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ASKING GOOD QUESTIONS. Interviewing is more than a skill — it’s an art. The order of your questions, the way you phrase them, and the tone of your voice all impact the way a person will respond to you. By carefully crafting your interview questions and paying attention to how your source responds, you’ll be more likely to gather compelling, engaging tape for your story. And interviewing isn’t just about journalism — it’s a skill you can use when applying for a job, networking, and even in your interpersonal relationships. We’ve compiled a few activities to guide you through the basics of interviewing:
- Identify three different kinds of interviews (expert, someone you know, someone with something to hide)
- Be able to critique an interview, and identify a good vs. bad conversation.
BACKGROUND: Identifying different types of interviews The style of an interview depends a lot on your relationship to the person you’re talking to. If you’re interviewing an expert, you’ll use different words, tone, even posture than if you are talking to a friend or classmate. You’ll also use different interviewing strategies depending on the angle of your story — if you feel your source is hiding something, for example. In this activity, we’ll learn to identify different styles of interviews and cover a few tips for improving your interviewing style for each one.
When we think of the word “expert,” many of us picture a doctor, lawyer or professor. But an expert can be anyone who has a lot of knowledge or experience that you can to tap into for a particular story. We often interview experts when we need a complicated process explained, or if we need someone to speak about broader trends for a story. When looking for the right expert to talk to, think about someone who is:
- Good at explaining things and/or a dynamic storyteller
- Acknowledged in the field, meaning he or she has written about the topic or has been recommended by others as a knowledgeable source
- Representative of the diversity of the population. For example, women and people of color are often underrepresented in the media as sources of analysis and expertise. You have an opportunity to change that.
Once you find your expert, you’re going to want to spend some time researching him or her, and writing questions ahead of time. To help, we’ve created this HANDOUT: Youth Radio Tips For Interviewing Experts.
In normal conversations, we “interview” people we know all the time. But casually saying hello to a friend or relative can feel really different than sitting down with them with a goal in mind. You’ll want to capitalize on your familiarity with your interviewee to get the best stories and answers as possible, but also keep in mind that your conversation can’t be so filled with inside jokes and references that other people won’t understand what you’re talking about. To set the scene for a strong interview with someone you know, it’s a good idea to:
- Sit next to them instead of across from them – this position facilitates intimacy and can feel less formal than other types of interviews.
- Interview them in a place that’s meaningful to them – their room, home or favorite spot will make for a better scene than a loud, sterile place like a busy coffee shop.
- Go into the interview with set goals. It’s really easy to let conversations wander when talking to friends and family. Know the kinds of answers you’re looking for and redirect the conversation if it strays too far from the main point.
Even though you know the person you’re interviewing, you’re going to want to spend some time writing questions ahead of time. To help, we’ve created this HANDOUT: Youth Radio Tips For Interviewing Someone You Know.
The phrase “something to hide” makes it sound like we’re talking about interviewing a spy or super villain about their plans for world domination. But really, “something to hide” interviews are about getting information that a character may be hesitant to share. This doesn’t mean they are good or bad people, but it does mean you should tread carefully when structuring your interview. Examples of “something to hide” interviews include:
- Experts who work in Public Relations (PR) and may try to redirect the framing of the story
- People who have created products or services with controversial/unintended consequences
- People who stand to gain or lose a lot from the interview (good press, bad press)
While it can feel awkward to probe someone for hidden information, know that it’s part of your mission as a journalist to report as accurately and thoroughly as possible. You are doing your readers/listeners a service by asking thorough questions, and getting to the truth is a powerful reward.
We’ve put together some tips in this HANDOUT: Youth Radio Tips For Something To Hide Interview.
ACTIVITY: Is Your Halloween Costume Racist — Question Writing
A few years ago, Youth Radio reporter Malachi Segers did a Halloween-themed story about racist costumes. Start by listening to the final version of his story below (transcripts here) and then discussing the story as a class. Discussion
- What of the 3 types of interviews did Malachi conduct with Crystal Baxter? With Ike Sriskandarajah? With Andrew Ti? How can you tell?
- Which of these interviews do you think Malachi collected first? Why?
- What role did each interview play in the story? What did it add?
Practice Pretend you are Malachi and you are prepping for your interview with Spirit Halloween Store employee Crystal Baxter. You want to get her to comment on whether or not certain costumes such as “Mexican Man” are racist or not. You schedule a 10-minute phone interview with your source.
- What type of interview do you think this is? Why?
- Write a list of 5 to 8 questions for your interview with Crystal, paying special attention to the order and phrasing.
- Pair up and compare your questions with another person in the class. How are your lists similar? How are they different? How can they be improved?
- Did you ask for her comment on the costumes at the beginning, middle, or end of the interview? Why?
- Now compare it to the real thing. Listen to the actual raw interview Malachi conducted (see below). Was it what you expected? (NOTE: Check out around 4:50, where Malachi poses his more challenging questions about costumes he finds culturally insensitive).
ACTIVITY: Finding “Telling Details” – Interviewing Activity
In feature journalism, interviewers will look for “telling details,” meaning small observations about a source that give a reader or listener insight into the source’s character. Estimated time: 30-45 minutes; Materials: Notebook, pencil, at least two people
- Have participants pair up into groups of two. Alternatively, you can make this a take-home assignment and have participants interview a friend or family member.
- Each person will pick something visual about the person they’re interviewing — a piece of jewelry, an item of clothing, etc. — and ask for the story behind it. Try to avoid physical features (eyes, height, skin tone, etc.) since people don’t have as much control over these aspects of their appearance, so these details are not as “telling” of a person’s personality.
- Encourage participants to ask about a few different items until they find an item with a story that gives insight into the person who possesses it. Write down the story (including quotes) as well as a brief description of the person and what he/she is doing.
- Afterwards, each participant should write up a short paragraph description of the person they interviewed using the telling detail.
EXAMPLE: “Cupcake baker Robyn Smith’s long fingers grip the handle of a wooden spoon. As she stirs a bowl of bright pink frosting, the small, oval mood ring on her thumb glows a soft blue green. She first bought the ring five years ago after quitting her old job as a corporate lawyer in order to become a pastry chef. “I walked out of the building immediately after giving notice, and I saw a street vendor selling mood jewelry,” she said. “I thought to myself, It’s time I started following my heart, not my pocketbook. So I bought a ring and I haven’t taken it off since.”
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES FOR INTERVIEWING:
ABOUT THE INNOVATION LAB This Lesson Plan is part of a larger effort by Youth Radio’s Innovation Lab for young people, working in partnership with veteran educators, to develop materials that will enable teachers and learners everywhere to engage youth in media and tech creation. Launched in 2013, the Innovation Lab leverages Youth Radio’s top-flight journalism and our track record as one of the first programs worldwide to teach teens to integrate journalism and programming to design dynamic new storytelling tools and platforms. For more information about Youth Radio’s Innovation Lab, check out https://staging.youthradio.org/creative-studio/desk/innovation-lab/