Helen Benedict, author of a book on writing profiles, says: “People who are interviewed a lot get tired of the same old questions. You want to stand out as an interviewer and get a good story, and that depends on preparation and intelligence.”
Benedict writes out her questions and takes her list with her to the interview. During the interview, she gently guides her subject after establishing his or her trust. “Don't interrupt too much, and don't challenge too early so the person is put on the defensive. Don't talk too much.”
She likes to interview in her subjects' homes so she can observe their clothes, objects on walls and desks‑their taste. She watches their mannerisms, how they move, sit, drink their coffee, answer the phone, speak to others.
To get at the person behind the personality, good interviewers talk to the friends, associates, relatives of the subject. Samuel Johnson, the brilliant 18thcentury English writer, advised writers that “more knowledge may be gained of a man's real character by a short conversation with one of his servants than from a formal and studied narrative, begun with his pedigree and ended with his funeral.”
Some Guides *
Fred L. Zimmerman, Wall Street Journal reporter and editor, suggests the following:
1. Almost never plunge in with tough questions at the beginning. Instead, break the ice, explain who you are, what you are doing, why you went to him or her. A touch of flattery usually helps.
2. Often the opening question should be an open‑ended inquiry that sets the source off on his or her favorite subject. Get the person talking, set up a conversational atmosphere. This will provide you with important clues about his or her attitude toward you, the subject and the idea of being interviewed.
3. Watch and listen closely. How is he or she reacting? Does he seem open or secretive? Maybe interrupt him in the middle of an anecdote to ask a minor question about something he is leaving out, just to test his reflexes. Use the information you are obtaining in this early stage to ascertain whether your preinterview hunches about him were right. Use it also to determine what style you should adopt to match his mood. If he insists upon being formal, you may have to become more businesslike yourself. If he is relaxed and expansive, you should be too, but beware of the possibility the interview can then degenerate into a formless conversation over which you have no control.
4. Start through your questions to lead him along a trail you have picked. One question should logically follow another. Lead up to a tough question with two or three preliminaries. Sometimes it helps to create the impression that the tough question has just occurred to you because of something he is saying.
5. Listen for hints that suggest questions you had not thought of. Stay alert for the possibility that the theme you picked in advance is the wrong one, or is only a subsidiary one. Remain flexible. Through an accidental remark of his you may uncover a story that is better than the one you came for. If so, go after it right there.
6. Keep reminding yourself that when you leave, you are going to do a story. As she talks, ask yourself: What is my lead going to be? Do I understand enough to state a theme clearly and buttress it with quotes and documentation? Do I have enough information to write a coherent account of the anecdote she just told me?
7. Do not forget to ask the key question‑the one your editors sent you to ask, or the one that will elicit supporting material for your theme.
8. Do not be reluctant to ask an embarrassing question. After going through all the preliminaries you can think of, the time finally arrives to ask the tough question. Just ask it.
9. Do not be afraid to ask naive questions. The subject understands that you do not know everything. Even if you have done your homework there are bound to be items you are unfamiliar with. The source usually will be glad to fill in the gaps.
10. Get in the habit of asking treading‑water questions, such as “What do you mean?” or “Why's that?” This is an easy way to keep the person talking.
11. Sometimes it helps to change the conversational pace, by backing off a sensitive line of inquiry, putting your notebook away, and suddenly displaying a deep interest in an irrelevancy. But be sure to return to those sensitive questions later. A sudden pause is sometimes useful. When the subject finishes a statement just stare at her maybe with a slightly ambiguous smile, for a few seconds. She often will become uneasy and blurt out something crucial.
12. Do not give up on a question because the subject says “no comment.” That is only the beginning of the fight. Act as if you misunderstood her and restate the question a little differently. If she still clams up, act as if she misunderstood you and rephrase the question again. On the third try, feign disbelief at her refusal to talk. Suggest an embarrassing conclusion from her refusal and ask if it is valid. Later, ask for “guidance” in tracking down the story elsewhere, or suggest nonattribution, or get tough ¾ whatever you think might work.
13. Occasionally your best quote or fact comes after the subject thinks the interview is over. As you are putting away your notebook and are saying goodbye the subject often relaxes and makes a crucial but offhand remark. So stay alert until you are out the door. (Sid Moody of the AP says that interviewing gems can come after the notebook is snapped shut. “I've found almost as a rule of thumb that you get more than you've gotten in the interview.”)
These are starting points only, not absolute rules. They, and the material in the next chapter, will get you going. After a while, you will develop your own interviewing style. Zimmerman says, “Pick the techniques you think you can use and then practice them. Eventually, they'll become so natural you won't have to think about them.”
Benedict, Helen. Portraits in Print: The Art of Writing Profiles. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.
Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood. New York: New American Library, 1971.
Fallaci, Oriana. Interview with History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976.
Garrett, Annette. Interviewing: Its Principles and Methods. New York: Family Association of America, 1982.
Kadushin, Alfred. The Social Work Interview. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.
Mitchell, Joseph. Up in the Old Hotel. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
Note: The books by Garrett and Kadushin, which are used in schools of social work, are excellent guides for journalists.