EXPOSÉ: America's Investigative Reports
EXPOSÉ 2008 Season
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Conducting an Interview

Investigative interviews can be part interrogation, part chess match, and part theater. The best reporters know that to some extent journalism involves a bit of stagecraft, and how you tailor your interview style and approach depends on whom you're talking to. Your overall strategic approach is equally important; you must know when to move your pawns and supporting players, and when to take the king.

Your investigation will likely involve dozens of interviews with a variety of sources and subjects over an extended period of time. Keeping track of them all will be challenging. But no matter what stage you're at in your sleuthing or who you happen to be interviewing, there are several standards you should always follow:
  • Know who you're talking to. Be familiar with the person's role in the organization or agency you're looking into, and know what his or her relationship is to the person or people you're investigating.

  • Have all your documentation prepared and accessible to back your claims up, especially documents that might be incriminating or arouse suspicion.

  • Know precisely what questions you want to ask and the order in which you plan to ask them.

  • Never provide an interview subject with the questions ahead of time. Never!
This might all seem like common sense, but you'd be surprised at how many reporters forget to ask all their questions when the subject takes the interview in a different direction or how many misrepresent a document because they don't have it in front of them. Having to call a subject back after the interview to ask more questions is not only embarrassing for you but also could potentially put them off.

The second thing to keep in mind is the sequence in which you conduct interviews. The progress of your investigation will play a role in this, but whenever possible try to work from the outside in, starting with sources who are more general and peripheral and working your way closer and closer until your final interview, which should be with your main target. This will hopefully help you avoid the "circling the wagons" routine, with high-level subjects consulting each other to get their stories "straight."

In real estate, the catchphrase is location, location, location. Take that to heart. Try to avoid busy places like bars or restaurants when you're ready for a real interview; you don't need the waiter interrupting you for drink orders when you're just about to reel in. A subject's home is best -- it's where they feel the most comfortable and in control. So don't ask them to name a location. Simply tell them you'd like to meet them at their house at a specific time.

The old adage that one catches more flies with honey than with vinegar is a good maxim for the investigative reporter to work by. Never, ever come into interviews surly or with a chip on your shoulder. Be polite. When your investigative piece comes out, you don't want anybody claiming you were biased; you want them to accept that they were caught fair and square. A cordial attitude will help you develop a decent rapport with your subjects, and you should try to make small talk before you get down to brass tacks. If, for example, you see a Little League photo of a subject's son on the wall, talk about your own kids. Let them know you have things in common. They're going to give you more goods if they're relaxed than if they feel they're being hounded.

A couple rules of thumb for the actual interview:
  • Start with broad questions and slowly become more specific. This allows your subject to gain a level of comfort with you that will serve you well when you start throwing hardballs.

  • Try to avoid yes-or-no questions, particularly when you interview subjects who might have had some involvement in what you're investigating. Instead of asking, "Were you offered a bribe by Mr. A?" ask, "When Mr. A came to you with the money, what was your first reaction?" If your subject answers the second question, you have confirmation that a bribe was indeed offered.

  • Use silence to your advantage. Instead of following each of your subject's responses with your next question, wait. Then wait some more. Most people feel uncomfortable with silence and will avoid it by continuing to talk, and the more they talk, the better chance they have of hanging themselves.
How you play the interview depends on how you gauge the interviewee. Are they being cagey? Do they suspect that you know everything? Some reporters might adopt a Columbo-like style, playing dense and asking the subject to explain things once, twice, three times, thank you very much, ma'am. Others might insinuate they know more than they actually do in an effort to get the subject to casually reveal things. There's a good chance some people will shade the truth. If you suspect someone is bluffing or telling outright lies, a good method of detection is to ask a couple of questions you do know the answer to and see how they respond. By reading your subject and adapting appropriately, you'll likely get more out of an interview.

Most of all, be persistent. You're going to be hung up on and have doors slammed in your face -- that's a fact. Don't give up. Keep calling. Send a letter. Send a telegram. Wait for your subject after work outside his or her office. Be creative. In their investigation of the Watergate scandal, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein contacted one subject 26 times before they finally got him to sit down for an interview. You could certainly hack a dozen.

Next: Locating Documents

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