2.1. Ground rules for the interview

Arrive on time

If you arrive late, you will alienate your source, lose time, waste time apologising and may spend the first moments of the interview breathless and unable to focus.

Dress appropriately

While rules of dress are more relaxed than they used to be, you do not want to alienate your source on first impression. Dress in a way that will fit in with the context, show appropriate respect and be neutral enough to send no messages about your lifestyle or views.

Choose where you sit

If necessary, use the needs of your recording device as an excuse (e.g., “It will pick up sound better here…”). You need a position where you can maintain eye-contact, but sitting directly face-to-face can feel too confrontational. Rather, sit across your subject, but at a slight 45-degree angle. Avoid obstacles between you, such as piles of books or the lid of an open laptop. A soft sofa makes it hard to write and too easy to relax.

Maintain appropriate eye contact

You will always have a better conversation with someone if you can see one’s facial expressions. This may be difficult if you are taking notes, but remember to look up occasionally and always when you are asking a question. If you simply read from your questions, your source may suspect that you are new to interviewing, not confident, or not really paying attention to what the source is saying, which can be taken as a sign of rudeness and contribute to their willingness to engage.

Be conscious of body language

Defensive gestures and posture can signal evasion and are a good clue to where you may want to push the questioning harder. Look also for signals of when a source may appear hurt, relief, humour, anger or boredom to either build on or counteract.

On or off the record

‘On-the-record’ means you can use all information the source tells you. ‘Off-the-record’ means you can only use the information in a way that allows the source remain unidentified. And ‘background only’ means do not use this at all; it is just to help you understand the context. These on- and off-the-record conventions are not legally binding, but they are common courtesy between journalists and sources.

Confirm with your source whether the interview (or specific parts) is on- or off-the-record. Ensure informed consent to publish stories about sensitive topics. If the interview is informal, choose your moment to get out your notebook or tape recorder and say: “Do you mind if I record our discussion or take notes?” If the interview is formal, get going quickly and make efficient use of your time. Be aware that taking notes or recording may intimidate some sources. Do not conceal recording devices, but try to write or record non-intrusively, and explain that this would help you to be as accurate as possible if they ask about it.

Always take notes

Note-taking keeps you focused and allows you to record gestures, surroundings and expressions that the recorder may not capture. It is also a backup if anything goes wrong with the recording. Be accurate, and distinguish between quotes and your own observations and analysis.

Ask neutral, open questions

Take a tip from psychologists. Avoid questions that reveal how you will feel about the answer – avoid questions like: “Wasn’t this a shocking abuse of power?” and instead ask: “How do you feel about using power in this way?” You may seek to understand your source’s motivations, but directly using the word “Why?” can come across as accusing or incredulous. So ask these “Why” questions indirectly. Instead of: “Why did the press reports make you angry?” ask, “You said those press reports made you feel angry. Tell me more about that.”

Silence is not a bad thing

Let the source answer your question, then pause before moving on to the next. You do not need to fill gaps in conversation. If the interviewee needs time to think about an answer, let them have it; if they need time to recover their emotions, just wait quietly before asking, “Shall we go on now?”

Look interested, be interested

During your interview, you should be in a constant state of interaction with what you hear. Write down responses in your notes and use them to generate additional questions. Ask yourself: Is this the answer I want? Do I understand this? How will I use this? Once the interview is over, it may be very difficult to go back for a second one. If you have done your research but the source is not telling you what you had expected, do not panic, give up or change the subject – go with it. Respond to their new perspectives and ask follow-up questions. Do not try and shoehorn a source into a preconceived story. The surprise might turn into a better story in the end. If it does not, you can return to your original theme later. Do not get aggressive with your source, even if the interview is not going as well as you hoped or the interviewee is rude.

Respect time

Keep an eye on the clock, pace your questions and when you reach the end of your agreed time, ask: “Do we have time for X more questions?”

As you wrap up your interview, confirm with the interviewee what will happen next. “The story will be published on Thursday.” But do not make promises you cannot keep, like allowing them to see the story before it is published.

Tell the story as it is

Good journalists will use sources’ material honestly. Obviously, you should not tell lies about what was said during the interview. Nor can you alter the sense of a question or reply after the interview is over, by taking a quote out of context. Be especially careful when you have to move answers from the sequence in which they occurred in the original interview. It is easy to distort truth accidentally through clumsy juxtaposition. Tell your story, and then give the response of those the story concerns. Audiences are intelligent; they will know where the truth lies.