LOOSENING LIPS: THE ART OF THE INTERVIEW
The Opener: Approach your subject as though you belong there. Straightforward introductions are best. Be open and unafraid. Never lie.
Keep It Going: When the door is closing on your face, find common ground. "By the way, I notice you've got a poodle. I've got a poodle. Weird dogs. Just the other day . . ." The key here is to get a person talking about anything. A Danish reporter once told me he asks people what kind of car they prefer to drive. I'll ask about a plant I noticed near the front door. Once the conversation gets going, give the person a simple task that is on point ("I noticed you are the safety director but so-and-so is the safety manager. What's the difference?).
Tap Their Curiosity: Offer to explain what you are working on, what you know about or what you have been told. Prepare for this opener ahead of time, and don't express opinions.
Get Them To Speak About Others: Bring a list of people who are players in the story you are working on. (A list gleaned from payrolls, or phone books, etc). One-by-one, ask your subject to talk about these individuals. People are more comfortable talking about others than about themselves. In talking about others, they will reveal more about themselves and their organization, and they'll point you in valuable directions.
No Big Deal: Never argue about a person's reluctance to talk, but instead interview their fears. They'll sometimes dissuade themselves of misperceived perils. Respond to the "I can't comment" by explaining that you need their help, and tell them (if you can say so honestly) that talking to you is no big deal, because you are contacting a lot of people and because you are there to learn. Express all this with a soft but relentless momentum, thus massaging their objections into a realization of possibilities. Propose alternatives. Steer. Keep the conversation rolling. Respond to the "I'm afraid to comment" with a little sympathy and reassurance (though it must be honest reassurance). Listen to people's concerns and understand them. Propose easier "assignments" like "just describe your job" or "tell me about your town." You'll get to the harder stuff later.
Public Official Or Other Big Shot: Gently, without being insulting, respond to a "no comment" from an "important" person or bureaucrat by reminding how bad that sort of thing looks in print. "Let's find a way to talk about this. Tell me about this one aspect, for instance . . . " As a last ditch, explain that you will be doing a story whether they cooperate or not (if that's true). Explain that you want to get it right. Offer to call back shortly before the story runs to describe what will be in the story. (In the process, get all the contact numbers).
Ratcheting: If a subject insists on talking "on background," make a formal agreement and explain that you will try later to get them to talk on the record. Take notes. At the end of the interview, or at a follow-up interview, pick out quotes that aren't too damning and say: "Now what about this thing you said here. Why can't you say that on the record?" If they agree to put that comment on the record, go to another one in your notes and say: "Well, if you can say that on the record, why can't you say this? And so on. I have gotten an entire notebook on the record this way. Sometimes the interview subject will not agree to a particular quote - "I could never say that in print" - but they'll provide an alternative. Interview that alternative, and you will get what you need on the record. If they insist on anonymity, however, you must honor it.
Anonymity: Don't accept information "on background" blithely. Even if it means going back several times, convince people to go on the record. (Absolutely "off-the-record" information is useless, since you can't use it under any circumstance. Avoid it. It's a waste of time.)
Detours: If a person won't talk, go to others in his or her office or to associates. You will get more information, and by doing this you will loosen them up.
The Statue Of Liberty Play: Emphasize that people are more believable when they put their name behind what they say. It's the American Way: A robust public debate.
For The Sake Of Clarity: There are cases where someone tells you part of a story and then balks. Or you already know part of a story and can't get the rest. Try saying, "look, you've already told me this much (or, I already know this much). You had better tell me the rest. I mean, you don't want me to get it wrong. I sure don't want to get it wrong."
No Questions, Please: Sometimes making a statement is better than asking a question. Read from a document or repeat something someone said. A question might produce nothing more than a "yes, no or I don't know", A statement will provoke a comment. On one occasion I inadvertently repeated something that was inaccurate to a cop. In correcting me, he dragged out a report I wanted to see.
Use What You Think You Know: Ask the official WHY he fired the whistle-blower rather than asking WHETHER he did the deed. The question presumes you already know even if you don't have it confirmed. They'll start explaining rather than denying.
Lost Reporter: It doesn't hurt to say you need the person's help. "Who is going to explain this to me if you don't?"
Try Again: When the door is slammed in your face, try again a day later or a week later, while you are working on other tasks. Keep trying for months. People change their minds. If it is terribly important, try again a year later. I have spent more than three years getting information from certain people.