The art of asking

by

Diego Ribadeneira, managing editor of the New York Times Student Journalism Institute

Diego Ribadeneira, an assistant metropolitan editor at The New York Times. 

Chuck Buxton says interviewing is a fine art. Buxton, a senior editor at The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, Calif., compared conducting an interview to walking and tackling in football. It’s about juggling to find the right source, getting that source to provide the right information and confirming that the source is who they claim to be. Buxton provided three keys to a good interview:

1) “Be careful.” He said the questions should be clear and the reporter’s notes clean.

2) “Be prepared.” Journalists should do their research and know whom they are interviewing. That means using the Web as a resource to learn about the person and looking at archives for previous stories on the subject.

3) “Be yourself.”

Don’t put on a front, he said, because most people can see through the face. So be genuine.Failing at those points can have devastating consequences, said Diego Ribadeneira, an assistant metropolitan editor at The New York Times. He recalled the story of a woman who said she was a victim of Hurricane Katrina. After fleeing New Orleans, she claimed she had been stranded in a New York City hotel, and The Times related her story in a profile of her. But it wasn’t true. Ribadeneira said that after the story ran, the paper learned she had not been a victim of the storm. She was, in fact, being investigated by the district attorney and other law enforcement, suspected of stealing from the government, and The Times had to run a corrective story.

Ribadeneira emphasized that it’s important to do background research, especially if it’s a mostly flattering profile. It’s embarrassing for a news organization to print a piece in praise of a person, he said, only to discover that the person has a rather unsavory background.

He added that it’s often better to save the tougher questions for later in the interview, alhough reporters should remember that in good interviews, “it’s more conversation than inquisition.”— Rick Rojas 

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