I had an editor who used to say that a reporter could get any story on the phone that you could get in person.
His theory confused me because I had grown up in journalism understanding the importance of shoe leather reporting. I’d always been taught you needed to get out, meet people and observe the news.
But my editor’s mantra came from working on the state desk. His sources were all hours away, not a minutes. He had to work the phones almost all day, every day or have nothing to report.
I never totally took to his method of reporting, but I sure hope he was right. COVID-19 means most reporters are and will be working the phones far more than you have in the past.
I’ve noticed through the years that a lot of student journalists are afraid to pick up the phone and call a source. It makes them uncomfortable, some to the point of giving them anxiety. I understand. After years as a journalist, I’m not a fan of talking on the phone. My friends and family know to text me. But sometimes we have to use the phone, and student journalists are going to have to get a lot more comfortable immediately with this method of interviewing.
These tips for interviewing sources via telephone will help make you more comfortable with the process of phone interviews.
Make a list of questions
Before you pick up the phone to call a source, make a list of questions you want to ask. It’s important to have a list of questions ready, in case the source is available right then to be interviewed.
Of course, you aren’t married to your list of questions, but it helps you feel more confident and prepared, and it keeps you from forgetting to ask key things.
There is no perfect number of questions you should have before an interview. I try to have at least 10 questions for a news interview and at least 15 for a feature interview, but I always ask plenty of follow-up questions that aren’t on my list.
Don’t sit around fretting about calling your source. Just pick up the phone and make the call.
When you call sources for interviews, introduce yourself (regardless of whether all parties know that your job as a journalist is the only reason you would call), then put the interview request in story context.
For example, “Hi, this is Kenna Griffin from The Shield. I am calling to schedule an interview with you to discuss COVID-19 classroom procedures.”
Identifying yourself and putting the story in context helps sources know if they’re the correct person to perform the interview and what information they may need to prepare.
If the source says they can do the interview then, do it! If not, schedule a time that works for both of you, then agree on the number you should call them back at.
Leave a detailed message
If the source doesn’t answer your call, leave a detailed message.
For example, “Hi, this is Kenna Griffin from The Shield. I’m calling to schedule an interview with you to discuss COVID-19 classroom procedures. My deadline is Wednesday, and I’d really like to speak with you for the story. Please call me back at 555-555-5555 at your earliest convenience.”
Call on time
Call on time for the scheduled interview. If the source doesn’t answer at that time, leave a message as described above. If the source answers, repeat your introduction, ask if now is a good time and move forward with the interview.
If you plan to record the phone interview, it’s most ethically sound to ask the source beforehand. Either way, be sure to have multiple writing utensils and lots of paper available. Never let a recording keep you from taking good notes.
As a full-time reporter, I always typed my interview notes when I was at my desk because I could type much faster than I could write. If you choose to type, be aware that your source will hear you typing and it may make them nervous. Also, save often. You don’t want to lose those notes.
VERIFY NAME SPELLING AND TITLE
The first question you should ask always should be “Could you please spell your name for me and give me your official title?” Even the simplest names can have multiple spellings (Ex: Jon Dough, John Dough, Jon Doh, etc.). There is no faster way to erode your credibility than to spell a source’s name incorrectly. If you can’t get the name right, how can you be trusted with other information?
Have a conversation
Your phone call with a source is just a conversation that you’re documenting. Ask your list of questions and follow-up questions. Let the source expand on answers. Listen more than you talk. Take good notes.
DOCUMENT QUOTES PROPERLY
You want to make sure and document direct quotes during your interview. However, not all information is worthy of directly quoting and sometimes you just don’t write fast enough to get it word-for-word.
I have a method for indicating in my notes what is a direct quote verses what I should paraphrase. If I’ve written information down exactly, I put quotes marks at the beginning and end of the information. If I need to paraphrase, I just leave off the ending quote marks. That’s my signal to myself that I didn’t get exactly what the source said.
Be sure to ask follow-up questions during interviews. This is especially important if you don’t understand something a source says. You should never assume that everyone else knows what something means. As soon as you do, your editor will ask you for clarification and you won’t have the answer. Talk about embarrassing! Remember that your job is to spread truth, not ignorance.
ASK FOR MORE INFORMATION
The last formal question in every interview should be “Is there anything else you would like to add?”
This gives the source the chance to provide further details, to clarify information or to bring forward information you may not previously have known to ask about. This also is a great time to get story ideas.
Ask for other contact information
You should follow the “addition” question by asking the source if it’s ok to call them again if you need more information. Then, ask the best number to use.
You also can ask the original source who else you should contact. They could give you names and contact information for sources you hadn’t previously considered.
Never delete a source’s contact information. You never know when you’ll need to call them again and you’ll be so happy to have that cell phone number.
Make the call ASAP
Don’t wait to call sources on deadline. Begin scheduling your interviews as soon as you get your story assignment. Most sources won’t be able to talk to you immediately. You need to give yourself time to schedule interviews and still meet deadline.
Call multiple sources
You need to have calls out to multiple sources at a time. You can’t wait on an interview with one source before you reach out to others. You’ll never meet deadline that way.
It’s ok to call the same source multiple times if they don’t return your phone call. If you haven’t heard back from them in 24 hours or more, give them another call. Also mention your specific deadline and that you’d like to speak with them beforehand.
Answer when available
Don’t answer a call from a source when you aren’t available to do an interview. Instead, call them back as soon as you have time to talk. You shouldn’t do an interview in the middle of a class or at a crowded bar, so there’s no reason to answer then.
Never turn down an interview, even if you’ve already submitted the story by the time the source contacts you. Instead, tell them that your deadline passed, but you’d love to hear their take. You may end up with a follow-up story based on something they say.
Go to the bathroom
This may be the best advice I give you in this post. When your sources aren’t calling you back, go to the bathroom. As soon as you step away from your desk/phone, they always seem to call back. It’s like magic. Just trust me on this one.
Phone interviews are not an option during COVID. They are the safest way for you to talk to sources right now, so you’re going to need to get comfortable with them quickly. I hope knowing the process for phone interviews and some tips helps.