Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Mastering the Hard-News Story Interviewee

Part 3 of this series ...

When you're sent out on a tough news story, of course you're going to encounter people who don't want to talk to you.

At all.

So how do you get information from them? Keep in mind these are people who hate to see you coming. They could be politicians hiding something ... victims of a crime or tragedy ... or lawyers or police who are guarding information about their case. You get the idea.

These interviews are not for the faint of heart, and what it comes down to is a psychological war. You, the interviewer, need information. They, the interviewees, are not about to give it to you.

But it can be gotten.

You may think some of these tips are over-the-top simplistic, but believe it or not, this is what worked for me when I was an Associated Press Newswoman:

1) Dress like you mean business. I know, I know, I see the eye rolling right now. But you wouldn't believe how many reporters show up to a story in a pair of jeans and expect people to take them seriously. Whether I was working as a cub reporter and only making $13,000 for the year or was at the top of my game at the AP in Center City Philadelphia ... I dressed to the nines. And it ALWAYS had the desired effect. People want to talk to a professional over a slouch. So be professional. If you're male, wear a tie. Yes. Wear. A. Tie. If you're a woman, get your groove on with those nylons and skirts. Yes. Nylons. And. Skirts. (and heels.)
Listen, I know you think you need to wear that devil-may-care-I'm-a-hot-reporter attitude on your shirt sleeve (literally). But other people just see that as hubris. Get over yourself and dress professionally. Then be surprised at how people will treat you differently when you show up for a quote.

2) Be sincere. I once was assigned a story about the murder of a teenage girl at the hands of her father in the back of their mini van. I'd driven 3 hours to the story in the middle of Nowhere, Pennsylvania, and I didn't even have the house number on the street where it happened. I spent an hour knocking on doors. Finally, a neighbor pointed out the house. As I turned my head, I saw an elderly woman walking down the street with a policeman, and I ran over. I explained I was from the AP and asked for an interview. The woman hesitated and was near tears.

"Listen," I told her. "I'm very sorry for your pain, and I can't imagine what you've endured. You don't have to talk to me."

She stared back into my eyes. "Thank you," she said.

Now if you're an editor reading this, you're thinking, "I'd never hire that girl!"

But that's not the end of the story.

I got into my little car, and because the house was on a dead-end street, I drove to the intersection and parked. And I waited for the police cruiser to leave the house. About 15 minutes later, his black-and-white sedan pulled up to the stop sign. I jumped out of my car and ran into the middle of the intersection, palms up, telling him to stop.

He rolled down the window.

"I need this story," I told him. "I NEED it. Can you help me?"

He smiled at me. "In all of my years as a cop, I've never seen a reporter with compassion like you showed that lady. Here's what I'm going to do. Get your notebook out. I'll give you the names of everyone in town who knew that girl and their phone numbers and where they're located."

He then gave me the goldmine of all goldmines -- each and every person who painted a story that I never would have received ... if I had not been sincere.

3) Be a pain in the ... okay, you know the rest. It's true that you get more bees with honey. But when the honey pot is dry, you have no other choice than to pull out the vinegar bottle. Yes. I could be (and still can be) such a pain that people will beg me to take the information so that I'll leave them alone. How do you accomplish it?

First -- this is assuming that you've already tried the honey route. Always try the honey route first. When you're working the story in "sweet" mode, you are able to glean information, even if it's just bits and pieces. Take those mosaics and start getting your picture together, even if it's not complete. As you work the story throughout the day, you'll find that you'll get some tidbits that hint at impropriety ... or that have a clear-cut window opening to evidence that you know someone doesn't want you to have.

This is where it gets dicey, because now it's time to bluff and bluster.

Suppose you have an interviewee who isn't budging at all on the information you need. After you've assembled these picture pieces and you see your glaring holes, go back to the person.

Tell them: "This is what I know. This is what people have been willing to tell me on the record. We can do this one of two ways. You can fill in the missing pieces for me, and we'll have an accurate story. Or you can withhold from me, and I can print a story that has the following information. (Then tell them what you know.) This information may not paint the story correctly, but I can trust and verify that it's correct. It's up to you on how we tell the story from here on out."

Watch the alarm register on the face.

You'll find that after that, people would rather give you what you're missing than have you print a story where the public derives inferences from what you've independently gathered.

One caveat: In order for this tactic to work, you really do need your ducks in order. You must have verifiable sources, and you must know for a fact that the "mosaic pieces" are definitely connected to the missing pieces. Otherwise, you'll be laughed out of the person's office. However, if you've adequately done your reporting, you'll be seen as a force with which to be reckoned. It may result in getting the missing story pieces off the record. But you can work with that. The point is to get the information you're lacking so that you can unearth the very foundation of your story.

Now what happens if a source approaches you and ASKS you to do a story? Sometimes you need to be careful with that. It's all about ascertaining the motive. Tune in for part 4.

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