2.3. Tips for conducting the investigative interview

2.3. Tips for conducting the investigative interview

It is about the answers you want

Your aim is always to get the story, not to ‘win’. Adopt a cool, unflustered stance, taking as much time as you need. The key objective of interviews should always be to get information and answers – your questions are simply a means to an end. Any emotional signal you emit – a raised eyebrow, a shrug, a smile – may be picked up by your source. You are human, so this may reflect your response. And on TV, a wooden face makes for boring viewing. But be careful, and know the boundaries. An outburst reminds sources their words are ‘on trial’ and may make them more guarded in their responses. Provocation may lead to a dramatic row or a fruitless walk-out; your aggression may be presented as so inappropriate it makes you look bad. Try to keep your responses deliberate rather than spontaneous. Remember, if someone provokes an argument, it saves him or her from having to answer your questions.

Get to the point

Sources’ answers are more important than your meandering questions, so do not ramble, and do not interrupt. An experienced politician or businessperson has probably conducted hundreds or thousands of interviews. Their time is precious, and if they want to avoid the question they will. They understand that if you succeed in exposing problems they facilitated, they may lose face, position, money and sometimes their careers. Read the situation and the person carefully, and if your attempts to wrap up a question softly do not seem to be working, just come straight out and ask it. If their answers are not easy to understand, rephrase your question, and try again. Some sources need to order their thoughts and will be happy to try again. Listen carefully to the reply – does it really answer your question? If not, you must try again. To ensure you are certain of what your source is saying, you can repeat their answer back to them (“So what you are saying is…?”).

Get a complete answer

When your interviewee does not want to give precise answers, they may use words like “recently”, “a few”, “many”, or “decisive action”. In those cases, you should follow up with questions that elicit more specific answers, like “When?”, “How many?”, “Can you estimate the number” or “What exactly will you do?”.
The same goes for closed answers. ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ can be used by an interviewee to put an end to a line of questioning. Sometimes you will want more information and need to open it up again:

You: Did you sign the contract?
Interviewee: Yes.
You: Can you explain your motives for doing so?

Carefully analyse each answer before you move on. Skilled interviewees may give you answers that sound like what you want to hear, but when you reread your notes, you may see that they have dodged the question.

You: Have you sent drugs to the clinic in X District?
Interviewee: Of course all appropriate procedures for that clinic have been followed.

This sounds like a yes, but it does not directly provide the information you asked. You should follow up with, “What drugs were sent?”, “On what date were they sent?”, “What confirmation do you have that they were sent?”, “Do you have confirmation they arrived?”. If you do not understand the source’s answer, say so. Admitting your confusion is better than pretending you understand out of embarrassment. You can say, “Our readers or viewers might not get that. Can you explain it again in simpler terms?” Alternatively, use the rephrase technique: “If I understand you correctly, Minister, you are saying XY. Is that the case?”

Paperwork and referrals

Be sure to have copies of any press releases, documents, studies or photographs available during your interview, so you may refer to them in the event the interviewee says something unexpected. Keep your tape recorder and your brain engaged. They will provide a record of events after your discussion ends. If appropriate, ask permission for follow-up questions after the interview.

Do not fall for flattery

This is an interview, not a friendship. You are there to discover information, not to be patronised. When someone tells you: “That’s a very perceptive question”, they are not offering you a compliment, but rather buying themselves an extra few seconds to think about their answer.

After the investigative interview give the source a chance to vent. Surprisingly often, it adds insight. Then ask if there is anything they would like to ask you, which is both a courtesy and a final opportunity to explain how and when the story will be published. Always end the interview with the following question: ‘Is there anything else I should have asked you?’ or ‘Is there anything you would like to add?’

Making use of the end of an interview

There is often a moment at the end of the interview when the source becomes more comfortable and his or her guard is down. Use this time to check any terms, titles or names that came up during the interview itself. Always ask for a phone number/e-mail in case you want to clarify some pieces of information later, and leave your contact information or card for them. Do not neglect final courtesies. Thank them for their time. This is important, even if you have been stonewalled and insulted. Try to sound as if you genuinely do appreciate their willingness to speak with you.

If the interview was used to help background information, or has been friendly, ask if they can suggest other sources who may lend additional insight. Being able to use this person’s name as a reference may open new doors for you.


Do not be so preoccupied with packing up and leaving that you agree to show your source a story prior to publication. Stop and clearly explain your understanding of any such conversation: “No, actually I said you should contact my editor if you wished to discuss that. Here are his or her details.” Media-savvy sources will use these last, rushed minutes to slip in that request, so be alert.

Check and clarify notes immediately after the interview

Re-read your notes as soon as you leave the interview. This is the time when your short-term memory works best. If you leave the notes until the next day, you may forget what the tailed-off scribble actually stood for, or what you urgently needed to double check. Fill in gaps in your notes and indicate where you may have to do follow-up interviews.