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Art of the Investigative Interview

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 8.32.59 PMPREPARATION

PLAN. Before proceeding, take time for mental preparation. Ask yourself what you hope to get from the interview. What information? What documents? What video/audio? Jot down the topics you want to hit on. (Avoid long lists of specific, pre-worded questions. Instead, identify specific facts you need to get.) What concerns is this person likely to have about talking, and what might you say to alleviate them?

STRATEGIZE. What information do you want to disclose to this person about what you’re doing and what you know or don’t know? What are you going to say when you’re asked what the story is about? I believe in being honest — though fairly general early in the research process, because you really don’t know yet what the ultimate story will be. You don’t want to lock into a detailed thesis that’s likely to change as you go along.

RESEARCH. You’ll inspire confidence–and confidences–if you know something about the person you’re interviewing and the topic you’ll be discussing. Do the basics: Check their LinkedIn profile and Twitter feed, search the Web and clips; review any relevant laws, regs, reports.

Image above by twenty_questions (cc). Image below by cfinke (cc).


APPROACH. Should you knock or call or email or DM? Face-to-face generally is best, if you have time, easy access and don’t have to run through a defensive line of handlers, administrative assistants, deputies, etcetera. If access isn’t direct, leave a message AND send an email with a brief but intriguing description of why you want to talk to him/her. If they’re active on social media, try a DM. If you don’t succeed, try again. Don’t wait days – try again before the end of the day and then first thing the next day. One last try on deadline can be effective. See more on that below.Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 8.29.28 PM

ANTICIPATE. Have a hook — an opening line that, like a good lede, makes the person want to talk to you to find out more. Did someone mention them in conversation? Did you come across their name in a public record?  Get to the point of your inquiry quickly. I’ve found that disarming honesty works better than deception or manipulation. So does confidence. Your voice should reflect your firm belief that the people you’re calling should talk to you. If you express doubts, they’ll have doubts.

LET’S TALK ABOUT IT. If your subject doesn’t want to talk to you, ask why. Is it a just a time issue? When would be a better time? OR I won’t take more than five minutes of your time. Have they had a bad experience with reporters? Don’t defend the profession. Explain why their experience with you will be different, and make sure it is. Remember that talking with a reporter can be scary to many people. They’re handing over control of their thoughts and words to a stranger.

BOTTOM LINE. If the person potentially will appear in a bad light in the story, explain that the story’s going to run with or without the interview, and it’s better to have his/her viewpoint reflected. That line of argument has the advantage of being true.

LAST RESORT: Give a source background status if that’s the only way s/he’ll talk. First ask why and see if there’s another way to address the concerns. But don’t tum anyone away just because s/he won’t go on the record. Background information is invaluable for leads. Ask where to find records and people to corroborate. And there’s a good chance you can persuade the person to go on the record later with some or all of the information. You might even accomplish this by the end of the interview, if you’ve made him/her feel more comfortable with you.

SECOND CHANCE: If you get shot down, give a few days/weeks/months and try again. And again. People change their minds about talking when they’ve had time to think. If you don’t call back, it’s a missed opportunity for both of you.


A WORD ABOUT STYLE. Some reporters are cross-examiners. Some are conversational. Others change approaches to fit the situation. The most effective interviewing style is the one that feels right to you.

IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU. Focus on your subject – her words, his voice, her body language. Forget about yourself – your nervousness, your life, your opinions.

IT’S NOT ABOUT YOUR LIST OF QUESTIONS. Make it a conversation not an inquisition. LISTEN to your subject’s responses. Ask follow up questions. Also: Learn to take notes without looking at your pad.

JUST THE FACTS. Conclusions and opinions are fine, but make sure to probe your subject for the underlying facts. Ask, “How do you know that?” Get numbers, examples, documents.

THE SHAPE. John Brady, author of “The Craft of Interviewing,” describes two “shapes” of interviews:

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 8.50.57 PMThe funnel. The interview begins with an open-ended question that allows the interviewee to pick the initial direction the conversation goes.

What are the benefits of nuclear warfare, Mr. President? The reporter then probes the subject’s responses with more specific questions. When and where has it produced those spectacular sunsets that you mention?

The inverted funnel. The interview begins with a “hard, fast specific question, then ascends to more general ground.” Rather than, What’s it like to be this season’s American Idol, you might say, Tell me about your day, starting with when you woke up this morning.

CHRONOLOGY. Ask people to tell you what happened in chronological order. And then what happened? It’s easier for people to remember details if you have them go step by step in the order things occurred. This works for accidents, complicated business deals, sports plays, life stories.  After finishing the chronology, go back through it for more detail.

SLOW MOTION. Stop or, if recording, mark and revisit interesting and important moments in the chronology to get the kind of rich detail you need to be able to recreate scenes.

STOP ACTION. When the subject tosses out a key fact during the chronology, stop and ask how she knows it. Who else or what document could back it up? This will help determine what weight to give the information and provide a roadmap for turning an oral allegation into a documented fact. Don’t be shy about asking for anything – a company phone book, medical reports, private phone books, etc.

SILENCE IS GOLDEN. We’re conditioned to think silence is awkward. You’ll feel a strong temptation to talk when they occur — but your subject will too. Let them fill the silence. For the same reason, pause after your subject finishes answering your question before asking the next one.

FACTS EVASION. Listen carefully to hear if they answer the question you’ve asked. If not, ask again. Q: Did you give the contract to your friend? A: It’s against our conflict of interest policy to give contracts to friends. Q: Despite the policy, did you give the contract to your friend? If the person continues to avoid answering, be politely direct. I’m picking up that you don’t want to answer that question. Why is that?

DISCOVER TRUTH v UNCOVER LIES. Do you want to document the lie or extract the truth? For the former, take detailed note of facts that can be proven true or false. Encourage accuracy and truthtelling by alerting the person early and often in the interview to any evidence you’ve uncovered that contradicts what s/he is saying.

THE OTHER SIDE. Ask the person what his/her critics would say about him. If interviewing about a controversial issue, ask what the other side will say to you and what his/her response to that would be. This also is a great time saver.

REVIEW. At the end of the interview, go over your notes with people. This will prompt them to add more details. It will also give them more confidence in you, because they’ll see how fastidious you are about accuracy. Once they’ve gained some confidence in you, you’re more likely to have success getting off-the-record comments onto the record.

OFF/ON THE RECORD. If there is an off-the-record quote or information that turns out to be essential to the story, tell the source exactly how you’d like to use it in the story. Put it in context, so s/he can make a more informed judgment about whether the benefit is greater than any perceived harm.

CLOSER: MAY I HAVE….? Ask for reports, documents, etcetera while in the person’s office—even after hostile interviews. Don’t assume the person will say no. It never hurts to ask. Don’t leave any conversation without asking? Who else should I talk to? Do you have their contact information? May I say you referred me? What else should I be looking at?

KEEP THE DOOR OPEN. Engage your interviewees in the reporting process. At the end of each meeting, call or email, be sure to leave the door open for talking again. Explain that you’re going to be doing additional reporting and that you’ll be contacting other people. Tell them you’ll let them know what you find out. They’re more likely to come back to the phone if they’re going to get something out of it. Tell them you’ll go over the story with them before publishing, if they’re available, to make sure you’ve got it right. Note that you’re NOT saying you won’t publish without their approval — just that you’ll give them a chance to correct any factual errors and raise objections IF they make themselves available before publication.


Government and corporate officials often ask for “written questions” by email. You can protest. But if you can’t change their minds, you’ve got to sit down and start typing. With a little thought, you can turn “written questions” into a productive email interview:

1. Don’t write interrogatories. Write strategic paragraphs. Salt your questions with helpful background information and supporting evidence that might discourage a deceptive or evasive response. Strive for a conversational tone.

2. There’s obviously no advantage to saving a surprise question for the end of the email, as you might do in a face-to-face or phone interview. You’ve got to be upfront about where you’re going–or save the zinger for a follow-up email.

3. Keep the conversation going. Always send a follow-up email with more questions.

4. Take advantage of the fact that you have the subject’s full attention without interruptions or angry outbursts or the ability to toss you out of the office. Use the opportunity to ask the tough questions directly and with specificity. Wasn’t voting on a bill that helped a business partner a conflict of interest? Did the business partner cut you in on a great deal in exchange for the favor? Did you ever discuss the deal and the vote in the same conversation and, if so, where did that conversation take place? And so on. You may not always get answers, but it won’t be because you didn’t ask them.

5. Assume the recipient is going to forward your emails and post them on the Web – or that you are. Re-read them with that in mind before you press the send button. Ask a trusted colleague or editor to read your correspondence for unintended nuances, tone and libel. Avoid sarcasm and humor, which generally don’t translate well in email.

FINAL CALLScreen Shot 2015-02-10 at 8.53.19 PM

After you’ve crafted your story, before you publish/post/air, make another round of calls to sources & subjects to go over what the story is going to say.  This is an opportunity to:

1. Persuade people to put their comments on the record.

2. Identify minor or major errors of fact. You will find some.

3. Shake loose information they’ve been holding back.

4. Obtain admissions & confessions—or a preview of their public response to your story so you can make sure it includes the information your audience will need to assess its accuracy.

5. Give the people you’re investigating one last, good-faith shot. They may never agree with your conclusions, but they’ll feel better about the process. And they may confirm facts, spot errors, fill holes and volunteer new information.

Do the final call by phone. Tell them you are doing a fact check. Encourage them to point out any factual errors, no matter how small, and to provide the accurate information. If you disagree on some facts, provide your evidence and ask for theirs. Remember, this is not seeking their approval, just their input.

— Deborah Nelson

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