Journalists choose their interview subjects with purpose. The people we interview have an interesting talent, job or perspective; they have knowledge about a relevant topic or they are involved with some newsworthy organization or event. For this reason, I often have high expectations when going into an interview. I spend the time researching the person and I create a list of questions that I think are important to address in my story. As a result, I always hope, if not expect, the source will have articulate and informative answers to at least some of the questions.
It is understandable that some people are better speakers than others and some people don’t do as well as others when put on the spot. But what about when the subject just does not seem interested in the topic at all? Their answers are short and no matter how much the journalist pries, it feels like the interview is going nowhere.
This happened to me recently. I was writing a story about an artist who I thought was fascinating. I had never heard of them prior to receiving my story assignment, but I did my research and I loved the art and the message in the work. It all seemed so thought out and deep, like art that came from the soul.
I was excited to talk to the artist about their creative process and the inspiration for the messages included in the art. But when I tried to do that, the answers fell short of my expectations.
After speaking with the artist, the messages suddenly seemed like an afterthought to him. When I asked him about his inspirations and the messages he hoped his audiences walked away with, it seemed like these were two things he had never really thought about.
This put me in a predicament. His website and press release described the art as the kind that carried with it powerful messages of social change, but the artist did not seem to really know what they meant.
“I though they would be funnier,” Sweigart said. “They just seemed tired and didn’t crack any jokes.”
Similarly, journalism junior Victoria Billings experienced an interview in which the majority of the answers given were difficult to use intelligently in a news article.
“Literally every quote sounded like a vapid, stereotypical valley girl,” Billings said. “Some people are very articulate, but sometimes you can ask them a million questions and still not get anything.”
So what do we do when our well thought out questions are followed by less than satisfactory answers? In my case, I first tried asking again. I found that asking the question in a different way, or asking for an elaboration on their answer, was a good place to start. When I asked the second time around, I stayed quiet for a bit after they finished talking to make sure they did not have anything to add. That also hinted that I was waiting for more, without being rude or pushy. Even these desperate tactics did not work in this case.
My original vision of a story about an inspired artist who had so much passion for social justice that his opinions were expressed through art, was no longer accurate. I used my new information and perspective to make it work with a new angle and a new focus. I had the responsibility to write a good story so I had no other choice.
Sometimes stories turn out better when we are forced to find new ways to rework an unexpected angle. I now know not to become too set on the idea of a source thinking a certain way.
Like I said, our sources are supposed to be interesting and they’re supposed to be unique, so it only makes sense that they would be diverse and unpredictable.