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A guide to mastering the investigative interview

Learn the rules, then break them.

That’s how to excel in the not-so-delicate art of the investigative interview, according to Julian Sher, a producer of the CBC’s The Fifth Estate.

Investigative journalists have their strengths: battling with officials for public records, digging through documents, analyzing Excel spreadsheets. But navigating tough interviews? Well, that can be tricky.

Sher shared his tips at the 2016 IRE Conference in New Orleans. Interviewing is not only about doing your research, he said. That’s important. But reporters must strategize too.

First, identify what type of interview you’re about to have. Sher identified three different categories:

  1. Are you going in to gather information? Those questions are straightforward: “When did you first learn that your daughter was killed in the car accident?&
  2. Is the driving factor of the interview emotion? Here’s an example of a question from this type of interview: “What did her loss mean to you?
  3. And then there’s the accountability interview. “How guilty did you feel that you were drunk behind the wheel in the crash that killed her?

Once you decide what type of interview you’re walking into, you can better strategize your approach and your questions.  

Next, keep in mind the Four C’s.

Good interviews should follow the same rules as good storytelling, Sher told attendees. Remember these four elements: character, context, conflict and conclusion.

You need a character, and luckily, you’ve got one right in front of you: your interviewee. But you should also think about what part in the story your character should play. Is she the hero or the villain?

Add context to the interview. Why should readers or viewers care about your story? The conflict is the tension, the problem, the guts of your story. And a great conclusion will stick with readers long after they finish watching or reading your interview.

And while you’re at it, don’t forget Sher’s five rules of good interviews.  

  1. Ask open-ended questions. These questions have been engrained in your mind since Reporting 101, or maybe even your middle school reporting class: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Avoid yes or no questions.

  2. Don’t give people easy escape routes. In other words, if you want an answer to a tough question, your subject will probably try to avoid answering it. Don’t give him an out.  Don’t ask a double-barreled question, which allows him to answer one part of your question but not the other. Avoid adding unneeded adjectives, phrases or facts that the interviewee can pick up on and run with (you know, instead of giving you a real answer).
  3. Basic is beautiful. Avoid loaded or controversial words, which can trigger emotional reactions instead of substantive responses.
  4. The worst question is not asking one. If you make a statement or let your opinion be known, that can easily turn the interview into a tiresome and repetitive debate.
  5. Listen, listen, listen. Again, this one may remind you of your first journalism instructor, but its importance cannot be overstated. Is your subject answering your question, or is she offering a tangential response? Is there some deeper meaning behind her words? Did she contradict herself? Listen, listen, listen. Sometimes the clues can be subtle.

But know when to break the rules.

For instance, yes or no questions have their strengths. In Oprah’s interview with Lance Armstrong, she asks, “Did you ever take banned substances to enhance your cycling performance?” Armstrong can only reply “yes,” and that one word resonates with viewers.

Or, consider using loaded words in specific situations: “Were you stupid or just corrupt?” is one of Sher’s examples. Another example involves repeating a quote from the subject: “You once said you were ‘an idiot.’ How are you an idiot?”

Finally, remember the bottom line: You get the answers you deserve. If you ask a stupid question, well, expect a stupid answer.

Want more? Check out Sher’s tipsheet here.


Kasia Kovacs is a master's student in investigative journalism at the University of Missouri. She is currently a summer fellow at the American Press Institute, and she is the editorial associate for the IRE Journal.

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