In the 1980s, when she was a reporter at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Jacqui Banaszynski spent months reporting on the story of a gay Minnesotan couple with AIDS. She had to work with her editors and her sources and fight to tell the story the way she felt it should be told. The result was not only heartrending but also informative for an audience that wasn’t yet comfortable talking about gay couples, let alone seeing photos of them or learning about the disease that disproportionately affected their community.
Her feature story, “AIDS in the Heartland,” which won the Pulitzer for feature writing in 1988, is still held up as an example of in-depth, immersive reporting and extensive interviewing. Last week, the Missouri School of Journalism Knight Chair and Poynter editing fellow was the focus of the Poynter Master Class, “The Art of the Interview.” Here are seven tips from Banaszynski’s Master Class:
1. Think about your entry point to a story as rings of a circle.
“Sometimes it’s about envisioning ahead of time what are the possibilities, asking yourself who are the people who are at the center of this story and then at the next ring and the next ring and the next ring. So I actually draw circles,” Banaszynski said.
You can use these circles to think about your own stories or those of reporters you mentor.
2. When a story requires that you interview an official, don’t be boring.
“There is a power dynamic that exists in any interview, and you have to figure out who holds the power,” she said, “and with official interviews, I think it’s absolutely important not to cede the power and the purpose and the importance of the journalism, so you stand up as an equal.” Understanding the power dynamic and asserting your purpose (you are there on behalf of the public, which has a right to know something) can help you get past the passive mindset of accepting the pat answer to the same question everyone else is asking. Sometimes, though, you have to ask the obvious question. “I think it helps to ask questions that don’t bore people,” Banaszynski said, “So even if you’re asking a question that other people have asked, or that is fairly predictable, can you ask it in a way that isn’t boring?”
3. Share your notebook.
“That’s another way in which I’m very transparent about my process, because if I’m using a notebook and I’m going to interview you, I’m going to say, ‘I just want you to know that I take notes. Here’s why I take notes, if you want to look at it at any time, go for it,’” she said. While some journalists might see the notebook as a barrier, she sees it as a tool. Banaszynski sometimes hands her notebook to the person she’s interviewing and asks them to write their name. In that moment, the notebook isn’t a symbol of the journalist’s power, it’s something the journalist and the source have shared. Banaszynski also says she asks sources to write in her notebook. For example, she has asked people to draw a room they were in when something happened, using stick figures or arrows. This may jog the person’s memory and prompt them to share details they wouldn’t have thought to share otherwise.
4. Use your notebook as a tool.
Even though eye contact can be important, it can also be helpful to break eye contact. Having a notebook to look down at allows the journalist to give the interviewee a break during an emotional or difficult part of the interview. It can also help with pacing, letting you slow down when you need to or reminding you to circle back to a point of the conversation that you sped through, Banaszynski said.
5. Speaking of difficult moments in interviews, calm down.
If you know ahead of time that you’ll be asking questions that may be sensitive, it’s appropriate to let your subject know at the start of the interview, Banaszynski said. You can also ask if the person needs or wants to take a break or come back to something. Interviewers aren’t immune to emotional moments themselves, so you may deal with anger or sadness during an interview. “The more emotional the interview, I think the more matter-of-fact and calm your voice needs to get. The calmer and quieter your voice needs to get. The slower the questions come,” Banaszynski said. In those moments, Banaszynski recommends “channeling” your emotion into a better question. For example, when you want to say something like “that’s the worst thing in the world, how do you deal with that?” she would recommend saying instead, “I can’t imagine what that’s like, can you help me understand how it felt?” This extracts your emotional judgment of the situation and makes the moment useful for your audience.
6. If you want a story, you have to ask storytelling questions.
Asking “goofy storyteller questions” can be awkward. When someone is telling you about a terrible moment of their life, it might be hard, Banaszynski acknowledged, to ask them about something as seemingly unimportant as what they ate for breakfast. But the answers to these questions might help you bring your story to life. To get the person you’re interviewing to tell you a story, you have to ask questions that prompt them to do so. “A storyteller question is a question that helps put people back into the movie of their own life, it puts them into a scene for a moment,” she said. You can do this by asking for an analogy, or asking the person how they would explain something to a class of school children, for example. You can also use objects or photos to elicit stories.
7. Ask about senses, not emotions.
“Asking about emotion is just a stupid thing to do–you want to get people to show you emotion without manipulating them,” Banaszynski said. To do this, she suggests using questions to get the person to connect to other senses. Depending on the situation, you can ask someone what a certain room smelled like, what a certain object felt like. Think about what sense you can ask about that will connect the person back to the holistic memory of an experience. “People don’t know what we need to do the stories about them and their situations well enough,” she said. “Our job is to help them figure that out. Our job is to ask questions that will help them give us the richness and the fullness and the context and the complexity of their story.”