A Question or Three for Journalist Dan

Submitted by Lea Barker on Tue, 07/26/2005 - 7:45pm.

Dan, if you get the opportunity to interview somebody, how many questions do you prepare to ask, and how do you prepare for the interview?

Submitted by Dan Gillmor on Wed, 07/27/2005 - 9:42am.

Lea, I'll write up some answers soon. Good questions....

Submitted by DJNelson on Thu, 08/11/2005 - 9:18am.

Dan, I like what you've written, but would this change if student's were talking to adults? I've started a nonprofit Media and Training organization for Community Journalism and I'd appreciate your thoughts on this? I would appreciate any other advice you may have to help the kids do this right.
DJ Nelson

Submitted by Dan Gillmor on Tue, 08/02/2005 - 4:50pm.


There is no single way to prepare for and conduct an interview. There are all kinds of techniques. (See this list of articles on interviewing at the excellent Journalism.org site for lots of ideas.)

Here are some tips based on my own experiences.

First: Prepare for your interview. Keep in mind that the people we are interviewing don't have unlimited time. If you have not done some basic homework, you will be wasting their time, and they won't appreciate it. Good reporters learn quickly that there are no stupid questions -- except the ones we could easily have answered with a bit of prior research.

Start with Google and other search engines. You may be surprised how much you can learn about people (sometimes a scary amount). If you have time, the public library is a great place to visit, too, because libraries have subscriptions to commercial databases, such as collections of articles from publications that are not free on the Web. If the interview is in connection with someone's business, check the company's website.

Second: Look around. You can learn a lot about someone based on the surroundings, especially if you're in a home or office. For example, a wall covered with photos of your interview subject shaking hands with prominent people tells you something about his or her ego. A neat or messy desk may tell you something, too.

If you can get permission, take a photo of the person in that context. Sometimes I like to take a short video clip of the surroundings. Today's digital cameras can shoot excellent-quality videos. Take advantage of that capability. A photo or video serves several purposes. You don't have to spend time writing down details of what you're seeing (except ones that you won't be able to distinguish from the digital images), so you can focus on the person.

Third: Don't go in with an attitude. Most interviews are not the kind of confrontations that we've come to associate with journalism due to the ambush-camera techniques of some TV broadcasts. The vast, vast majority are all about something simple: You want to learn more about a subject or person, or both, and the person you're interviewing wants to help.

Also remember that the interview is about the other person, not you. He or she may ask you some polite questions, which you may of course answer, but try to get to the topic at hand sooner than later. An hour goes by fast in a good interview.

Fourth: Listen to the answers. This may sound obvious, but some interviews are a disjoined bunch of questions that leave obvious follow-up points hanging in the air. Sometimes it's better to toss out a question you've planned to ask in order to delve more deeply into some angle.

I've gone into some interviews with a single question, listened hard to the answer and asked nothing but follow-up questions afterward. To do an interview this way, you need to be well-prepared, of course, but it can lead you down some fascinating paths if the person is interesting enough.

Fifth: A person who's accustomed to being interviewed will often frustrate you with canned replies, what are sometimes called "talking points." You'll ask Question A and get the answer to an entirely different question. Politely pursue the original subject question.

One way I do this is to say, "I'm sorry, I guess my question wasn't very clear. Let me try again." And I ask it again, perhaps in a different way. I'd rather get a direct non-answer, such as "I'd rather not talk about that," than an indirect one.

Finally: I like to ask two questions at the end of the formal interview: "Who else should I speak to about this topic?" and "What have I not asked you that I should have asked you?" The first question helps you find other people who may be helpful but who may not have been on your list. The second often, but not always, brings out a point or two that will improve the article.

Again, these are hardly the only ways to do interviews. And in many cases you don't need to do this much -- some interviews are a single question, not a long process.

Hope this is a helpful start, at any rate.

Submitted by hyku | blog - Josh Hallett (trackback) (not verified) on Wed, 08/03/2005 - 9:06am.

One of the problems with many independent podcasters is their lack of interviewing skills. I guess that is to be expected since many podcasters are not journalists. I am learning this myself :-) Do you want to avoid having your...

Submitted by The Bay Area Is Talking (trackback) (not verified) on Wed, 08/03/2005 - 11:03am.

Television is a weird industry. We talk about ourselves all the time, bragging about how cool and good and fast and smart we are in on-air promos. In any other context it would be boorish bragging. Somehow a lot of...

Submitted by Anna Haynes on Wed, 08/03/2005 - 1:05pm.

Suppose you send an email to a public figure asking about event A. (You've never met this person, although you've corresponded by email with him previously; the email account you're now using identifies you as "[Name] from [Blog]".
In this email exchange, it becomes abundantly clear that Event B occurred. B doesn't reflect well on him. When you post about B on your blog, and ask for any response, he replies saying it was his understanding that the email was private.

Can you publish the exchange? Or are you limited to just publishing its take-home message (and likely facing subsequent denials that you interpreted it properly)? Or can you not publish any thing at all about it?

Submitted by Dan Gillmor on Wed, 08/03/2005 - 2:49pm.

I'm not entirely clear on what you're asking. If the person knew you were asking about something for a publication (blog or mass media or anything else), then there's no issue. Moreover, public figures know that unless they say something is off the record, it's on the record.

It's best to be clear. In general, if you intend to quote from an email exchange, say so before it starts.

Submitted by Anna Haynes on Sun, 08/07/2005 - 2:11pm.

Three main questions:

1. On what constitutes identifying oneself as a reporter:
If the reporter's email address "name" is itself indicative of the role (and the information sought is of legitimate public interest), is that sufficient identification? Or is it necessary to re-identify oneself as a reporter in the text of the email?
For (imaginary) example, if the "From" field of an email to Truman's college teacher is "Shirer from CBS" (or "Jarvis from Buzzmachine"), and the email asks whether Truman had been expelled in his sophomore year for burning the dorm down - would this consitute sufficient "reporter identification"?
(assume the recipient is familiar with CBS and Buzzmachine)

The following is optional, should others wish to gnaw on it; the most effective and concise response is Dan's "Identify yourself as a [citizen] reporter", which (if followed) cuts many Gordian knots.

Regarding reporting of "color vs. content" (or 'voice' vs. data) -
A few months back - not self-identifying as reporter - I emailed a (different) public figure asking a question of legitimate public interest; the reply contained both an answer and some colorful remarks. Morally, it feels right (or at least more right) to report the content of the answer, but not the exact quote of the answer or the content (or wording) of the remarks.

2: Is it ok to print the content of the answer?
(something like "When asked, Smith explained that he'd found the iguanas in his Chevrolet")
(subquestions- are the above moral distinctions on what's fair to publish:
a) real, to others besides myself?
b) reflected in an ethical code for journalists or for humans in general?
(related(?): journos' "don't record phone conversations without consent")
c) do journalists never have to deal with the distinctions, due to mandatory self-identification as journalist? (which is easier for them than for us; saying "I'm a citizen journalist" doesn't come naturally, partly because it feels pretentious and partly from a purely practical (read "amoral") fear that it will strike the interviewee mute.))

If the answer to #2 is 'yes' ("It's ok to print the factual gist of what was said in an informal exchange, but not the exact quote"), a followup question:
3: If you print the other party's answer, but he disputes your accuracy, how can you then let your readers evaluate?

Submitted by F Ho on Wed, 08/03/2005 - 7:40pm.


All right, I'll bite. What can you tell from seeing a neat or messy desk?

Submitted by Dan Gillmor on Sat, 08/06/2005 - 3:05pm.

As someone whose desk was once compared (unfavorably) to a landfill, I'll let others make judgements...

Submitted by Lea Barker on Fri, 08/05/2005 - 8:51pm.

Dan, I have some more questions--this time about whether there is some kind of golden ratio between the time spent on research and the time spent on writing.

As a citizen journalist I don't have a newsroom editor insisting that I meet a deadline, so it's easy for me to just keep on researching and keep on writing--never getting to the point of actually posting something. It would help if I could impose a realistic deadline on myself.

Also, when does a topic stop being topical? Or doesn't that concept matter any more now there's such a wide distribution of people bringing news to everyone's attention?

Submitted by Anna Haynes on Sun, 08/07/2005 - 2:32pm.

(follow-up to Lea Barker's When to publish)
The opposite problem with deadline-and-editor-free reporting, especially on a blog, is the urge to publish what you have as soon as you've got something interesting, even though you know it's incomplete, figuring you'll go back and add to it as you find out more.

Submitted by Dan Gillmor on Sun, 08/14/2005 - 10:12am.

I don't hold to a ratio in this regard. It's always a tradeoff. But if you're uneasy that you don't have what you need -- that you are not comfortable with what you're writing -- it's crucial to keep asking questions or say in the piece itself what you don't know. Journalists should do that (saying what we don't know) more often, because it gives more credibility to the story in my view.

Breaking news stops being topical more quickly than a larger issue piece, profile or other such story. In the news business there's something called the "second-day story," which is what it sounds like. In this era, when people already know the first-day headline and summary by the end of the day it happens, newspapers are finding they need to go to the second-day piece on what used to be the first-day story.

Submitted by Anna Haynes on Sun, 08/07/2005 - 12:04pm.

An ongoing "Ask the Journalist" column/Q&A [on how to do citizen journalism responsibly and practically] would be wonderful - and would make it easier to browse past contributions in one spot.

It'd likely be synergistic or perhaps interwoven with OJR's Online Journalism Wiki, J-Labs' New Voices, and the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

Also, a question - given that there's a 64-character limit in the Comment Subject line, and "Bayosphere" has many characters, what's the standard abbreviation?

Submitted by Anna Haynes on Sun, 08/14/2005 - 2:48pm.

FYI for anyone who's interested - Amy Gahran and Adam Glenn at I, Reporter have some posts that bear on this - e.g. TIP: Quoting from a Conversation (a text teaser and a 5-min podcast; if anyone listens to it and would be willing to summarize, I'm all eyes.)

Submitted by Lea Barker on Sun, 08/07/2005 - 3:27pm.

The abbreviation for Bayosphere has me stumped too--neither B.O. nor B.S. seem to fit the spirit of the venture!

Submitted by Dan Gillmor on Sun, 08/07/2005 - 4:53pm.

... for not nominating those abbreviations!

I'm not sure what to suggest.

Submitted by lainieqs on Fri, 08/12/2005 - 10:42am.

If you count the periods in B.O. or B.S. you get four characters. Why not just use "Bayo" ?


Submitted by Anna Haynes on Fri, 08/12/2005 - 10:45pm.

Or B'ere - it might look a little funny, but it sounds appealing.

Submitted by Anna Haynes on Mon, 08/08/2005 - 9:30pm.

Suppose a low-status blogger with lowly blog sees a column that raises a question she wants to ask the columnist.
Others might be curious about the answer too.
At this point there's just the one question. When the blogger asks it, how should she go about saying "Oh and by the way, I'd like to publish your answer to potentially millions of online readers"?

Suggestions requested.

It feels like the reader's only 'claim' to the columnist's time stems from noblesse oblige, but that once the reader self-identifies as a potential publisher (or otherwise establishes a more equal footing, by incanting "On the record, ..."), that 'claim' evaporates.

Submitted by David Gustafson on Fri, 08/12/2005 - 2:04pm.

The obviously aren't civil servants, but are they public servants? If they are not public servants why should they have special shield laws?

The reason I think this question is relevant is it seems to me that part of a journalists responsibility should be a certain amount of accountability including answering his readers questions. At least to some degree, and I don't think they should force people to keep those answers off the record. I don’t think they should be legally required to do this, but I do feel that there is a moral imperative.

This isn't a legal argument; Just a gut feeling. Reporters jet around shoving microphones and microrecorders at people, they should not be averse to the same treatment. I know a columnist and a reporter are often not the same thing, but many of them are just as intrusive in their own ways. There should be some accountability.

This is all just opinion, I'm not for passing any journalist accountability laws.

Submitted by CyberJournalist.net (trackback) (not verified) on Fri, 08/12/2005 - 2:00am.

Dan Gillmor offers these tips for citizen journalists....

Submitted by Dispatches From Blogistan (trackback) (not verified) on Fri, 08/12/2005 - 1:37pm.


Submitted by dmarti on Tue, 08/16/2005 - 11:21am.

This might be a way to combine some of the best features of a Slashdot interview and a conventional interview -- "questions for" tags.

Submitted by CyberJournalist.net (trackback) (not verified) on Thu, 10/27/2005 - 1:44am.

In answer to a question from a citizen journalist, here are some interviewing tips from Dan Gillmor, useful for all journalists, professional or amateur....

Submitted by cyberwriter.twoday.net (trackback) (not verified) on Fri, 10/28/2005 - 8:03am.

Dan Gillmor pr