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American Journalism Review
What to Do  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October 2000

What to Do   

By Susan Paterno
Susan Paterno ( is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

Related reading:
   » The Question Man
   » What to Avoid

H ERE ARE SOME TIPS for successful interviews from investigative reporter and interview coach John Sawatsky:

Ask neutral, open-ended questions.
Start questions with what, how and why; they demand the most from sources, requiring them to describe causes (what happened?), processes (how did it happen?) and motivation (why did you do it?). Fill in the blanks with questions beginning with who, where and when.

Probe tough issues, don't ask tough-sounding questions.
Asking a subject "Are you a racist?" is an easy question that sounds tough. The answer most certainly will be no. Instead, ask focused, open-ended questions about evidence that suggests the source is a racist.

Keep in mind: Less is more.
The more information journalists put into questions, the more information sources leave out. Short questions produce succinct, dramatic, focused responses. Long rambling questions get long rambling answers or curt, confused replies.

Strategy becomes especially important when the issue is difficult. A reporter came to Sawatsky with a statistic she wanted to humanize: One third of the school children in Edmonton, Canada, were going without breakfast. Asking the children directly: "Did you eat breakfast this morning?" would likely produce less than truthful responses, since even children are loath to admit they're poor or hungry. Instead ask the child: "What's the first thing you did when you got up this morning? Then what? Then what?" Until the child arrives in school. If the child makes no mention of breakfast, ask: "What about breakfast? Why didn't you eat anything?"

Establish agreement.
Without agreement on basic facts, reporters spend most of the interview trying to force the source to accept their version of events, usually resorting to coercion and leading questions. If Dan Rather, for example, has facts that Serbia committed ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, then he should question Serbian officials about that evidence, not about generalities such as genocide.

Build the interview on answers, not questions.
People find it easier to volunteer than to admit. When the source makes an original assertion, follow up with a question asking for evidence to support it.

Put the burden of proof on the source.
If a source insists, "There was no crime," ask, "How do you know that?" If a source says, "I can't remember" ask, "Why can't you remember?"

To focus questions, pick a key phrase the source mentioned and repeat it in an open-ended question. If, in describing his marriage, Ted Kennedy says, "We've had difficult times," respond: "What do you mean by difficult times?"



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