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Notes from PWAC Toronto Seminars



Imposing the Question: Interviewing 

Notes taken Ffion Llwyd-Jones and edited by Angileen Gallop

As any writer recognizes, research is the key to great stories. And one critical component of research is interviewing. PWAC Toronto gathered together three of the country's top non-fiction writers to talk about their approach to journalism. While there are some fundamental principles that anchor excellent interviews, the biggest teaching of the evening was that every interview situation is a unique dynamic. Seasoned interviewers have become craftspeople in the way they adapt and respond to each new interview relationship.

Panellists for the evening were:

Stevie Cameron is a leading, award winning investigative journalist and the author of four political books, including Ottawa Inside Out, On the Take, Blue Trust and The Last Amigo. She is currently an investigative writer for the Globe and Mail, writes for Toronto Life and is a monthly columnist for Elm Street, of which she was Founding Editor, and for Century Home.

John Lorinc is an award winning magazine journalist who has been in the business for 15 years. He is the city hall columnist for Toronto Life, as well as regular contributor to the ROB Magazine, Saturday Night, the National Post and Quill Quire.

David Hayes is an award winning magazine writer and the author of three books: ("No Easy Answers: The Trial and Conviction of Bruce Curtis" - 1986; "Power and Influence: The Globe and Mail and the News Revolution" - 1992; and "The Lost Squadron" - 1994) and the co-author of figure skating choreographer Sandra Bezic's memoir, "The Passion to Skate" - 1996. This year he is on a leave of absence from his faculty job teaching magazine writing at Ryerson University's School of Journalism, and is serving as senior correspondent at National Post Business.

John Lorinc started off defining an interview as an artificial social situation with its own dynamic. His approach is to 'let it happen as organically as possible.' Lorinc said he begins his interviews with the courtesy of explaining what he is doing then he starts with a general question to get the interview subject talking because "once they are talking, things then start to happen."

He said business executives tend to be guarded…so particularly in these interviews techniques do prove to be handy. Sometimes it works to play the ingénue and at other times it works to hint that you know more. Also useful is the lawyer's adage that you probably want to know the answer before you ask the question - this technique is useful when you are looking to nail somebody by contrasting their answer to your research.

Stevie Cameron agreed with Lorinc that every interview is different and there is no one particular technique. She added that she has failed many times. "The worst thing is to think that you have to follow a format."

"My first best piece of advice about interviewing?  Don't talk too much! I listen to my interview tapes and they make me writhe in embarrassment - I always talk too much. I blab on and then I hear the poor interviewee trying to tell me stuff and I am NOT PAYING ATTENTION! So people should always listen to their tapes and see what mistakes they are making and I am willing to bet most other people talk too much too.

She said that often journalists aren't aggressive about chasing tough contentious interviews, but the principle is to give the person their say. Cameron has interviewed many people who have initially hated her…and sometimes a key interview can take longer than a year to get. "Sometimes all you need them to say is 'F^&* you. You can't write that," she said. And you have your quote.

But, she said, it is surprising how often people will speak and continue to engage with a reporter, even if that reporter is being aggressively confrontational.

Cameron also talked about being in a hostile interview, she had a witness present and the subject had a lawyer, where the dynamic completely changed. "Everybody had their tape recorders out but they (the interview subject and the lawyer) didn't know how to use their tape recorder. So Cameron ended up coaching them on how to use the tape recorder, which created a subtle shift in the power dynamic.

David Hayes said he only writes narrative features that are built around scenes. So although direct quotes are necessary to his writing he also looks for dialogue. So a lot of his work is in arranging to be present during parts of the lives of his subjects: is there a recording session he can attend? a rehearsal? a speech? he asked an expressionist painter he was profiling if they could take a drive in the desert. People are always talking with him as they are walking around etc. but he said the key is to get them out of that Q&A situation. Hayes cites an example in an article he read recently where the interview subject is giving a tour of a building…this dramatically moved the scene as the writer and subject move through the building. "Dialogue is what reveals the character of your subject," he said.


Q: What are the tools of the trade?

DH: I do an enormous amount of taping, am often walking around with a tape recorder, pad and pen. I also have a wire and mike. When I'm using a regular tape recorder I put some black electrician's tape over the red light because I've experienced that it is a beacon for people and distracts them. I listen to hours and hours of tape.

SC: I have a tape recorder I bought at SpyTech that uses tapes that record 12 hours at a time. Finds that people can become startled when they hear the recorder 'click' (tape finished), particularly during sensitive phone interviews. Prefers big clumsy tape recorders. I do a lot of work with the tape recorder, even when getting to know an interviewee.

JL: A tape recorder but I write fast and sometimes I think better when I'm writing. Often when people are staring at the top of your head they lose their self consciousness.

Q: Is there such things as primary and secondary interviews?

SC: Every interview us a primary interview to me. You never know who will be a wonderful interview. When those magic moments when someone sits up and tells you something and you say in your mind 'I've got it!' During the research for On the Take I sent a lot of letters to Mulroney and his cronies and they decided that three people would talk to me. The singularly best interview during my research for that book was the chef. The people that we view as 'primary' in my work, those in power, they often won't see me anyway.

Q: How do you deal with information that might hurt the subject?

SC: I am a reporter, depends on how much I need it. If they are on the record and I need it I will use it. But, I am not in the business of demeaning people. If it is not critical to the article then I don't use it.

JL: Depends on the story. There are 2 types of people: those who have been interviewed by a reporter and those who haven't. For the latter, it can be a seductive situation, and they may tell you things that are very intimate. So you have to decide do these intimate details serve the story? Talked about a recent story where one subject was telling him all kinds of detail - very intimate…although the story was a profile JL decided that because it was a benign story, not to use this information. He'd make a different decision for someone who is a 'player' (used to media coverage' and who is divulging information critical for the story.

DH: Most people I interview are relatively sophisticated and they know about know journalists. Frequently, because I do 20 - 30 interviews for a story, I'll just protect them by using the information in the narrative of the story rather than quoting them directly.

Q: Do you burn bridges?

DH: People just sometimes forget after time has passed. Told a story about doing an interview with a person who worked at an ad agency years after that same person had been really angry about a previous article. The interviewee had no idea that DH was the writer of the offending article.

SC: I don't think I offend people that often. I'm an old-fashioned, polite, professional person. I work hard to be courteous - use Mr. Mrs. etc. and I find that people will talk to me again. I don't love doing contentious interviews. There are many times when I have to walk the dog, read the newspaper or have a coffee to steel myself and prepare mentally for interviews I know are going to be tough. Often you have to be willing to call interviewees at home and that is really hard at times.

Q: How do you avoid having ambient noise interfere with the interview on your tape recorder…in loud restaurants etc.

DH: Sometimes this is a problem. Takes notes and running the tape recorder as back up. When hard to keep up with dialogue shoves tape recorder into the moments of dialogue. Tape kept under notebook - has to be running to capture moment

Q: How do you get tough interviews to call you? Do you have to be threatening on the telephone?

SC: Quite often I wait years for an interview. During On the Take it took three years to get an interview with the [Mulroney's] decorator.

JL: Sometimes have to 'get up their nose' to get a reaction. During one story JL left a very leading question on the voice mail and the source called right back.

Q: Investigative reporting, if you have a lead, where do you start?

SC: There is a huge amount of information online. I get a lot of newsletters. I've always been able to access the Globe and Mail database. Google is not enough. You have to learn to search on databases.

Q: Questioner pushes and talks about getting a tip at a party. How should she deal with this?

SC: Dinner parties in my house are always completely off the record. Don't deal at the party, call the person the next day and say that you were intrigued by something they said at the party. Then ask 'Who can I talk to?' You need this person to direct you to the next lead. Usually by the next day, they've thought about what they've said too.

Q: What are the limitations to reconstructing a scene? Questioner talks about doing a profile of someone who is dead.

DH: In long features, I regularly import and compress quotes from multiple interviews, i.e.: adding to what the subject said in the car what she actually said in the living room after the drive. Most narrative writers have to do that. Biographers do it. Key is to ensure that it isn't contentious.

Q: Has your safety ever been at risk?

SC: I've never felt in danger. Did have to get police protection for one of my children. I'm listed and my contact information is public. Day-to-day am cautious to be aware of who I'm with, where I am, where the exit is etc.

Q: What happens when people retract their quotes…say I want that off the record?

DH: "Too bad, but uses information in narrative that doesn't attribute. There is 'on the record' i.e.: quotable, off the record, which means you can't use the information in the story and 'not for attribution' which means you can use the information but don't quote it directly to a particular source. Often DH will call person and read a quote back that was 'off the record' or 'not for attribution' and the person will say 'ok I'll go on the record.'  A reputation for not burning people goes a long way.

Q: How about e-mail interviews.

SC: Can be helpful for details.

Q: And telephone interviews?

SC: Can be non-threatening

D: Great for initial contact. Can find out how much a person knows.

SC: Except sometimes a telephone interview might be the only one you get.

Q: Do you have to identify yourself at public events?

JL: Public event is fair game, don't need to identify yourself. Tells story of one interview subject who wouldn't grant him an interview. Someone told him guy was giving a speech…no press allowed. Snuck into the event. Tried to be inconspicuous but ended up sitting beside the Public Relations person. She asked where he was from. JL told her the Globe and Mail and he was kicked out. But this guy is the head of a multi-million dollar corporation so JL thought fair game to sneak into the speech. Have to take this situation by situation though.

Q: About using computers for research:

SC: Love this subject. Love the computer. Love searching government databases. Computers are excellent for storing and sorting background articles - use the 'Find' button quite a bit to find relevant section of an article out of hundreds stored on the computer. Contacts databases incredibly useful.

Q: How to you organize your material to write the story?

JL: Makes notes of notes, gets immersed in research. Get it all in my brain at one time. During this process, things start to fit together. No fast way to transcribe tapes.

DH: Can buy a $15 foot pedal from Radio Shack for transcribing. Had to go through 24, 90-minute tapes for one Toronto Life story.

Q: How long do you keep tapes?

DH Long time. Inevitably find he wants to re-use an interview years later.

Q: What about anonymous sources?

SC: All of us hate it - it weakens story. I've always told my lawyers who the sources are, and the sources are aware I do this. Have told trusted editors.

Q: General question about philosophy.

JL: The most important thing you do is to think and listen. As a journalist you often only understand about ½ of what is going on in the environment around you. The biggest challenge is to keep thinking and to stay ahead of your subject and produce something at the end of the day that is thoughtful.

DH: Studs Turkle compared interviewing to jazz improv. You go in with a way to open the conversation and let the interviewee talk, that way they become comfortable. Starts off with standard questions then improvises. Have to be engaged in the conversation. Often will have topic areas colour coded on interview guide according to topic area…financial, background etc. as conversation goes a particular direction will pick a question from the topic area.

SC: Peter Gzowski was the best interviewer. At the CBC, if you are being interviewed, the producers work with you ahead of time. Essentially you audition before an interview. Gzowski was prepared for his interviews, no interview he did was an accident, and he knew the questions and answers from the producers, but you had a real talk with him as an interview subject. At the end of an interview it is important to ask if you can call back and leave the door open this way because you will inevitably forget the most important question.

Q: Any other techniques for people who are being evasive?

JC: Ask and ask and ask again.

SC: Often I'm pretty up front about it and will say, often with a laugh, "Now I've asked you four times…" Often they will laugh. And then I say 'OK I'm going to have to say that I've asked you four times…"

DH: Barbara Frum said the main reason we don't get information out of an interview is because we didn't ask. It happens to all of us you constantly have to force yourself to ask the hard questions. Often you will listen to your tape afterward and realize how, in reality, that 'hard' question is actually benign. But we prevent ourselves from asking because we like to be polite.

Q: About betraying subjects.

SC: As a journalist you are always betraying your subjects, because you turn around and write about your conversation. The key is not to burn them.

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