CAMP 2017: Getting interviewees to open up

Story by Lauren McGaughy, 2017 JAWS Fellow | Photo by Erica Yoon, CAMP photographer

Know the subject, never give up and, when the time comes, shut the hell up. These were some of the tips to on getting interviewees to pen up about difficult subjects like corruption, violence and identity.

Three journalists tackled three big questions during their panel discussion on “the Art of the Difficult Interview” Oct. 28 at the 2017 Journalism and Women Symposium (JAWS) CAMP.

How does a good journalist get someone who is reticent to go on the record to tell their story? When does she get them to sit down, how does she get them to open up? And for those particularly strong-willed subjects, how does she keep them from hijacking the interview?

Diana Henriques, the author of The New York Times’ bestseller “The Wizard of Lies,” spent 18 months convincing Bernie Madoff to give her the first sit-down interview after his incarceration for felony fraud. A main reason he eventually agreed, Diana believes, was that she convinced him her deep knowledge of his life meant she could tell the story better than anyone: “I knew him as the Bernie Madoff he was proud to be.”

Plus, she never gave up. Call, write — “you all remember letters, right?” — and show up.

Doorstepping is a great method to get a reluctant source to speak, said Mona Gable. When she was grappling with getting the Korean-American community in Los Angeles to explain why a number of fathers had suddenly killed their children, Mona studied up — then showed up.

“You have to go deep,” Gable said. “You can’t be satisfied with, sort of, simple answers.”

Eventually, after being rejected multiple times by one of the mothers, Mona showed up at the woman’s workplace. Mona explained why she was doing the story — not to expose horror or sensationalize their pain, but to explain why and how this could happen.

“What is your purpose?” Gable said a good writer should ask herself. “Why am I doing this story? What’s the public good?

”There has to be something that comes out of it that’s positive.”

Charisse Gibson, who wears many hats at FOX19 in Cincinnati, said strong community connections are essential for asking the right questions and, later, accurately telling the story.

“When you’re talking historical interviews, you can’t always Google it,” Charise said. To keep a subject talking, silence is golden, she added: “I shut the hell up.”

Finally, keep control over the conversation by picking questions carefully.

Whether it’s the two hours Diana got with Madoff or Charise switching gears (from morning breaking news anchor to morning show host to interviewing a rape survivor on her show Bounce TV Cincinnati Connection), be knowledgeable and nimble.

Write questions down, Diana said, but be flexible enough to change course. If there’s time, build rapport at the interview’s beginning before moving on to harder questions later on, added Mona. And if a big question is left unanswered and time is running out, Charise said to get tough.

“I go straight for the jugular.”