How to interview: the nuts and bolts of good journalism

Interviews are the main sources of information for journalists, for many reasons.

  • Direct quotes in an article, or real voices and faces on air, give the story credibility. They are evidence of attribution: the information is not just
    coming from you, the journalist
  • Interviews are more lively, interesting and up-to-date than documents, and potentially more honest than press releases and other public relations
    material.
  • Journalists work under pressure. You may get a long report about an important issue from government or a research institute, but you are not likely to
    have the time to read every word and understand it thoroughly. So it is easier and quicker to call someone who has deeper knowledge.
  • As a journalist, you are not an expert, so you must rely on others who are experts.

The way you conduct an interview will depend on your aims and what you want to find out. You may have one or more aims, and your approach will vary according to your aims:

If you want information -

You are most likely to ask straightforward who, what, when, where, why questions, for example:

  • Who was involved?
  • How did it happen?
  • How many people were present?
  • What time did it start?

If you are investigating, probing or challenging -

The information you want is much deeper, and interviews of this kind can become quite hostile.

For example, if you are calling government to account, you might interview an official and follow up information with more probing questions:

  • "Why was this allowed to happen?"
  • "Who was responsible for the safety regulations?"
  • "Is it police policy to extract information through beating suspects?"
  • You might ask for comment: "In your opinion, should prisoners be kept 15 to a cell?"

If you want background and contextual information -

You are likely to ask questions like:

  • "Would this normally happen?"
  • "Has this happened in the past?"
  • "What policies are there on this?"

You might want analysis or interpretation -

Your questions will be more about meaning:

  • "What does this tax increase mean for the rights of older people to security of income?"
  • "How will the new law change girls' rights to go to school?"
  • "How will the new border policy affect migrants coming to work in our country?"

Or a personal interview -

You will include questions about the person's history, character, opinions and experience. You could also include emotional questions like, "How did you feel when it happened?"

With emotional interviews, avoid obvious questions like, "How did you feel about the death of your daughter?" Avoid being patronizing - don't say things like, "I know just how you feel...." - because you almost certainly don't! (Learn more about handling interviews with torture survivors and rape victims.)

The 5 Ws + H

Who, what, when, where, why and how are the basis for almost all interviews and stories, no matter what the situation or topic. Good human rights stories will always identify whose rights are being upheld, violated or threatened and what the rights are. They will link the events to the human rights and identify the interests of all parties.

Who The people in the story Whose rights are being affected? By whom?
What The events or actions that prompted the story What happened/is happening? What is the situation? What human rights are involved? What is the human rights context? What treaties/laws are involved?
When The time period When did the event/events happen? If the rights issues (abuses, threats, challenges, struggles) are ongoing, when did they start and how long have they been going on for?
Where The physical location In what space/s, place/s or geographical location/s?
Why Comment on the reasons Why are the rights being affected? What are the interests of the different parties?
How Further information about "what?" In what ways are the rights being affected? Through what strategies/actions? What will happen next? If there is conflict, what are the options for the different parties?

Vox pops

These are short interviews, mostly used by radio and TV (but newspapers can do them, too) to get many voices talking about a single issue.

Vox pops are usually conducted in public places, with the journalist approaching people randomly while keeping diversity (race, gender, age) in mind. Each person is usually asked the same question(s).

For example, if a new law about the cost of primary health care is passed, you might go to the local park and ask different people how the new law will affect their lives.

Sources of information

The two main groups of sources are primary sources and secondary sources.

Primary sources Secondary sources
  • Eyewitnesses
  • Perpetrators, survivors and victims
  • Official sources / Spokespeople
  • Experts
  • Activists and NGOs
  • Archives
  • Internet
  • Books
  • Newspapers and other media
  • Official records, reports, and documents
  • Press releases

Primary sources in human rights reporting

For journalists working on human rights issues, there are many different kinds of people you will interview. The same basic principles apply for human rights reporting as for any kind of reporting.

  • Background research into the topic and the interviewee is essential. Never approach an interview when you haven't done background research.
  • Think about your aims and prepare your questions in advance.
  • Take care to phrase your questions in ways that are polite. Avoid using language that may be offensive to the interviewee.
  • Think about how to dress for the interview and your manner. Some interviewees respond better to a more formal approach; others are happier in a more relaxed environment.
  • After the interview, assess your source and the information. See guidelines for assessing sources .

Special sources need special approaches

Official sources

Official sources represent institutions and speak on their behalf. They may hold high positions in the institutions, which gives them a combination of knowledge (or the appearance of it) and power. As a result, people tend to believe official sources and journalists are sometimes fearful of challenging them. See tips for interviewing official sources.

Activists and NGOs

There are thousands of NGOs and activists working in the human rights arena. They are a rich source of information, but they have their own agendas and biases. Often, the challenge for journalists is not finding information, but assessing it for accuracy.

See tips for interviewing activists and NGOs.

Anonymous sources

Human rights stories are controversial. There may be risks of retaliation after a story has been published and interviewees may often ask to remain anonymous. See tips on using anonymous sources .

Trauma survivors

Often, journalists covering human rights issues will need to interview people who have survived the trauma of crimes like indiscriminate violence, rape or torture. Handling people who have suffered trauma takes special care and sensitivity. See tips for interviewing survivors of torture and rape.

Perpetrators of human rights violations

Interviewing people who have committed (or have been accused of committing) human rights violations can be especially stressful for journalists. Thorough preparation is the best way to build your confidence and help you maintain composure throughout the interview. See guidelines for interviewing accused perpetrators of human rights violations.

Always assess your sources!

This is one of the golden rules of journalism. Always assess your sources, no matter who they are. You can never be absolutely sure if the information you are getting from any source is accurate.

Warning!

Be especially careful when people come to you with allegations of human rights abuses. There is a lot at stake for those making the allegations, for the alleged perpetrators and for you, as the “messenger.” The more serious the allegation, the more careful you need to be.

Interviewees may be telling you what they think you want to hear or they might deliberately try to mislead you. They might be experts or they might not know what they are talking about! There is only one way to find out - assess the source and verify the information they give you.

Tips for assessing primary sources

What is the source's track record?

Only trust sources who have given you reliable information in the past.

Do they really know?

Check if your sources are really in a position to know the information they are telling you. Were they at the scene? Do they know firsthand or are they reporting what others have said? If you aren't sure, check by asking, "Were you actually there?"

Is the source a competent observer?

In your view, is the source likely to have understood what s/he has seen? Has the source observed the right details? What is the source's age, emotional state, or possible bias?

Check for motives, interests and agendas

Sometimes, people have a personal reason for wanting information to be published. The reasons can be harmless, like wanting publicity for a legitimate cause. Or they could be intentionally manipulative or harmful - an employee wanting to get revenge on an employer, or an ambitious party member wanting political advantage. The information may still be accurate, but it is important to at least know the motive and enable the public to understand so that they are not deceived.

Confirm with others if the information is controversial

Always try to find other sources to confirm or corroborate controversial information, and also look for sources who may contradict it, so that you can report fairly.

How experienced is your source?

Some people are experienced in dealing with media. Others are not. Handle inexperienced sources with care so that you do not exploit them. Make sure that they know that what they tell you is going to be published and that there could be repercussions. Be especially careful with people who have suffered human rights abuses like rape or torture. They are vulnerable. Be especially careful when interviewing children.

How safe is your source?

If you are not a member of the community, you can leave. Your sources may not be able to. So it is important to be aware of their safety.

Secondary sources in human rights reporting

Journalists rely a lot on interviews but use documents and other sources to verify and contextualize what interviewees say.

Secondary sources are also extremely useful for background research. They can help you to ask more challenging questions, because you will know more after consulting them.

Warning!

Freedom of access means that anyone can post information on the Internet without the same legal and regulatory scrutiny that goes with other forms of publication.

The range of secondary sources is vast and use of them is limited only by access, time, and your knowledge and skill in finding and using them.

As with any other source, secondary sources need to be evaluated and checked. In addition to being a vast store of very accurate information, the Internet is full of "grey" or "dirty" information posted by amateur researchers or by people deliberately aiming to mislead.

Tips for assessing secondary sources

  • Check the date of publication
  • Find out about the author and the author's qualifications. Is the author a researcher? Junior or undergraduate? Senior and expert? Is the author a journalist? Try Googling the author to establish his or her reputation.
  • What are the sources of the information - who/where does it come from?
  • Find out how the information was produced. Surveys? Interviews?
  • What are the risks of using the information - can it harm anyone? Is it essential to the story?
  • What are the agendas of the people producing the information? What are the likely biases? Is the information complete or is there anything hidden?
  • Are there NGOs or researchers who can help you understand the methodology and results of published reports?