Media Magazine

The Art of the Interview (and Journalism Students Who Don’t Practice It!)

Posted on the 28 November 2011 by Themarioblog @garciainteract

TAKEAWAY: It’s a recurring theme, and its frequency disturbs me: journalism students who ask for an interview, to which I agree, then they show a total lack of preparation with the most essential facts and details.  There was never any excuse for the unprepared reporter, but, in the era of Google, the list of excuses just got shorter.

The art of preparing for an interview

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Whatever happened to the days when a serious journalism student KNEW that the key to getting a good interview was the pre-interview preparation.

I had it hammered into my head by my journalism professors, especially Prof. Barbara Garfunkel and Dr. Arthur M. Sanderson, that one never set foot into the world of the interviewee without knowing as much as possible about the subject and his/her ideas.

The interview, they would remind us, is to expand on one’s knowledge of the person and the subject.  Discovery is what the interview is about, but discovery that enhances the journalist’s knowledge and makes for a better story, which readers appreciate.

So why is it that the journalism students who come to me, almost weekly, seeking an interview, are SO ill prepared?

And I am not alone in this assessment: I get the same reaction from my colleagues.  Students come in with questions that Google can answer readily, if they took the time to explore the subject and his ideas. And to think that when I was student there was no Google: one walked the halls of the Library, grabbed the phone and made calls, talked to secretaries, wives, husbands, children of interviewees, to get the basic information down BEFORE the actual interview.

Now, one click away gives you all you need, which should make for the smartest interviews ever. Not so at all.

The reason I am getting into this subject is not necessarily because I am tired of boring questions from bored students who are simply following a misguided assignment, but recently, a fellow designer, Marian Bantjes, dealt with the topic splendidly well in her own blog.

Marian, who has had enough of the empty interviews and the nonsense that prevails, had this to say to future interviewers:

Pretend we’re dead. Look at our work, read our books, read the articles and interviews we’ve all done, and watch the videos. Make notes and then form your own opinions on whatever it is you’re thinking about us. You may find us feminine, feminist, egocentric, innovative, influential, systematic, iconoclastic or part of an overall movement … whatever it is, formulate an idea about our work, annotate your sources to support your premises, collect the images that support your ideas (and for student projects you are welcome to use anything on this site), give credit where credit is due, and write your report.

Amen, Marian

And I have a few suggestions of my own, beyond the obvious pre preparation:

1. Get a clear idea of what your assignment is from your professor. This is where a good interview assignment begins : focus.

If you are interviewing someone who has been in this business a long time, do not start by asking: when did you start your career?  I am as bored by telling that story as others may be. Instead, build upon a question that nobody may have asked before, but which relates to the beginnings.  Better yet, you may decide to concentrate on ONE aspect’s of this person’s career or work.  Example: Was it difficult to make a transition from print to digital?

2. Get all the biographical information down pad, and even memorize some of it, to avoid falling flat on your face.

I stopped one interview with question one which was: When did you leave Argentina for the United States?  Well, dear student, I was not born in Argentina. It was Cuba. So if you cannot get your Wikipedia facts straight, how can I trust you to be factual with the rest? End of interview.

3. Then develop a Twitter message (140 characters or less) of what this person is all about: it will help you with your questions.

Get the essence down into a sentence, then you can build from there with intelligent questions. Who knows? You may have questions nobody may have asked him or her before. To me, the best interviews, and the ones that interest me, are the ones where the questions provoke me to think about the answer?  Those, I admit, are rare. Most of the time, I could have a list of answers and just copy and paste, which is what some of these student journalists deserve. An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.  Why should I give of myself to someone who has not taken the time to prepare?  Remember respect the source, if you want to be respected as the journalist.

4. Don’t send me 25 questions, half of which repeat the others: if you can get down to 3-5 questions, I am more likely to respond quickly.

But, we know that it takes time to concentrate content in the less is best format. Try it. And, who knows? Your source may like your questions so much, that he starts talking and you get the equivalent of answers to 20 questions, based on three good ones.

5. The first question must seduce me and entice me to go on.

It all begins with that first question.  From time to time, that first question stops me right on my tracks.

Six months ago a student from a US midwestern journalism school began with a simple question:

What is the one project in your portfolio that you wish YOU had never done?

That was hard to answer.  And, no, I decided to keep that to myself (my prerogative, I guess) and will save it for the memoir that people may read after I am gone.  But I turned it around and started talking about the ones that I would have regretted not doing at all: The Wall Street Journal, Die Zeit.

Don’t take me wrong: I do like to help journalism students. I do all the time. But, please, be prepared.  Challenge me with your questions.  Convince me that you know a little bit about me and my work, so that our dialog can be more fun, intelligent and conducive to expanding as opposed to repeating.

Perhaps this is the type of blog post that should be read by journalism instructors who ASSIGN students these interviews.  It all begins there.

Send in those questions!


TheMarioBlog post #901

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