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Interview Skills

by Chip Berlet, Holly Sklar, and Abby Scher - Z Media Institute

The single most important skill for an investigator is to learn to shut up and listen. Learn sympathetic body language and verbal cues that encourage continued conversation. Due to sexist cultural biases, men will often have a harder time sublimating their ego than women, but no one should assume they already have good listening skills.

Never be the one to end a conversation when you suspect a source has not told you everything. Keep listening and asking simple questions to keep them talking. Let the source be the one to hang up the phone or walk out (or throw you out). People who keep talking hear themselves repeating comments and often will add in more information unconsciously just to be polite. Learn to be comfortable with long silences. The person you are interviewing may rush to fill it.

Avoid “yes” or “no” type questions when possible. Instead, ask questions that require an explanation: not, “Are you happy about the court decision?” but “How do you feel about the court decision that came down today?”

Don’t hesitate to call back an interview subject for whom you have further questions. This holds true for confusion, clarification, or cases where you have obtained information that calls their statements into question.

Do not confuse civility, good manners and humor with honesty or morality. Pat Buchanan is funny. Oliver North was polite.

Some people freeze up when they are being recorded; be sensitive to this and consider taking notes. Some people are even intimidated by legal pads and steno or reporters notebooks--they look so official. For these persons consider taking notes on scraps of paper, backs of envelopes, even napkins. If someone says something truly astonishing but has requested no notes be taken, find the first opportunity to write it down as a paraphrase (don’t trust your memory for actual quotes) and date it.

Be sure to conduct at least some of your interviews face-to-face. Or watch the person in action. You can draw on your observations to lend descriptive “color” to your story.

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