Ask a Freelancer

Ask a Freelancer: What’s the Best Way to Interview a Source?

By Nicole Dieker October 14th, 2014

How do you prefer to interview sources? Phone, Skype, email? What about recording and transcription?

—Going To The Source

This past weekend, I was conducting face-to-face interviews while taking rapid-fire notes. I have a phone interview scheduled for tomorrow, which means I’ll call my source through Skype and record our conversation on GarageBand. I’ve also interviewed people over email, directly over the phone without the benefit of recording software, and even over Gchat and Facebook.

It’s hard for me to say which method I like best because each has advantages and disadvantages. My preferred method of interviewing sources has as much to do with the type of story I’m writing as anything else. There are certain stories, such as personal profiles or sensitive topics, where only a face-to-face interview will do. Other articles, especially informational pieces that don’t require action, turn out just fine with email interviews.

The in-person interview gives you the most insight into body language and facial expressions. It’s also more likely to have the flow of an actual conversation, unlike a series of impersonal questions and answers completed remotely.

However, because so much information is coming at me during the face-to-face meeting, I often can’t capture everything at once. When I jot down that great pull quotation, I miss what the person says next. It’s hard to be fully present in a conversation as you’re observing it and taking notes, but that’s the sort of skill that becomes better with practice, and I’m still learning.

The phone/Skype interview offers a balance between the conversational appeal of an in-person meeting and the convenience of an email exchange. Some journalists prefer to do Skype video interviews so they can see their subject’s body language, but I strongly prefer the audio-only interview because I can take detailed notes instead of feeling obligated to look my subject in the eye. I record on GarageBand, connect via Skype, and as the interview progresses, I’m able to quickly Google any references the subject makes so I can ask intelligent follow-up questions.

The downside to the phone/Skype interview is, of course, the transcription process.

I only transcribe if I am planning to do a piece that will use a Q&A format. Otherwise, I flag the key points and their timestamps during the interview: “9 min: quote on changes in the industry.” When I go to write, I don’t need to listen to the entire interview again; I jump from marker to marker to save time.

Here’s one more note about the phone/Skype interview that is very important: If you plan to record your subject, get permission at the start of the conversation. The first question out of my mouth is always “May I record you so that I may quote you accurately?” I include this question in the recording for proof of consent.

Why is this question necessary? In some states, it is illegal to record a phone conversation without the consent of both parties. You could ask every source, “What state are you in right now?” but that’s awkward. It’s just easier to ask for permission to record.

The email interview is, in most cases, the easiest interview to do. There’s no need to transcribe or worry the source will get tongue-tied.

I’m not the only person who loves the email interview. As Phillip Blanchard writes for Business Journalism: “I like email interviews, partly because they ensure that you get the quotations right and partly because I gave up reporting 30 years ago because I don’t like to talk on the phone.”

However, there are potential drawbacks since email can be a passive means of communication. When a source emails me responses that read too much like bland PR statements, I send back follow-up questions and see if I can get more nuanced answers.

Lastly, the online chat interview is extremely informal but does work well for certain types of blogs. Often, the chatlog itself becomes part of the story; I’ll copy and paste the chat to show readers the conversation verbatim.

Picking an interview method really comes down to the type of story you want to tell. For each article, step back and ask yourself one crucial question: What method of communication best aids the integrity of the story?

The next item on Nicole Dieker’s to-do list is to schedule a phone interview for an upcoming piece. While she gets that done, you can email your Ask a Freelancer questions to dieker.nicole@gmail.com.

Image by Pete Souza
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