Depending on the purpose and circumstances of the story, you may be able to do a 'walk-in' (although often people consider this rude) or 'phone-in' with someone who has a personal story to tell. If you are consistently blocked from seeing one source you would like to speak with, you may try a 'stake-out', otherwise known as hanging around in the person's office waiting room or lobby, or at a public event where you know the person will be present. However, this strategy can backfire, and it is important that you do not behave as though you are ambushing them. Simply introduce yourself politely and let them know you would welcome an opportunity to talk. When there is likely to be suspicion, you may need an intermediary 'door-opener' from the person's network. Any interview request to a company, organisation, government or parastatal body will likely require a formal approach, usually through a press office. In all cases, be polite.
You may find it useful to rehearse a very short introductory speech that covers all the main points before making a phone call or meeting someone. At this stage, you should think about at what point you plan to reveal to them that you are a journalist. In what circumstances would you conceal your profession and pretend to be something else (e.g., a sales representative)? How would you build up that 'role' convincingly?
Work out how to turn the person from a casual meeting into a source that you could contact again in the future. Draw up a plan and list issues to discuss. What would interest the person? How can you encourage the source to discuss the issues in his or her workplace? Would your approach be different for a senior civil servant and a barman? How? Never underestimate the intelligence of people who do apparently routine jobs! And be specific and realistic about the time commitment you will need – 15 minutes will be a long time for a government minister, but a person who has experienced trauma might need an entire day before they open up.
If a source asks you to provide questions in advance, you may have to do so. But this is generally not considered good practice. See if you can send a broad outline of the topics you hope to cover. Advance questions – except sometimes to experts, who may simply need time to collate specialist material – will produce a stilted, artificial interview. And always reserve your right to ask follow-up questions for greater detail.
It may also happen that a source refuses to meet you but provides a statement. You will have to discuss with your editor the most appropriate way to deal with this in your story. The Centre for Investigative Journalism suggests the standard BBC formulation: ‘We asked for an interview but no-one was available, although the following statement was faxed to us,’ followed by the statement in full.
When a source is willing to speak with you, choose a suitable venue. A person's home or office gives them a small psychological advantage – it is their 'turf' – but may also put them at ease and lets you see them in context. Your office gives you the psychological advantage but may be far too public to give them any sense of security. Think about the nature of the interview and whether it would be most successful in a public or discreet location, the mood you want to set and about the surrounding noise, which may preclude you from recording the conversation.
For formal interviews, confirm details with a phone call, email or fax, so the interviewee cannot later say he or she 'forgot'. Do not wait for secretaries who promise to ‘get back to you’. Allow for a reasonable time for a response, then call back. Be persistent, but do not be a nuisance.