Washington Post reporter’s recorder fails at a really bad time

The Washington Post

Joe Heim’s first question to Valerie Jarrett in a Q&A describes a reporter’s nightmare: “What do you think of a reporter who interviews you for 25 minutes, then later finds out his recorder stopped working and asks you to do the interview again?”

Heim, an assignment editor for The Washington Post’s Sunday magazine, told Poynter in a phone call he did the interview a few weeks ago in the Old Executive Office Building. He used his iPhone’s Voice Memos app to record the interview, as he’s done for previous Q&As. He’s not sure why the phone stopped recording; the only thing he suspects is that some sort of alert interrupted his record of the interview.

Check it out, Jarrett uses two phones. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Check it out, Jarrett uses two phones. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

After the interview, Jarrett left with her spokesperson, Rachel Racusen, and Heim looked at his phone, which indicated he’d recorded two minutes and two seconds of the interview. “I described it as a wave of heat rushes through my body,” Heim said. He checked the phone again, thinking the recording might be rattling around in there somehow. After a minute or two, “I knew I was pretty much screwed,” he said.

When Racusen returned, Heim ‘fessed up. She offered to try to find a time they could redo the interview over the phone and landed him a slot later that evening. Heim did that interview using a cassette recorder, and he took notes as well.

Jarrett, he said, “was very gracious about the whole thing.” (She told him his honesty was “extremely refreshing” and that he could have “just tried to bluff your way through it and pretend that it didn’t happen.”) He would have understood if she didn’t give him another bite at the apple.

Heim said he doesn’t normally like taking notes during Q&As because they get in the way of establishing a rapport with subjects. But going forward, he said, “I will probably double up on the equipment.” The last time he did that was when he interviewed Bruce Springsteen. “So maybe I’ll have to treat everyone like Springsteen from now on.” Read more


Take chances, Pulitzer-winning reporter urges young journalists


Lane DeGregory, a reporter for Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times, wrote an email to a journalism student who asked her: “Is there anything you wish you could tell yourself when you were as inexperienced as us?

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized, it’s okay to not know — it can even be endearing,” DeGregory, who won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for this series, writes about boning up for interviews. In another section, she suggests taking risks: Read more

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Lane DeGregory shares tips on developing sources, getting them to open up

Lane DeGregory, a writer for Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times, visited the institute recently to speak to high school students about how to find story ideas.

DeGregory, a 2009 Pulitzer-Prize winner for feature writing, shared a few techniques she uses to build rapport with her sources and get them to open up. These tips have served her well when reporting on intimate stories that dive deep into her sources’ personal lives.

Related: How journalists decide whether to interview by phone, email or face-to-face Read more


How journalists can become better interviewers

Every day around the globe, journalists pick up the phone or head out of the newsroom. They meet someone, a stranger or a familiar contact. They take out a notebook or turn on a recording device. And then they perform two simple acts. They ask a question and they listen to the answer. An interview has begun.

Interviewing is the heart of journalism. Yet too few journalists have ever received education or training in this critical skill. “No one ever teaches the journalist how to conduct an interview,” Courtney Herrig, a student at University of South Florida St. Petersburg, complained in a 2007 blog post. For most journalists the only way to learn is on the job, mostly through painful trial and error.

How do you walk up to strangers and ask them questions? How do you get people — tight-lipped cops, jargon-spouting experts, everyday folks who aren’t accustomed to being interviewed — to give you useful answers? How do you use quotes effectively in your stories?

Get smart.

If you want to flop as an interviewer, fail to prepare. All too often, journalists start an interview armed only with a handful of question scribbled in their notebooks. Take time, however short, to bone up on your subject or the topic you’ll be discussing. When former New York Times reporter Mirta Ojito interviews experts, “I try to know almost as much as they do about their subject, so it seems we are ‘chatting,’ ” she said by email. A. J. Liebling, a legendary writer for The New Yorker, landed an interview with notoriously tight-lipped jockey Willie Shoemaker. He opened with a single question: Why do you ride with one stirrup higher than the other? Impressed by Liebling’s knowledge, Shoemaker opened up.

Craft your questions.

The best questions are open-ended. They begin with “How?” “What?” “Where?” “When?” “Why?” They’re conversations starters and encourage expansive answers that produce an abundance of information needed to produce a complete and accurate story.

Closed-ended questions are more limited but they have an important purpose. Ask them when you need a direct answer: Did you embezzle the company’s money? Closed-ended questions put people on the record.

The worst are conversation stoppers, such as double-barreled (even tripled-barreled) questions. “Why did the campus police use pepper spray on student protesters? Did you give the order?” Double-barreled questions give the subject a choice that allows them to avoid the question they want to ignore and choose the less difficult one.

Craft questions in advance to ensure you ask ones that start conversations rather than halt them in their tracks. Stick to the script, and always ask one question at a time. Don’t be afraid to edit yourself. More than once, I’ve stopped myself in the middle of a double-barreled question and said, “That’s a terrible question. Let me put it another way.”

Listen up.

The 1976 movie “All the President’s Men” focuses on two Washington Post reporters investigating corruption in the Nixon White House. At one point, Bob Woodward, played by Robert Redford, is on the phone with a Nixon fundraiser. Woodward asks how his $25,000 check ended up in the Watergate money trail. It’s a dangerous question, and you see Woodward ask it and then remain silent for several agonizing moments, until the man on the other end of the phone finally blurts out incriminating information.

The moral:  Shut your mouth. Wait. People hate silence and rush to fill it. Ask your question. Let them talk. If you have to, count to 10. Make eye contact, smile, nod, but don’t speak. You’ll be amazed at the riches that follow. “Silence opens the door to hearing dialogue, rare and valuable in breaking stories,” says Brady Dennis of The Washington Post.


A long-held stereotype about reporters is that they don’t care about people, they just care about getting stories. If you can show sources that you have empathy — some understanding of their plight — they’re more likely to open up to you. “Interviewing is the modest immediate science of gaining trust, then gaining information,” John Brady wrote in “The Craft of Interviewing.”

“I am a human first,” says Carolyn Mungo, executive news director at WFAA-TV. “People have to see that journalists are not just a body behind a microphone. Even if you have five minutes, don’t rush, let them know you care,” Mungo said by email.

Look around.

Good interviewers do more than listen.

“I always try to see people at home,” says Rhode Island freelancer Carol McCabe, who fills her newspaper and magazine feature stories with rich detail gathered during interviews. “I can learn something from where the TV is, whether the set of encyclopedias or bowling trophies is prominently displayed, whether the guy hugs his wife or touches his kids, what clothes he or she wears at home, what’s on the refrigerator door,” McCabe said in a 1985 interview for “How I Wrote the Story.”

Capture how people talk.

The most powerful quotes are short, sometimes just fragments of speech. In a story about a two-car collision that killed two Alabama sisters traveling to visit each other, Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times used simple quotes that illustrated what the Roman orator Cicero called brevity’s “great charm of eloquence.”

“They weren’t fancy women,” said their sister Billie Walker. “They loved good conversation. And sugar biscuits.”

Just 11 words in quotes, yet they speak volumes about the victims.

Don’t use every quote in your notebook to prove you did the interviews. That’s not writing; it’s dictation. Put your bloated quotes on a diet. Quotations, as Kevin Maney once said, should occupy a “place of honor” in a story.

Don’t just settle for quotes: Listen for dialogue, those exchanges between people that illuminate character, drive action and propel readers forward.

Establish ground rules.

You’ve just finished a great interview — with a cop, a neighbor, a lawyer — and suddenly the source says, “Oh, but that’s all off the record.”

That’s the time to point out that there’s no such thing as retroactive off the record. Make sure the person you’re interviewing knows the score right away.

When a source wants to go off the record, stop and ask, “What do you mean?” Often a source doesn’t know, especially if this is their first interview. Bill Marimow, who won two Pulitzer Prizes exposing police abuses in Philadelphia, read off the record comments back to his source. Often, he found that many sources changed their minds once they’d heard what they were to be quoted as saying.

Be a lab rat.

Record your interviews. Transcribe the questions as well as the answers. Do you ask more conversation stoppers than starters? Do you step on your subject’s words just as they’re beginning to open up? Do you sound like a caring, interested human being, or a badgering prosecutor? To be the best interviewer you can be, study yourself and let your failures and victories lead you to rich conversations and richer stories.

This column was adapted from “News Writing and Reporting: The Complete Guide for Today’s Journalist,” by Chip Scanlan, co-authored with Richard Craig and due out from Oxford University Press this spring. Read more


What journalists need to know about interviewing for video

Interviews are a cornerstone of video storytelling because they provide emotion, content and structure, especially in documentary-style stories with little or no narration. Good interviews make for good videos.

Fortunately, most of what you’ve learned about interviewing applies to video. Open-ended questions produce revealing answers. Good follow-up questions create deeper insights. Long and double-barreled questions confuse subjects, or give them an easy out. And good listening can lead to answers with more detail and depth.

As in print, the video interview is a key reporting tool. But it’s also an essential part of the presentation. Footage of subjects discussing their lives, work and expertise is the engine that drives a video story forward.

That’s why it’s important to consider a range of factors when interviewing for video. Good questions aren’t enough, no matter how compelling the answers.

The success of your stories will hinge largely on the quality of video and audio you capture for your interviews.

Thinking in stages

Video interviews are easier to tackle when they’re approached in phases.

  • First, think about the prep work needed to make the interview work. This will entail a combination of upfront research and reporting, notes on the questions you want to ask, and logistics planning. Will you conduct the interview indoors and/or out? What time of day? What equipment will you need?
  • Next, once on location, set up the interview. You’ll need to determine where you and your subject will be positioned, and then set up equipment based on that choice. Consider the backdrop, lighting sources and potentially problematic background noise.
  • Lastly, start recording and conduct the interview.

Here are some tips for navigating through these steps.

Prep work: What could go wrong?

When preparing for an interview, brainstorm things that could go wrong. What could happen in the middle of the shoot? Who might walk behind or, worse, in front of the subject? Might the lighting change in the middle of the interview? Could something about the sound change?

Most of all, can anything be done to minimize the chances of a mishap? You can’t prepare for or control every possible hitch that comes your way. But you can take some steps to safeguard against some of the biggest threats to the quality of your interviews.

Prepping for an interview also entails gathering equipment. Plan to bring backups whenever possible, especially for accessories like batteries and memory cards. While you’re at it, make sure the batteries you think are charged really are, and double check how much space you have on your recording media. It’s important to know how long you’ll be able to record before entering the field.

Setup: Interview audio

Audio is easy to overlook but crucial in most video productions. And the most important audio you’ll capture is for your interviews. You want your interview clips to sound good; if audiences struggle to hear your interviewees, your story’s toast.

A few basic steps will set the stage for good results. First, use either a lavalier mic, shotgun mic or portable recorder. The key here is positioning the microphone close to the subject. Second, monitor your volume levels. That means listening to what you’re recording with a good pair of headphones (not earbuds) and, usually, tracking a visual indicator of levels on your recording device.

You’re looking for a happy medium. If a signal’s too weak, lots of background noise will be audible when you raise your levels in post production. If it’s too strong, it will “peak,” creating an unpleasant distortion that’s difficult to fix. For digital recording, -12db or a little under is the best level to aim for.

A good practice when you’re checking levels is to start recording. It’s always better to record sooner than later. During the soundcheck, you can ask subjects to pronounce and spell their first and last name. That’ll come in handy when you find yourself needing to reference them in your narration. Remember that even common names can have unusual pronunciations.

Setup: Shot composition

Shots can be composed in many ways. For interviews, there’s a tried-and-true formula that’s best to stick to, especially when starting out. It involves six factors:

  • Use medium shots. The standard interview shot puts a little bit of headroom above the subject and extends down to the shirt pocket. Closer and wider shots can be effective, but they may not work in every scenario. The closer you go, the more intimate the shot becomes. You’re taking your audience from arm’s length to within inches of your subjects. Wide shots create distance, but can also help establish context for where the interview’s taking place.
  • Follow the rule of thirds,a photographic principle that applies to video, too.
    This shot follows the rule of thirds. The subject’s eyes are positioned along the top horizontal line. His body lines up with the right vertical line. (PBS Arts)

    In a nutshell, the rule of thirds tells us to divide any frame into nine segments via equally-spaced horizontal and vertical lines. The regions that appear along these lines, and especially at the junction points between them, carry the most visual potency. Applying this rule to a video interview, you want to position the eye lines of your subjects along the top horizontal line of the frame. The subject’s face should rest along either the left or right vertical line, but not in the center.

  • Pay attention to the background.What’s happening behind your subject? Does it add to your shot or detract?
    In this shot, depth of field is used to keep focus on the subject, despite a very busy (and interesting) background. The background is blurred, but we still have a sense of place. (Kornhaber Brown)

    It’s important to guard against several pitfalls here.
    If your subject is positioned in front of a wall, make sure there’s space. Too little space can create a cramped, imprisoned feeling.

    You also want to make sure there’s not too much happening in the background. Too much action — people walking, cars zooming — can distract viewers from the subject. One workaround to this problem involves another photographic technique — shallow depth of field. In any shot, the depth of field is a measurement of how much of the shot is in focus. When the depth is shallow, just a few feet (or less) is in focus. The result? Your subject is crisp and in focus but the background is blurred

  • Pay close attention to lighting. Viewers want to be able to see who’s talking.
    This interview shot, a close-up, benefits from the effective use of natural lighting. The window is positioned in front of the subject and to the side, creating a sense of dimensionality. (Pat Shannahan)

    Shadows can become big distractions, and too little light can have a big impact on the overall image quality. Remember this foundational idea: Always position the key light (the brightest light source) in front of the subject, favoring one side slightly over the other.

    If you brought a light with you, you’ll want to position it about 45 degrees off your subject’s line of sight. If you’re relying on available light, think about how you can use windows as your key lights. Put the window behind you and shoot toward the subject.

  • Use a tripod (or another device) to stabilize your shot. Hand-held shots have a place in video storytelling, but they don’t tend to work well for interviews. If you’re working on your own, interviewing while holding a camera is a challenging feat best reserved for quick-hit conversations. Most other times, a tripod will help you establish your composition. Don’t have a tripod? Get creative. A shelf or stack of books on a desk can work in a pinch.
  • Angle the subject slightly away from the camera. In most cases, subjects should be facing the interviewer just off camera. Subjects positioned along the left vertical line should would angled toward their left. Facing the subject, the interviewer should be positioned to the right of the camera. (When subjects are on the right vertical line, move to the other side of the camera and have subjects look to their right.)

During the Interview: Focus and listen

In video, how an interview unfolds is just as important as the content of the interview. Audiences benefit from all the nonverbal cues that are lost when you transpose interviews to the written word. But you want to be careful not to direct subjects’ actions. Interviewees need space to be themselves and share their stories. Nonetheless, you can push things in the right direction. Here’s how.

  • Set the tone. The enthusiasm you project will rub off on your subject. Think about the pacing and energy you want to convey.
  • Interview people in their environments. Interviewing people where they live, work or play helps them feel more comfortable in front of the camera. It also makes for a more interesting environment and creates more opportunities for good b-roll, or supplemental footage — something that’s always worth capturing before or after the interview.
  • Be careful about making noise. Usually, interview responses are presented in isolation, without the interviewer’s question. This makes it easier to weave together different interview clips and tie things together with narration recorded toward the end of the production process. The challenge is to make sure your audio doesn’t get mingled with the interviewee’s. Talking while they’re in the middle of a response, starting a new question while they’re wrapping up, even murmuring the natural “hmm hmm” can complicate the editing process. That’s why it’s important to give subjects “space” when they’re responding. Don’t be afraid to pause before asking your next question: Those extra couple of seconds can prove invaluable in the editing bay. And, who knows, maybe your subject will add to the response, revealing an insight you might otherwise have missed.

Here’s a tip: When recording an interview, put your audio on a separate track. This will isolate your sound, making it easier to filter your voice from the presentation. An alternative is to not mic yourself at all, and that can work, but you limit your options later if it turns out you want your voice in the production.

Conducting a good video interview can be challenging, especially for the solo video producer. If you’re working on your own, you have to wear two hats: producer and reporter. By planning ahead, then focusing on audio and shot composition, you can ensure that the presentation and substance of your interviews complement each other. Read more


USF’s The Oracle bans email interviews, following other student newspapers

The Oracle
The University of South Florida’s student newspaper The Oracle is no longer allowing email interviews, except under rare circumstances. In a letter to readers Monday, Editor-in-Chief Divya Kumar said an increasing number of sources are requesting email interviews in hopes of having more control over their message.

As a newspaper, is it our job to provide readers with the truth, directly from the source — not from the strategically coordinated voices of public relations staff or prescreened e-mail answers.

We don’t think these responses provide our readers with the unvarnished truth, and we will no longer include them in our articles at the expense of compromising the integrity of the information we provide. University departments do not have one, centralized voice, but rather are made up of a multitude of diverse perspectives.

Kumar alluded to the value of face-to-face interviews and phoners, and pointed out that the truth isn’t always eloquent. Read more


How journalists can work well with interpreters during interviews

As journalists, our language facility is key to every aspect of our jobs, from reporting to writing. But the second we have to interview subjects who speak a language we don’t understand, we can’t depend on our own skills of observation, interviewing and listening. We’re left to rely on an interpreter.

Working with an interpreter is an essential skill any time you’re reporting in a country with a primary language you don’t speak. It’s also increasingly important in the United States, where the number of foreign-born Americans has been rising since 1970 and is currently around 38 million.

Here are the challenges journalists face when working with interpreters — and tips for dealing with them.

The difficulties of working with an interpreter

1. Accuracy: The biggest and most obvious danger of working with an interpreter is that you’ll get facts wrong or misquote someone — a serious mistake when interviewing anyone, let alone a prominent figure.

2. Tone: An interpreter’s tin ear can lend a tinny feeling to your story. In a phone interview, Barry Bearak, a New York Times reporter who served as a foreign correspondent in South Asia and Southern Africa, recalls covering the aftermath of a hurricane in the Dominican Republic while working for The Miami Herald:

“I went to some village and just about everything had been washed away. I interviewed some man who had lost everything, and tears were coming out of his eyes and he was moving his hands to and fro, and the interpreter said something like, ‘I estimate the damage to my dwelling to be substantial.’” Bearak asked his photographer, who happened to speak Spanish, to interpret from that point on.

3. Bullshit detecting: When interviewing someone in your primary language, you pick up on hesitations or stammerings, hear when they start to say something and then backtrack or sense when they are putting things diplomatically, and these clues help you know when to probe further. Using an interpreter hinders your ability to read between the lines.

4. Color: Unless your interpreter is diligent about translating every single sentence, including offhand remarks or under-the-breath mutterings, your ability to add color to a scene will be impaired.

Considering cultural differences and barriers will likely already make it difficult to understand a story, it’s crucial to set ground rules with your interpreter and anticipate pitfalls. Here are some tips on how best to work with an interpreter.

How to find and train an interpreter

1. Start with recommendations. Unfortunately, depending on how remote of a location you are reporting in, landing a good translator can be a crapshoot. If you’re working for an organization that has bureaus around the world, it will likely already have reliable translators in the area, but if you’re freelance, you should ask other colleagues who have reported in the region.

2. Look for someone who speaks conversational English. “If your translator has only an academic background in English, their vocabulary will be substantially different from someone who has lived in America and watched a lot of American TV,” says Bearak.

3. Get a translator who will help you navigate cultural differences, or, if you’re in a politically unstable region, won’t put you in danger. War correspondent Anna Badkhen says she prizes translators who are not hot-headed: “I try to make sure that this isn’t a person who will put us in danger,” she said by phone. “I feel responsible for the lives of the people I work with.”

4. Make sure the interpreter understands the importance of accuracy. If your interpreter doesn’t have experience with journalism, explain that accuracy has to do both with both the big picture and nitpicky details. Emphasize how important it is to get the words exactly right and, if the topic is complex, to understand it completely.

“Make the point that if you’re going to put something in quotation marks, it has to be an exact translation, and not a paraphrase, of what they actually said,” says Bearak.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who was The Washington Post’s Baghdad bureau chief in 2003 and 2004 and covered the war in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011, has the interpreter jot down his own notes, particularly about words he didn’t know how to translate, so he can look them up later.

5. Ask your translator to “get in character.” This means that when translating, she should say, “I looked for my mother,” not “He looked for his mother.” Request that your translator never paraphrase.

6. Ask your translator to translate everything he or she hears, no matter how offhand the remark. As Bearak wrote in a 2003 memo on working with a translator circulated internally at The Times: “Explain to them that a seemingly irrelevant remark like, ‘Praise Allah for this new window,’ helps you capture the flavor of a scene.”

Before the interview

1. Explain to the interpreter the purpose of the interview. If she knows what you are looking for, then she will be able to help you get it.

2. Review all your questions with your interpreter. Doing this will keep him from being surprised or confused during the interview, according this article by the Institute for Education in International Media. If you’ll be using any technical or obscure words, he can learn them beforehand. Plus, if you plan to ask any sensitive or tough questions, he can help you come up with a strategy for asking them.

3. Ask your interpreter whether she thinks any cultural issues might arise during the interview. Don’t just use her language skills; also use her cultural knowledge to see whether any age, gender, class or regional differences could hamper the interview.

4. Plan to record the interview when it’s important enough. Given time constraints in the field, this is not always possible, but for key interviews, you may want to record them and have your interpreter re-translate them to ensure accuracy.

During the interview

1. Begin by explaining what the story is about. Omar Fekeiki, a special correspondent and Iraqi translator for The Washington Post from 2003 to 2006, was almost kidnapped when interviewing people who didn’t understand the purpose of the story. He managed to escape, and after that, always explained “why we were writing the story and explained how we were going to voice their issues and problems,” he said in a phone interview. “I always think it is better to be honest with people and they can decide whether to talk to you or not.”

2. Describe the interpreting process and find out how much English your source speaks. Introduce both you and your interpreter, and explain that you’ll be asking questions, the interpreter will be relaying them, and that the same will happen for the source’s answers. Also ask the interviewee directly, “Do you speak English?” to see whether he or she can respond and how well. Depending on how good his or her English is, you may be able to conduct some parts of the conversation more directly.

3. Face the interviewee. “Address your questions directly to [the source] even though the interpreter is doing the translating,” Chandrasekaran says. “Put the interpreter to the side. You want to be making eye contact with that person as they’re talking, and nod your head, so they’re looking at you.”

4. Speak simply, slowly and clearly. This is so your interpreter can accurately relay your questions. Plus, your source, if he or she understands some English, may comprehend you directly.

5. Make sure everyone sticks to the process you outlined at the beginning. Make it clear that it’s important to you that the interpreter can keep up with both you and the source. Set a pace that ensures each person has the floor when he or she speaks and waits for his or her turn. Badkhen says that if the source isn’t giving the interpreter time to translate, she has her translator stop the source and say, “Excuse me, I need time to translate.”

6. Have an ear out for incorrect or incomplete translations. Watch out for these red flags:

  • “When you hear something surprising, repeat it just to be sure accuracy hasn’t meandered,” Bearak said in his 2003 memo.

  • If your source appears to be speaking longer than your interpreter’s translations, ask the interpreter to give you a full translation. Badkhen says if she still feels that the interpreter is summarizing, she will dissect the answer into parts and repeat them back to the person to make sure she hasn’t missed anything and to give him or her an opportunity to fill in gaps.

  • In cases where your source understands a bit of English but isn’t comfortable speaking it, he may attempt to correct the translation — a big red flag. If so, ask him directly whether his words are being accurately relayed.

After the interview

1. Go over the interview with your translator immediately. Bearak notes in his memo that they will often correct themselves. Plus, you can ask questions about any responses that confused you.

2. If the story involves a long chronology or otherwise complex material, go over the facts repeatedly with your translator. Bearak wrote in his memo: “If you’re not aggravating your translators (making them complain, ‘You’ve already asked that!’), you’re not being precise enough.”

3. Get your translator’s opinion on the source. Since your bullshit detector is turned off, tune into your interpreter’s. Bearak says, “I usually ask, ‘So what do you think of who we’ve just talked to?’ And they’re always pick things up that I didn’t pick up” — namely, whether the interviewee was being evasive or had an axe to grind.

4. When you write, tell the reader what language was spoken and that a translator was used. As Bearak said in his memo, “the reader deserves to know that the words have passed through the translation process.”

5. Have the translator read the story before you turn it in. At that point, he or she may have further corrections.

A last note

Bearak’s 2003 New York Times memo on translation was full of gems on the subject. He ends it with an anecdote that illustrates the importance of translation and the pitfalls of having words put through what could be a fallible filter.

“One of the best quotes I ever heard came from one of the worst translators I ever used,” he writes. “In late 1999, I had gone into the remote Panjshir Valley to find Tajiks who had been chased off their land by the Taliban. … Thousands had been murdered. Houses burned, crops destroyed. People had escaped on foot into the Panjshir in a terrifying journey. Going across a narrow bridge at night, a mother fell to her death over the edge, jostled by the crowd. I interviewed her son, who was only 12. He described how he had become separated from his mother on the bridge. ‘I listened for her voice for a long time, and then I went on,’ he said.

“I’ve always found that quote to be heart-breaking in its poetic simplicity. But did the simplicity come from the boy or a translator with a limited vocabulary?”

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Omar Fekeiki worked at The Washington Post from 2003 to 2004. He worked there until 2006. Read more


10 ways to get traumatized sources to share their stories

When people have been traumatized, they’re often reluctant to talk to the media. There are ways of getting them to open up, though, and of showing them the value in sharing their story.

I talked with five journalists who have interviewed sexual assault victims, people with mental illnesses and parents who have lost children. Here are 10 tips from them.

Give sources a reason to share their story.

Letting sources know that you want to hear their voice and their side of the story can be invaluable.

“Explain to them how that this is their opportunity to have their loved one be more than a statistic — more than another victim of a drunk driver or an abusive parent or gun violence,” said Joyce Garbaciak, contributing news correspondent for WISN-TV. “This is their chance to let viewers know why the loss of their loved one will be noticed and felt by the community at large.”

Garbaciak has done several tough interviews with sources suffering from loss and the aftermath of horrible accidents and crimes.

A big part of making people feel comfortable, she said via email, is being as compassionate and as straightforward as possible: “People who’ve gone through such a loss are vulnerable. They need to feel that you as a reporter are not out to take advantage of them. I think they appreciate honesty.”

Write a letter.

Some sources who won’t respond to emails, phone calls or knocks at the door will respond to letters. Dallas Morning News reporter Christina Rosales sent letters to sources while writing for the Medill Innocence Project, which looks into criminal cases that are thought to have involved miscarriages of justice.

“We would ring the doorbell and have a note ready, but they would slam the door in our face,” she said by phone. “We would leave a note out there, though … Generally after reading it, people would see I didn’t want to bring back bad memories, and that I just wanted to help.”

In the note, she would explain why she wanted to talk and what the story was going to be about. Sometimes, sources who wouldn’t otherwise talk to her, responded. Rosales, who has also sent letters to sources while reporting stories for the Morning News, admits that this isn’t the best approach when you’re on a tight deadline. But if you have the luxury of time, she said, it can work.

Slow down & be patient.

As journalists, we’re used to working quickly. But sometimes it works to our advantage to slow down. Lauren Wolfe, director of the Women’s Media Center‘s Women Under Siege project, regularly interviews people who have been sexually assaulted. She’s found that it can take a while to gain her sources’ trust, so she tries to be patient.

“I’ve had sources speak very slowly sometimes, and the less you push, the more you can often end up learning. … You may find that a source has more to say than you expected if you give them the time to speak,” Wolfe said. “Sitting back and listening can be the best thing you can do in these interviews. Not rushing. Showing that you hear them.”

Andrew Meacham, who writes about the deceased for Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times, makes it a point not to rush people he’s interviewing.

“Sometimes people seem a little weepy or confused, or they’ll apologize for not being able to recall something,” Meacham said. “For me, the thing that works best is just to say, ‘Take your time.’ Just that one phrase. It seems to relax them a little bit.”

Help sources get used to the camera.

Some sources feel uncomfortable talking — and showing their emotions — on camera.

Garbaciak typically tells sources that the camera is simply her “means of storytelling.” She has conversations ahead of time with the videographer/photojournalist she’s working with so they can figure out how to make the interview go as smoothly as possible.

“When [I] meet the interview subject, the photojournalist begins to set up and I can take some time just speaking with the person and getting them comfortable with you. The photojournalist then knows to just to keep rolling and not to declare, ‘OK — we’re all set,’” Garbaciak said. “I don’t want to signal to the subject that now is the time to tense up. I just want to keep the conversation going.”

Some sources, she said, have told her they were so engrossed in the interview that they had forgotten they were on camera.

Acknowledge their vulnerabilities.

Wolfe has found that it helps to be sensitive to sources’ vulnerabilities. When interviewing people who have been sexually abused, she generally starts off by letting them know how she found out about their story.

“I imagine it’s got to be jarring for a reporter to suddenly ask about something so personal,” Wolfe said. She’s also clear about the goal of the story and asks them some initial questions to gauge their comfort level.

“How do they feel about having it told publicly? We discuss the point of the story overall — is it to potentially bring justice in a particular case? To allow for survivors to tell their sides? To shed light on an under-reported kind of assault in a particular place?”

Wolfe also lets sex abuse survivors determine how much of their story they want shared.

“The most important thing, to me, when reporting on sexualized violence, is to give the survivor basic control of what you present about their case to the world,” she said. “This goes against what we’re all taught in journalism, but in this case, I’d rather not hurt or traumatize someone who has already been through hell.”

Separate yourself from the pack.

Shoshana Walter, crime and punishment reporter for the Bay Citizen and the Center for Investigative Reporting, recently covered the shooting of a 1-year-old in Oakland, Calif. After the shooting, a group of journalists stood outside the hospital day and night. They wanted to talk with the father, who had been holding the baby during a rap music video shoot when the incident occurred.

“I did everything I could to reach people close to him,” Walter said via email. “I tweeted, emailed and Facebook messaged all of his friends.”

She eventually reached out to a local pastor who had joined the family at the hospital to pray for the child. She told him about the story she wanted to write and why it was important to include the father’s voice in it. After realizing she had good intentions, the pastor talked with the father and vouched for Walter. Soon after, the father agreed to talk.

“Suddenly, he could see me as separate from the pack,” Walter said. “For many victims, the pack of reporters can be just as traumatizing as the event itself.”

Find something that resonates with sources.

WISN’s Garbaciak once wrote a piece about a teenage girl who was killed after her car slipped under a cable median barrier. The girls’ parents wouldn’t talk, so Garbaciak wrote them a letter letting them know that along with finding out more about their daughter, she wanted to report on the effectiveness of cable median barriers.

After talking with someone who knew the dad, she learned that he had strong feelings about the issue and thought he might be willing to talk about it.

“Once I told him that personalizing the issue would likely resonate with both viewers and officials who had the power to change things, he agreed to talk with me,” said Garbaciak, who had reached out to him several times. “I ended up doing several stories because what he and his wife said were so powerful.”

Ask sources to tell you about their ambitions.

When interviewing people who have suffered from mental illnesses, Rosales almost always asks them what their ambitions are.

“They usually say, ‘I’m glad you asked that,’ ” she said. “They get past all of the horrible stuff and tell you what they really want in life.”

When posing this question to a woman who was imprisoned, the woman replied: “I want freedom. I want grass, the kind you can lay on. I just want to lay in the grass with my kids, y’all.”

“That was one of the golden quotes in the story,” Rosales said.

She’s found that it’s important to pay attention to what people want to talk about. It’s one way, she said, of getting them to open up and finding out something about them that you wouldn’t have otherwise known.

Abstain from judgment.

This is especially important with cases involving sexual assault survivors, Wolfe said.

“I do try to be sensitive to the fact that someone may have chosen not to pursue legal action or even report a case to the police,” she said. ”It’s important to realize that that doesn’t mean their story isn’t true — it can mean they are frightened of either the consequences of reporting or having their personal story told to the world.”

It makes more sense to figure out why a source isn’t sharing a story than it does to assume that the person is lying, Wolfe said.

“Are they afraid of being shunned by their own family? Bribed or re-raped by police? Many war-torn societies have laws that implicate women in their own rapes or no laws at all to protect them. Are they ashamed of what happened to them? Leaving judgment out of the interview can help you get to the root of this.”

Let sources know that their story could ultimately help others.

Garbaciak recently interviewed a woman whose parents had abused her as a child and kept her in a dog cage until she was rescued at age 7. Garbaciak sought her out because something similar had happened to another local girl and Garbaciak wanted to know how she had dealt with that experience and moved on.

The woman, Garbaciak said, was initially reluctant to do the interview because she didn’t see what good it would do, and she didn’t want to jeopardize her own psychological recovery.

“But I told her that what she went on to accomplish — she’s a successful college student, a mother, an employee — is the hope that this story needed,” Garbaciak said. “How did she do it? Where did she turn for help? Maybe there were lessons in her recovery that the current victim could use. Only when I pointed out that the current victim could benefit, did she agree to speak with me.” Read more


How journalists decide whether to interview by phone, email or face-to-face

I recently came across a 1997 American Journalism Review story that discussed “the newest communication tool” for journalists: email interviews.

In the years since, stories highlighting email interviews have often placed journalists into two camps: those who think they’re acceptable and those who don’t. But as I’ve learned from my own interviewing methods and from talking with other journalists, the issue’s not that black and white.

With so many tools at their disposal, journalists are taking a blended approach to interviews, one that involves in-person conversations, phone calls, email exchanges, Skype calls, instant messages, text messages and more. The key is figuring out which approach works best for you and the story you’re working on.

For more insight, I talked with five journalists about their preferred interviewing methods and what they’ve learned from experimenting with different forms of communication. Partly out of curiosity, I asked them how they wanted to be interviewed. About half chose to answer questions by phone; the other half chose email.

Lane DeGregory, Tampa Bay Times

As a narrative writer, Lane DeGregory always tries to meet with sources in person.

“In their home, preferably, in the kitchen or living room or bedroom if possible,” she said via email. “If not, I’ll settle for talking on the front porch, riding in their car, interviewing while they walk their dog or grocery shop or pick their kid up in the carline, or, worst case, in their office. More sterile. But still says a lot about them.”

Seeing sources in person enables her to witness details that she wouldn’t be able to get via phone or email. A few years ago, while interviewing a local city manager who had a sex change, she asked about two shelves of identical red journals in his home office.

“He had been keeping a personal diary for 30 years, writing every night; on one side of the book he was Steve, on the other Susan — there it was, a life history of his hiding being transgendered,” DeGregory said. “I would never have dreamed to ask him whether something like that even existed.”

She’s learned that some sources naturally do better with in-person interviews.

“Teenage boys, especially, won’t talk on the phone,” said DeGregory, the mother of two sons. “But stand behind them while they play Black Ops and you can ask them anything.”

When she can’t talk with sources in person, DeGregory opts for Skype interviews so she can see their body language and expressions. Email, she said, can be useful for setting up interviews, asking preliminary questions and fact-checking information.

While following three girls from drug court, DeGregory kept up with them via text and Facebook messages. “They were in and out of awful homes and jail and halfway houses,” she said, “but they almost always had access to a phone or Facebook, or their friends did, so I could check in on them and know when things were happening — even when they relapsed, sometimes.”

Joanna Smith, Toronto Star

Joanna Smith, a reporter in the Ottawa bureau of the Toronto Star, prefers to do in-person interviews but has found that phone interviews sometimes work better.

When she attends media briefings, she’s able to get general comments from politicians. But there are often other reporters fighting for their attention, which makes it hard to ask for specifics.

“If I am working on something that requires more in-depth questions — or if it is an exclusive or an enterprise story — then I prefer to get the politician on the phone so that I can be one-on-one rather than one in a group,” Smith said.

She’s found that email interviews give sources who don’t want to talk to her an easy escape: “When it comes to actually trying to get information from someone who doesn’t want to give information — and that happens a lot in political reporting — I don’t think they’re ideal.”

Smith said that when she’s reporting on civil servants, some of her sources use email to control the interviewing process. When she requests phone interviews, she typically hears from spokespeople who say: “We’ll see what we can do.” It’s rare, she said, that her requests lead to a phone call.

“[The spokespeople] will ask me to send a list of questions because they want to find the appropriate person to respond and, in the interest of time and efficiency, I will give them a clearer idea of what I want to know,” Smith said by phone. “But they end up just listing a bunch of answers to questions I never asked and will email me five minutes before my deadline. There’s no opportunity for follow-ups whatsoever.”

Other reporters have had similar experiences. WFAA-TV Investigative Producer Jason Trahan argued earlier this year that “email interviews aren’t really interviews.” The best interviews, he said, “are those that include banter and asides which lead to more questions and ultimately better information imparted.”

Steve Fox, University of Massachusetts

Steve Fox, a full-time lecturer and multimedia journalism coordinator at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has been arguing for years that email interviews should be “a last resort.”

Most of his students, he said, use them as a first resort.

“It’s a safer way of communicating; you say stuff via text and via email that you wouldn’t necessarily say face to face,” Fox said by phone. “It’s a lot more difficult to ask hard questions while looking somebody in the eye. But every good journalist has to go through that.”

In a piece he wrote a few years ago, Fox said many journalists are “too lazy to go interview someone in person or on the phone.” He requires his students to do in-person interviews and encourages them to set up interviews by phone.

Many of Fox’s students still end up sending interview requests via email, only to wait days for a response.

“They will wait back to hear back from emails they send out rather than picking up the phone or walking by the professor’s office,” he said. “I say, ‘Well, get up there and go to their office and knock on the door. They may say no, but at least you’ll get in front of them.’”

Jaweed Kaleem, The Huffington Post

Jaweed Kaleem, a religion reporter for The Huffington Post, relies on a variety of interviewing methods.

He said he’s in the “last resort camp” when it comes to email interviews, “but that does not mean ‘never.’”

Kaleem has found them helpful when trying to understand complicated theological practices. “It is helpful for someone to lay out the Mormon concept of the Godhead in an email that I can reference, for example,” he said via email.

He tends not to use email interviews if he wants to capture a source’s voice. “Some people tend to make their answers very formal when they are interviewed via email,” he said. “I’d prefer informal conversation if it’s more representative of how the person I’m speaking with typically talks.”

Kaleem, who’s based in New York City, has been doing a series of local features that give him an opportunity to interview people in person. He does phone interviews for quick dailies and when interviewing sources who aren’t nearby.

On a few occasions, he’s used social media and instant message to set up interviews and to ask sources preliminary questions. When covering the Quran burning in Florida, for instance, he reached out to Orlando-area Muslim friends and sources on his Facebook and Google Chat lists. Facebook’s chat function, he said, was an easy and quick way to get information about what was happening.

Another time, he posted a story to Facebook about Protestant groups divesting from Israel. Someone who saw the post and was involved in the effort quickly messaged him.

“We went back and forth about some complex details in the story,” Kaleem said. “My use of social media in both cases still led to phone or in-person conversations.”

Cindy Carcamo, Orange County Register

Cindy Carcamo, who covers immigration for The Orange County Register, said she sees value in taking a blended approach to interviewing.

At times, talking with sources in person has led to opportunities she wouldn’t have otherwise gotten. While at a detention center in Mesa, Ariz., she convinced an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainee to allow her to join him on his flight to Guatemala City and then to the village where he was from. The piece she ended up writing chronicled the deportee’s return to Guatemala and was nominated for a Livingston Award last year.

“I think it’s really important to be there in person, especially because immigration is such a heated, emotional topic,” said said by phone. “You pick up on a lot of nuance, a lot of details that you wouldn’t otherwise get.”

Carcamo also relies on email and phone interviews, though not as often. “When you’re on deadline and you need to get a quick quote from someone to get the story up, I don’t think email’s a bad approach,” she said. “I think some people respond quicker via email than they ever would on the phone.”

If she’s interviewing a Spanish-speaking person, she opts for the phone. “I grew up speaking Spanish at home,” she said, “but I’m not good at writing it.” A few times, she’s done quick interviews via text message.

Remembering how her sources like to be interviewed, she said, has helped her to be more efficient.

“I think it’s important to talk to the source and see what their preferred method of communication is, especially for breaking news,” Carcamo said. “You might make note of that, so when something happens, you can know whether to call or email or text the person.”

Do you take a blended approach to interviews? Tell us about it in the comments section.
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5 tips for journalists who want to do a better job of cultivating sources

Sources are one of a reporter’s biggest assets. If you cover a regular beat, you’ll find yourself talking to some of the same people pretty often. Over time, if you forge relationships with the right sources, you’ll find that they can become the gateway to career-making scoops.

Sources who trust and respect you will come to you first when they hear news on the down-low. But it takes time to earn that trust and respect. Here are five tips that will put you on the right track.

Embrace the small talk

Many reporters aren’t into schmoozing, but a few friendly words can set you apart from reporters who treat sources like information-vending machines instead of human beings. Think of small talk as the mayo in the tuna salad sandwich of your reporting.

When you reconnect with a source you’ve talked to before, ask how their day is going. Genuinely listen when they respond. Pay attention to whether they’re married or have kids, and ask occasionally how their family (or even a pet) is doing. If you have something in common with that source, take a moment to discuss the topic, whether it’s a sports team or an obscure favorite food.

Most people like it when you’re interested in them, and when you take the time to nurture that interest by finding out more. It’s flattering, but it’s not cheap flattery; it shows you’re paying attention to the details. That’s a sign of a good reporter.

Don’t be a stranger

If you find someone you think will be a goldmine of information, check in with them regularly, even if you don’t need to interview them. This is another good time for small talk, and to ask if there have been any developments on a topic you’ve discussed before. Look through your contacts and see if there’s someone you haven’t heard from in a while. Give them a call; they might just have a scoop for you.

Email is a good way to touch base with sources, though they may be reluctant to put anything hush-hush into writing. Phone calls are better. In person is often best, whether you just drop by to see sources on your way to a City Hall meeting or you grab coffee regularly with them. The key is making sure they don’t forget you, and that they remember you’re interested in what they know.

Social networking sites have given reporters even more ways to keep up with their sources. Many journalists use Facebook and Twitter to find sources, interact with them informally, and find out what they’re sharing with their audiences.

What happens “off the record” stays “off the record”

We all know reporters who say there’s no such thing as “off the record,” or who promise to keep a source’s information in confidence, and then quote them in the next day’s news. Don’t be that reporter.

Many sources want to tell you more than their higher-ups will allow. Of course, such information can be incredibly valuable, especially if you can use it to get on-the-record sources to verify what you’ve heard. If someone says they want to go off the record with you, say yes — and mean it. (But don’t be afraid to ask: “Is there anyone I should talk to who may be more likely to speak on the record?”)

For many sources, going off the record is not only an opportunity to make a news story more accurate; it’s a test of the reporter. Sources want to know whether you’ll honor their request not to be quoted. If you can report those details without revealing your source, you’re that much closer to gaining that source’s trust. With time, this can lead to bigger and bigger tips.

Ask your sources to recommend more sources

At the end of interviews, ask your source whether there’s anyone else you should talk to about the topic at hand. It’s likely they’ll have someone in mind.

Sources inside an administration, whether it’s a government agency, a school, or a business, will probably recommend colleagues, while citizens and rabble-rousers are apt to connect you with birds of the same feather. Good sources of both stripes will hook you up with sources “across the aisle,” so to speak. Take your source’s advice, but if they’ve got a bias to protect, make sure you round out their recommendations with other voices.

Avoid getting too friendly with sources

In Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical film “Almost Famous,” rock writer Lester Bangs tells the fledgling journalist William Miller, “You CANNOT make friends with the rock stars. They are not your friends.”

It’s unclear whether the real Lester Bangs ever spoke these words, but they reflect good advice. When you interview someone often, when you write about them regularly, they can start to feel like a friend. That’s especially true if you follow the rest of these tips, because you’ll wind up feeling closer to them than you would an average source.

Getting too close can jeopardize your objectivity. If you become friends, you may find yourself telling that source’s side of the story — to the detriment of the other sides. You may withhold important information to protect the source unnecessarily. You may even avoid writing news articles because your source wants to suppress information.

Needless to say, this is bad news — it’s the opposite of what source cultivation is for. There’s a fine line between trusted source and confidante. Be careful to stay on the right side of that line, and you’ll be well on your way to scooping the competition. Read more

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