The basic principles of planning, preparation and informed, flexible questioning apply in all interview situations. But an investigative reporting project puts different demands on your skills and requires a different emphasis in your approach. Timing is one of these differences. Think not only about whom you will interview, but at what stage in the investigation it would be best to interview them. Because investigative reporting contexts are different, you may more likely to encounter hostility, defensiveness, reticence or evasion from your sources because interview topics tend to be bigger or more sensitive. For this reason, you will use a different strategy, and your questioning technique will achieve different goals.
When should you confront the main characters in your investigation? Too soon, and you will warn them to escape (or seek an injunction) before you can publish your story. Too late, and they may already have fled, or will have developed pat answers or legal evasions for your questions. As such, you should seek ample evidence (documentary support) and wait for an appropriate time to conduct your interviews.
Even if your story is not fully complete or correct, you may be 'on to something'. In these situations, your requests for comment will alert the powerful people or institutions that you are investigating into their activities, and to them, you may represent trouble. They may respond in all kinds of ways. A simple denial is the easiest to deal with, but keep digging. Just as likely are threats – direct physical and legal threats or more subtle forms of intimidation through third parties (often your editor or publisher), and pre-publication lawsuits. The word 'defamation' will be central in these exercises, yet actual defamation suits often do not manifest.
Investigative reporting aims to uncover what is not known. This may be the result of deliberate lies or of a consensus of silence. For example, the cabinet minister who told a lie to parliament or the society that chooses not to discuss the trafficking of young, poor girls in its midst. The uncoverings are always likely to be startling, if not shocking. This means tasks like setting up your interview, may need to be handled very sensitively. If you reveal from the outset what you are seeking in an interview, sources may refuse to speak with you. If you choose too public of an interview venue, you may put your interviewee in danger.
Think twice before you ambush a source. For example, asking for an interview on one subject and then bringing in another, or 'door-stepping' an executive, which means trying to interview them as they leave their home or office. It might look good on someone else's television programme, but it might go horribly wrong for you. A media-savvy public figure will know how to duck unexpected questions, or make you look like a crass bully, and all your effort and preparation could come to nothing.
There are three possible strategies for an interview. In an informal or simple background or fact-finding interview, questions throughout your discussion all stay at a modest level of difficulty. They do not become more important, sensitive, or difficult to answer as the interview progresses. In interviews about a personality profile, questions begin with quite a narrow focus on the individual. Where did they go to school? Whom did they marry, and why? How do they begin writing their poems? These are sometimes closed questions, filling in important facts about the subject's life. But your readers are also interested in the subject's views. So the interview will become broader as it progresses: What do they think of the state of the modern novel? Do they believe in literary prizes and what do they think of this year's crop of nominees? Like a trumpet, this type of interview questioning starts narrow and becomes wider, asking more open questions as the interview progresses.
An investigative interview often follows the opposite strategy. It starts with the big, general issues, (e.g., ‘What is the process for awarding government tenders?’ ‘Is the process satisfactory?’ ‘How does government monitor it?’) And, as questions progress, they become more detailed and focused. The final, hardest questions in an investigative interview are quite often closed or even leading: ‘Did you ignore tender processes in the case of this particular contract? Why?’. You ask these questions last because this is the point where a source may shut down and refuse to answer further questions. The interview is structured like a funnel – it starts broad and ends narrow.