Interviewing etiquette: a refresher

To err is human. Consider the Students’ Lounge a safe space, where you
can learn how to mitigate any slip-up. My first post as the SL’s new
editor is about the art of the interview.

Finding sources on the fly and getting them to talk — it’s the nature of the beast but j-students dread these tasks anyway, first-years especially. Young journalists: accept that, one day, you will piss off a source and that that day is coming sooner than later, if it hasn’t happened already.

In hopes that it is of some instructional value, I will share an embarrassing story of my own. A year ago an editor asked me to interview a new research chair at the business school. I rang him up, and the poor man tells me he has a fever of 102 and was leaving the office early. He granted me two questions.

Me: “So what makes you interesting?”


“I’m not,” he said. “Good-day.”

He hung up on me, and rightly so.

It’s my job to tease the answer out of him. Asking a question like that is a surefire way to end an interview, or at least make it awkward. There are two ways the person on the other can react: fall silent or, in my case, end the interview.

I followed up with an apologetic email and I got my story. The experience momentarily took the wind out of my sails, but at least I had some privacy to deal with it. Which is why I don’t understand recent complaints from Chelsea Kate Isaacs.

About two weeks ago, Isaacs, a j-student from Long Island University, sent a series of appallingly sarcastic (Mr. Jobs, I humbly ask why Apple is so wonderfully attentive to the needs of students…) and long-winded emails  to Steve Jobs (one message is 454 words). Her beef? That no one from Apple’s media relations department would respond to her interview requests. And most egregiously, she argued that without a quote, she would get a failing grade and it would be Jobs’ fault. To which the Apple CEO replied, “Please leave us alone.”

Naturally, media outlets jumped on this story with zeal. Anything Steve Jobs does is news, so there is a possibility that Isaacs herself leaked the (non)story. It got me thinking: where is the shame that came as a natural reflex to me? What would motivate a j-student to commit career suicide? Don’t delude yourself — you are the human equivalent of larvae — at this stage,  focus on creating a reputation, not destroying one. You haven’t yet risen to the level where people will rush to defend you (although in her profile, Isaacs calls herself a “renowned college journalist”) or even get back to you on the same day. It cannot be stressed enough, and this goes for all professional contacts, too: be nice to your sources. 

I asked Robyn Doolittle, reporter at The Toronto Star, for a few etiquette pointers. When Robyn was on the police beat, she learned that simply being yourself — assuming you are personable, genuine and sincere — is the right approach. One way she got sources to open up was by revealing tidbits of her personal life, like the way she felt when her good friend died. I know some might question the ethical soundness of this strategy. If you feel you are overstepping your professional boundaries, then it’s perfectly acceptable, advisable in fact, to pull back. Laying it on thick is not going to win over a source. But being congenial is vital to getting your story. No one said a journalist shouldn’t have a heart, as Ivor Shapiro, the founder of this site, is fond of saying.

I dusted off a handbook from Wordstock 2008 (an annual event I strongly recommend j-students attend) with tips on how reporters should comport themselves. Here is an excerpt from Paul McLaughlin’s  handout about interviewing that I think applies to Isaacs’ case (emphasis mine):

1. Build trust and rapport. Trust is one of the most important aspects of interviewing. If the person trusts that are a sincere and straightforward person, the potential for a successful communication increases dramatically.

2.  Ask difficult questions in a reasonable tone. Asking tough questions makes most people feel uncomfortable. Therefore, some compensate by asking them in a harsh and unpleasant tone. This allows a person to respond to the tone (“How dare you speak to me like that!”) rather than the question.

3.  It’s never wise to argue with an interviewee or get into a fight. Nor to take an unpleasant or antagonistic response by the interviewee personally. You don’t need to defeat interviewees or put them in their place. Stick to your agenda, which is to elicit information. Be challenging but remain professional.

4.  Prepare a reason why someone should talk to you. It might be one of the following: to provide information that will benefit their cause/needs/etc.; their company/boss has asked them to cooperate; to help resolve a problem at work; to refute allegation by others against them; to have the opportunity to set the record straight/clear their conscience; to assist the interviewer’s understanding of a complex matter, etc.

5.  Flattery can get you somewhere. Know as much as you can about an interviewee. When appropriate, the right amount of flattery (but don’t overdo it) or acknowledgment of a person’s accomplishments or struggles can help gain the person’s trust.

6.  Ask simple, short questions. Avoid long, confusing, multi-part questions. Avoid making speeches or lengthy prologues to your questions. The more simple and direct your questions the better.

On a final note, I am fortunate enough to be friends with a journalist who offered this piece of advice following that fateful interview of mine: fuggedaboutit.

Repent — to your source and to yourself — but move on.

Upwards and onwards, j-students.

UPDATE: Issacs got a B/B+.