All journalists should be interviewed regularly

John LonghurstJournalists are accustomed to asking the questions, not answering them, but freelancer John Longhurst finds that being interviewed can help reporters understand how sources feel. Our Field Notes section (formerly First Person) provides a place for reporters to write about reporting: if you have a story to tell, editor Larry Cornies would like to hear from you.     

Margo Goodhand was uncharacteristically nervous when we sat down earlier this month for an interview.

The Winnipeg Free Press editor usually exudes confidence. Over the years she has interviewed a lot of people and written a lot of stories. But, she admitted, this was only the second time she’d ever been interviewed herself. “It felt absolutely bizarre,” she said later.

I’m guessing that a lot of journalists would feel the same way and have a similar story. They are always on the business end of the microphone, camera or pen and paper, but almost never — if ever — the one being interviewed.

I’m not a full-time journalist, although I write a bi-weekly column on the faith page of the Free Press and do occasional reporting for the paper. I’ve worked for a couple of small publications as reporter and editor, but most of my career has been spent in communications, working for international relief and development groups and a university.

Over the years I’ve interviewed hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people. I’ve also been interviewed many times by reporters. As Goodhand can testify, it can be a trying experience.

It’s hard to explain the sense of vulnerability you feel as you hand your story and comments over to someone who may — or may not — really understand what you are trying to do or say. It’s especially challenging for those of us who have worked outside of the traditional beat areas: No Canadian media outlet has anyone on staff who specializes in relief and development, for example. As a result, who you get interviewed by depends on who the editor decides to pick that morning — if you’re lucky, they know where Ghana is or have a bit of background about the conflict in Darfur. Anything else is a bonus.

And don’t get me started on religion. For many years, this seemed to be a black-hole responsibility, seemingly assigned to the reporter most on the outs with the editor. Luckily, there are a few who are familiar with the subject — they know the difference between a priest and a pastor and realize that a Corinthian is a book in the Bible and not a Greek architectural support column.

But even if the reporter is familiar with the subject, being interviewed can be a challenging experience. That’s why I think every journalist should be interviewed on a regular basis. It serves as an important reminder of just how vulnerable and helpless it feels to let someone else represent you in public — and not have any say at all in the end product.

Those who do the interviewing likely seldom think of how it must feel to be at the other end of the process. It’s just part of the job — maybe just one of two or three stories that have to be chased down that day. But for the person being interviewed, it may be one of the most important experiences of their life. For many people — for those who are not professionally involved in work that requires them to deal with the media — it may be the only time in their whole lives that they will be in the newspaper or on the radio or TV. It’s an awesome responsibility for a journalist.

My experience of being interviewed, and doing interviews, makes me think that all reporters should be interviewed at least once a year. To make it even more realistic, the person interviewing them should never have met them before, should be told only an hour or so before the interview who they are interviewing, and about what, and know little or nothing about the subject.

It goes without saying that the subject cannot see the end result before it is published or broadcast. To maximize the anxiety, the final result should be posted on the Web or some other conspicuous place where anyone can see it.

Oh, and let’s not forget about pictures: lots will be taken and you won’t be allowed to go home to change into different clothing. Some video will be a bonus.

Speaking of video, all TV journalists will have an additional requirement: They will have to do “the walk” or one of its equivalents — sitting at their computers and looking busy, reading a report and looking terribly interested or answering a fake phone call and pretending to be fascinated by the person on the other end.

Trust me — it isn’t easy to “look natural” when walking nowhere while a camera is trained on you.

Personally, I almost never read, listen or watch an interview about me. I am always convinced that I sound like an idiot — that I could surely have said it better or more intelligently. I wait until others tell me I didn’t look or sound that bad, after all; maybe then I’ll take a peek.

Over at the Free Press, all editorial staff are required to cover breaking news for a week once a year. The goal is to remind everyone of the basic task of journalism and to foster a sense of respect for the process and challenge of newsgathering.

I suggest something similar be instituted at all newsrooms: Once a year, all reporters should be required to be interviewed. I think it will, in the end, make them more sensitive and better journalists — or at least just as intimidated and anxious as the rest of us.

John Longhurst is director of marketing for Mennonite Publishing Network. He also contributes columns to the faith page of the Winnipeg Free Press.