Interviewing No-Nos

Philip White

British newspaper The Independent is a top-drawer broadsheet that features insightful, timely commentary from the likes of John Walsh, Adrian Hamilton and Mary Dejevsky. Its columnists typically research their op-eds well, providing ample evidence to back up their claims, and interviews are usually conducted with the subject as the focus (as should always be the case), in a manner that seems legit.

So it was with some shock that I read last week about the alleged misconduct of Johann Hari, an Independent writer who won the prestigious Orwell Prize (that he may now lose) for journalistic excellence in 2008. He is being accused of two offenses that would make even Jayson Blair blush. First, Hari supposedly (and I choose my words carefully here, because his guilt or innocence has yet to be established and he has denied the accusations) copied and pasted quotes from other sources into his interviews. Second, some say he has lifted text from authors’ written work and used these excerpts in place of quotes they gave him during interviews.

Now, this writer is in no way trying to pass judgment on Hari, particularly as I am suspicious of people being tried in the court of Twitter opinion. However, whether Hari did or did not do such things, his case brings into focus interviewing etiquette and journalistic ethics. Hari stated in his defense that:

When you interview a writer—especially but not only when English isn't their first language – they will sometimes make a point that sounds clear when you hear it, but turns out to be incomprehensible or confusing on the page. In those instances, I have sometimes substituted a passage they have written or said more clearly elsewhere on the same subject for what they said to me, so the reader understands their point as clearly as possible.

Is this acceptable practice, or taking the interviewers attempt to provide clarity to his audience too far? I will let you be the judge. Meanwhile, here’s a list of no-no’s accrued over a decade’s worth of my interviews, as well as from journalism professors and esteemed colleagues and mentors. Not all of these are ethics-related, some may seem obvious, but each is something I share with college undergrads when teaching them how to interview, (and how not to).

Don’t Be Late: In an age of smartphones and iPads, the wristwatch may soon become passé, but it’s still worth wearing one to make sure you’re on time for interviews. Showing up late to an in-person conversation or a “phoner” makes it seem that you believe your time is more valuable—it isn’t! (Confession time—I still struggle with American time zones, despite having lived in the U.S. for almost 10 years, so I always make sure to ask the interviewee or publicist to confirm the time zone, as well, so I don’t make the embarrassing “Oh, sorry, I thought we said Pacific time” mistake.)

Don’t Phone it In: You cannot go into an interview cold and expect to get anything meaningful from it. Not even the greats—Larry King, Ed Murrow, et al—would’ve relied on their interviewing prowess and walked into a Q&A unprepared. The more a person is interviewed, the more tired they will become of dull, unimaginative, and generic questions: “Did you enjoy writing the book?” is not something you need to waste time on. Check other recent interviews with that person, think up five to 10 original questions, and write them down (that last part is too often forgotten). Pack extra batteries for your voice recorder/check that you iPhone/iPod is charged, double check the venue and always take too many pens (if you’ve seen the Russell Crowe journalism flick State of Play, you’ll know what I mean.)

Don’t Fill in the Gaps Yourself: Is your interviewee a mumbler, or are you on a bad line so you couldn’t quite hear the end of a response? Are they talking in riddles, or an Elven language? It’s better to ask, “Could you repeat that, please?” or “Can you explain what . . . means?” rather than stumble over your transcription later and try to fill in the blanks of what you thought was said or meant. If after typing up your notes you’re still unsure, try to follow up with the interviewee/their PR rep via e-mail for clarification.

Don’t Let the Recorder Do all the Work: Last week, HS blog contributing editor Heather Cox Richardson used the phrase “engaging with the text.” When I am conducting an interview, writing notes (formerly on a reporter’s notebook, now on a tablet) while recording the conversation does just that—connects me in a tactile way to the subject. With practice you’ll be able to keep eye contact and observe visual cues during in-person interviews while scribbling away. Mastery of shorthand, whether your own version or a traditional method is also helpful. Then there’s the disaster planning reason for combining recording and note-taking—if your iPhone/infernal voice recorder fails you, you’ll have backup.

Don’t Force your Interviewee into a Comment: Even if you’re an investigative reporter, you cannot force an interviewee to cough up information (unless you live in a country that supports advanced interrogation techniques and you work for the state propaganda mouthpiece). So, if your subject refuses to answer a question and you’ve asked it another way without result, don’t step over a line and try to put words in their mouth. Or you may have a libel suit on your hands, not to mention losing the chance to interview that person again.

Don’t Make Your Writing the Focus: If you’re writing a feature, remember that your reader cares very little about your ability to craft fancy motifs and very much about what your subject has to say and who they are. So get out of the story’s way, already. Ask questions that allow your interviewee to tell their story, in their words, in a way that’s more compelling than any “look at me, I went to journalism grad school” fireworks.

Don’t Rush Transcription: When you’re on deadline, it’s tempting to rush the transcription process. Is it always fun to make sure you got every utterance down verbatim, particularly if it was a long interview? No, but it is always worth it. The interviewee did you the courtesy of sparing their time, and to entrusting you with their words. You’re duty-bound to represent them (and the publication you’re working for, even if it’s just your blog) accurately, so make some coffee, put on your earbuds, and take as long as it takes for an accurate transcription.

Don’t ‘Borrow’ from Other Interviewers’ Work/The Interviewees’ Work: See the intro!