Keys to developing compelling content in the digital era: Ask the right questions
By delmetria l. millener
Interviewing is one of the most important skills a journalist needs in order to gather information and create newsworthy content. A younger generation of journalists today have become crippled by the handicap of technology when interviewing sources and have lost the art of communicating because they overlook that devices cannot capture the depth of old-fashioned pencil, paper and skill.
If executed recklessly, poor interviewing can lead to sloppy reporting, like the coverage by Naturally Moi, a couple of months ago, of R. Kelly’s transgender child. Even at the headline, the story proved irresponsible: “R. Kelly’s Daughter Is Now a Boy.” The story waned from there. Had the right questions been asked, this journalistic fiasco could have been avoided.
The following tips are four very critical 21st century interviewing techniques that can help journalists reach the depth of a story.
1. The 5 W’s—Quest away!
“Question everything,” said Kelly McBride, the Vice President of Academic Programs at the Poynter Institute. A respected expert on media, McBride added, “I don’t think we ask why enough,” she said.
Who, what, when, where and why are the five most basic questions to ask when gathering information. To create meaningful content, another great question to ask is, “Why do I care?”
“Genuine, open-ended questions that you truly do not know the answers to are the best questions to ask,” said McBride. “They should be clean and simple.”
In the Jay Kelly story, Naturally Moi kept referring to him as she or her—a careless oversight when referencing a person who identifies as transgender. A subject matter expert would have confirmed the appropriate reference.
Karen M. Turner, associate professor and director of the broadcast journalism concentration in the Department of Journalism at Temple University made the following suggestions:
• Let your curiosity lead your questioning
• Get over our ego to ask, ‘What do you mean by that?’
• Thinking outside the box is what we all should strive for
• Listen better
2. Meet and Greet
Skype, FaceTime and web cams make it convenient for reporters to transport themselves in a moment’s notice, but should not be the first option when requesting an interview.
“We can’t forget the nonverbal cues that are at your disposal if you are sitting across from someone. I wouldn’t want that to be lost,” said McBride.
During fact-to-face interviews, Turner said that a good journalist should not be afraid to take the lead and also knows when to be quiet. “Be comfortable driving the conversation,” said Turner. “But if your source sits quiet for a few moments after a question, don’t talk through the silence assuming that the question needs to be reframed. Allow them to reflect,” she said.
3. Disappeared, dunked—dead
Hand-held recorders, digital recorders, camcorders and recording apps make it easy to verify content from interviews, but can also be lost or destroyed.
“Never trust a recorder,” said McBride. “But if the data is lost, there is nothing wrong with being honest with your source and asking for a second interview. It happens.” McBride is also co-author of the newly released, “The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century,” a book that looks at journalism in the new digital media age.
4. Journalistic Intimacy
Turner and McBride agree that that technology is great, but it doesn’t replace the indirect relationship with writing during an interview—regardless of your medium.
“The less you write, the more you have to gather information, which makes for more work,” said McBride. “It takes a long time to go over the recording, so it’s better to have a few solid, direct quotes that you’ve written down.”
Finally, a key to gathering quality content from an interview is to listen. Do not find yourself so consumed with your next question that you miss valuable information. A lack of valuable information could lead to a story with little substance or worse, a career-ender.
Steve Buttry offers some good tips on his blog about how journalists can best conduct interviews using Twitter here.