Bulletin photos by Kareya Saleh

‘When we are talking about interviews, I like to call it conversations. That’s really what you’re having with a person. You’re having a conversation about what you’re doing or she is doing. So don’t have it (be) so strict.’

-- Mike Donoghue,
Retired longtime reporter,
Burlington (Vt.) Free Press

Donoghue offers 30 interviewing tips
Getting people to talk to you
means creating a conversation

By Siyi Zhao
Bulletin Staff

Mike Donoghue, who is retired from The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press, conducted lots of interviews in his nearly 50 years as a reporter, and said there are three parts to a good story: interviews, good writing, and accuracy.

During a workshop on “Interviewing techniques: Getting people to talk” at the New England Newspaper and Press Association winter convention in the Boston Park Plaza Hotel, Donoghue shared about 30 tips for interviewing that he gained during his career. More than 40 people attended the workshop.

“When we are talking about interviews, I like to call it conversations. That’s really what you’re having with a person,” Donoghue said. “You’re having a conversation about what you’re doing or she is doing. So don’t have it (be) so strict.”

Although Donoghue detailed 30 tips for interview techniques, he put an emphasis on a select number of them.

He said reporters should get to the interview site early so they can observe and describe the scene, and that they should avoid doing interviews over email or exclusively from the office, a practice he calls “desktop journalism.”

“Get out and about and you’ll be amazed at what you see,” Donoghue said.

He also suggested that reporters should listen to each answer to determine whether the source is putting any “spin” on his or her answers.

“Is this a first-timer who’s never been interviewed before, or is this a media-savvy person who’s going to try to trick you?” he asked.

Donoghue advised listening to answers to make sure that they are responsive to the questions asked. Those who hold press conferences prepare for them with messages they wish to get across, he said.

“And they’re going to give you those messages to every single question,” he said. “They’re always going to come back to those answers. Every question is going to be answered with one of the three or five basic points.”

He said reporters should not be afraid to repeat a question, even asking the question in different ways.

Reporters should never accept a “no comment,” and should always ask, “Why no comment?” because they can at least get a quote from the reply to that question, Donoghue said.

He said reporters should use briefer questions, because long, complicated ones might only beg one-word answers.

“What you want is high-yield questions,” he said. “Try to outthink the interviewee. Open-ended questions are best. Closed questions usually start with who, where, and when.”

Instead, reporters should pose questions that start with “what, why, and how,” Donoghue said.

He advised reporters to set ground rules with their sources, making sure that they know what information is and is not for publication.

“To some people, when somebody says ‘off the record,’ to you (it) means I am just telling you and you can’t use it no matter what, and to other people (it) means you can run with this, I just don’t want my name with that story,” Donoghue said. “When people try to jump into ‘off the record’ even early on, I go, ‘No, no, no -- we’re staying on the record. Let’s get everything out there. Then if there is something off the record you want to talk (about), we can go off the record.’ ”

Silence can also serve as a great interview technique, Donoghue said.

“They will keep talking. And you can nod a little bit,” he said. “These words like ‘And … ,’ ‘Then … ,’ ‘Go on,’ they join the story. So keep them talking. It’s the greatest asset during the interview. People feel bad with dead air.”

Amanda Hoover, an undergraduate student in the Northeastern University School of Journalism, contributed to this report.

POSTED 3/3/16


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