THE INTERVIEW

Investigative
interviews can be part interrogation, part chess match, and part theatre.

The
best reporters know that to some extent journalism involves a bit of stage craft
, and how  you tailor your interview
style and approach depends on whom you’re talking to.  That’s courtesy Curtis Hubbard, of the
Boulder
(Colo). Daily Camera

Know who you are talking to:  it sounds pretty straightforward, but it goes
further than knowing the person is the CEO of a top company. Know what their
qualifications are and what their field of expertise is and how it relates to
the interview you are going to have.

Have
all your documents prepared and accessible to back up your claims: It also
sounds obvious, but it is very distracting if you start fumbling with your
papers during the interview and might create the impressions that you are not
well prepared and disorganised.

Besides having an outline of the
questions you want to ask, it’s always a good idea to have them in some sort of
chronology:
Chances are good that the order of your questions will
change as you go along and while it is imperative that you maintain the flow of
the interview, having them written down can act as a sort of a checklist to make
sure you didn’t forget to ask any pertinent questions. It happens to the best
of us that while you’re driving away from an interview it strikes you that you
forgot something. Sometimes the interview will have been your last chance to
ask important questions but you may be lucky in that the interviewee is the
kind of person who will accommodate a follow-up call.


Never provide an interviewee with the
questions beforehand:
No doubt, you will have heard this on
numerous occasions, be it from your lecturer, editor or a colleague. I agree
with this in principle, but I believe it is something one should play by ear.
For example, I recently approached a leading South African company that had
been accused of “miscalculating” the tax on a provident fund to the tune of
R2.9 million. While I had many questions as to how this came about, I did tell
the manager I planned to interview that that was the gist of what I wanted to
know. I felt that it was necessary in this case because it would hopefully give
them time to investigate on their part. Of course I did not divulge all the
other information around this allegation. For the record, I still don’t have
the answers I want to this one, but I will get there.

Small talk before the interview:
Once again — play it by ear. Personally I would find it slightly irritating if
someone about to interview me tried to engage in small talk, especially if I
was busy and probably irritated by the thought that I might be asked difficult
questions. What I have found to work is the mention of a mutual acquaintance,
colleague or friend, once again only if you know the mention of the other
person is going to make your interviewee see red.  A lot might have happened since they were
once big mates.

The
issue of asking questions that can illicit a yes or no answer has also been
touched on and they way I normally deal with it is to ask:  Can you elaborate? What do you mean by that?

Listen carefully: I
was once interviewing a woman about epilepsy in the workplace. She told me that
85 percent of people suffering from epilepsy experienced few or no problems in
the workplace … and I responded by asking, what about the other 25 percent.
She was not amused.


Be persistent, but polite: If
people are reluctant to grant an interview, mention that you would like to give
them the right to reply to, for example, an allegation made against them. I
usually explain to them why it is important for them to respond, for example it
would reflect badly on them or their company or organisation if they did not.
If they still refuse, I will simply say in my report that they refused or
declined to grant an interview or to respond to the allegation. My wording
usually depends on the circumstances, if, for example, they throw the phone
down on me or abusive, I will usually say the refused to respond. If, however,
they say they something along the lines of they would prefer not to comment
just yet, I would usually say they declined to respond.

Don’t be afraid to ask what you might
think is a stupid question:
This advice is not new and is not an
excuse to ask a stupid question because you did not do your homework. Recently
I did several interviews about the power outages across Gauteng, during which
time I managed to lay my hands on a damning confidential document compiled just
over a year ago in which the authorities were warned that we were going to
experience massive electricity cuts due to a lack of maintenance of electricity
utilities, among others. This was a huge embarrassment to the authorities. I
had to really study this report(two lever arch files of it) to understand what
the major problems were. It was compiled by a group of electrical engineers and
contained many technical terms and explanations which made absolutely no sense
to me. So what I did was to try and make sense of as much as I could, or as
much as I thought could be expected from a lay person. I found that because
they could see that I had made an effort, they were more than happy to help me
put things into perspective and to explain difficult electrical concepts. After
all, I only Science on standard grade. The bottom line was that they were
professionals and it was important for them that if the issue got tackled it
got done properly. It’s no use regurgitating the contents of an important
document or report if you don’t understand it.


Having a conversation:
This can work but depends on how well you know your subject and if it is
conducive to a conversation. When you are trying to get a response to a serious
allegation, chances are it might be difficult to try and strike up a
conversation. On the other hand, it can work if you are trying to put someone
at ease, for example, interviewing someone who had shot a burglar out of self
defence and is now facing a murder charge.

At
the end of an interview ask if there is anything they would like to add. I
always do this as a matter of course.

I
sometimes get nervous when I know I am about to speak to someone about
something unpleasant and as many of our stories are done telephonically, I
write the questions down. This helps to cut down on the stuttering as I find it
more difficult to ask questions over the phone as opposed to when I am face to
face with a person.

Always define the parameters of what is
on and off the record:
Often you can use some of the off the
record stuff to add value to your story. For example, I am currently working on
a story related to security matters and they are almost always sensitive. I am
due to interview a person who is reluctant to speak on the record, but is
willing to tell me aspects of the subject matter which I believe will be
extremely useful when I speak to individuals themselves in the security
industry.

Ask for evidence: I
often receive calls tipping me off about corruption, maladministration, etc,
and the first thing I ask is if they have evidence to corroborate their claims.

Next of kin interview:
How do you feel? Are ways of asking the difficult questions. Example in
Alexandra township when man’s wife had just been shot. The scene of a massacre
when deceased are still lying on the crime scene and relatives are weeping. Had
a case last week and yesterday.


Asking for info from lawyers or other
officials, for example can often be useful:
Often get
something when you think you won’t. EG,the Brett Kebble murder case, spoke to
private investigator on the story to find out what the latest was when he told
me he couldn’t comment because he had been removed from the case. Given
conspiracy theories at the time and reports of Police Commissioner Jackie
Selebi’s friendship with Kebble, this added fuel to an already highly
controversial case.