Interviewing tips to get vivid sound bites


The elements of engaging stories are universal: strong characters, plot, beginning-middle-end, tension, surprise, resolution. What’s more, they’re central to every kind of story, not just features. Just ask investigative reporter Daniel Zwerdling, who has reported on everything from pesticides to mental health in his 30 plus years at NPR. “You can do the greatest investigation of all time and dig up a gazillion important facts–but if you don’t tell a great story, nobody will listen,” Zwerdling writes in the IRE Journal.

One of Zwerdling’s goals is to get his characters to tell their own compelling stories, and he admits that can be a challenge, especially for broadcast. I’m willing to bet that most of us have interviewed people who couldn’t seem to make even a dramatic story interesting to save their lives. What you really want is “a gripping and detailed anecdote–the incident that best illustrates the conflict, or a turning point, or an aha moment in a larger story,” says Zwerdling. And that takes work.

So how does Zwerdling do it? Here are four techniques he uses to get people to recount an anecdote in vivid detail.

1. Mapping. Using an approach he credits to veteran newspaper editor Bill Marimow, Zwerdling asks the subject to draw a map of what happened: Where was he or she sitting, where was everyone else? “It helps spark…memories deep in the recesses of their brains–and suddenly, rich details come flooding back.”

2. Hypnotizing. Credited to investigative reporter Eric Nalder, this approach also is designed to put the person back into the situation you want him or her to describe. Zwerdling begins with the basic details: Day, time of day, weather, and so on. “These mundane details help show me whether my character is truly remembering the incident or making it up.”

3. Conversation. Zwerdling may ask how the character shared the incident with someone else at the time, a spouse or a friend.

4. Dreams. “When subjects seem really stuck in telling a dry, lifeless version of the incident, I’ll try this: ‘Have you dreamed about this incident? Tell me about it.’”

The bottom line? Asking the right questions can help people tell their their own stories in vivid language, making the one you tell on the air far more memorable. And if the questions fail, just be direct and explain to the people you interview why the telling of the story matters so much. “You’ve got to remember, my listeners are driving in the car, they’re making dinner for their family,” Zwerdling tells subjects. “They’re distracted – you’ve got to grab them and tell them, ‘Folks, THIS is what happened. This is why it’s important!’ And then they kind of get into it.”

Zwerdling also goes out of his way to make people comfortable with his radio gear before beginning an interview. He told the Nieman Storyboard he’ll even scratch his back with the microphone, anything to show it’s really just an extension of his body. None of his “tricks of the trade” would work, however, if he didn’t care deeply about the answers.

The most important thing about interviewing is that you, the interviewer, be really interested in what these people have to say. Genuinely interested. If children can spot a phony from a mile away, adults can, too. If you come in with some kind of persona that’s not you, then nothing will happen.

Here’s an example of Zwerdling’s work, Suicide by Cop, one of a series of stories he’s done about traumatic brain injuries suffered by Iraq war veterans. It’s long, but well worth your time.

Post originally published at NewsLab


Expectations for digital journalists

For all the gloom and doom you hear about the future of the news business, new opportunities seem to pop up all the time. Take the job Holly Edgell has at WCPO, the Scripps-owned television station in Cincinnati, Ohio. She’s the “community editor” for WCPO-Digital, a new position that puts her in charge of social media strategy and hyper-local digital news. She’s also been charged with fostering the integration of web and TV content.

The station has a staff of seven “digital first” reporters covering beats like business, education, crime and courts. They’re primarily responsible for feeding stories to the web and mobile sites, but that content may also go on air. “One of my jobs has been to identify the stories that need to be on TV,” Edgell says,”supplementing what [the digital first reporters] are doing in terms of breaking news or scoops, and then deconstructing them in a way that may make sense for TV.”

Edgell has a say in who gets hired for digital journalism jobs at her station and she’s very clear about what she’s looking for.

Edgell’s station is trying lots of new things these days. WCPO is about to become the only local TV station so far to put much of its digital content behind a pay wall. This week, the site features an in-depth story on an unsolved murder, Exit 34, that’s an example of the kind of content the station will soon restrict to subscribers.


Better TV producing: The morning show

According to this year’s RTDNA survey, when TV stations add newscasts, they add morning shows.

The big winner was weekend mornings. Over 20% of the news directors who added newscasts listed Saturday morning, Sunday morning or both. Next came the early morning on weekdays, with the 4 am hour and 5 am hour each getting about 10% of all the additions.

WPTV morning executive producer Matthew Harris knows a lot about producing morning newscasts. He oversees 4.5 hours of morning news every weekday, supervising about 30 people, including multiple reporters and producers. He describes his job in three words.

“Interesting, trying and frustrating.”

Ch9-HarrisHarris says the job is interesting because every day is different.

“Like a lot of stations, we try to own the “Big Story,” says Harris. “We ask what are people talking about today and what do they need to know so they can leave the house informed?”

That part of the job can be trying when it’s 3:30 in the morning and the reporters don’t have as many options as they do during regular business hours.

“We have to figure out where are they going to be live and innovative in a way that tells the story; not standing in the dark in front of a courthouse or in front of police station,” Harris says.

The reporters seldom do packages, instead they work to come up with three important bullet points on the story and then tease ahead to the next hit.

“In the four and a half hours in the morning show, there may be 6 or 7 packages,” says Harris.  “The typical story count in one hour is 65 stories.”

Harris says morning show producers have to realize that people are tuning in all morning long.

“We stack the newscast backwards, we’ll put in a fast-paced block of news with a bigger story at the bottom of the hour.”

The morning block has also done a way with headlines and long pre-produced opens, concentrating more on live pictures and breaking news.

“Headlines were traditionally there to sell the newscast, but you don’t have to sell me if you already have something good.”

WPTV’s morning show strategy has been very successful for the station.  Yet, the sheer amount of content and people and platforms to manage can be frustrating, especially during breaking news.

“It’s not just TV,  it’s the website, mobile, Facebook and Twitter, your crawl,” says Harris.  “Then there’s moving crews, coaching the anchors and babysitting the control room.”

Of course, now we’re back to what makes producing morning news interesting.

“Today we had such a terrific morning; it was such a rush, we had breaking news and we really owned it,” Harris says.  “We had crazy wind with high tide and waves were crashing against the shore.  Right at the top at 4:30, we were already rolling with breaking news.  That’s the thrill of producing; you’re the puppeteer behind all that.”


Ethics made simple

Ethics code Temple

The news business seems to get more complicated all the time. Journalists are expected to work faster, file more often and serve more outlets. With less time to think, mistakes can happen and errors can be costly. News outlets lose credibility; journalists can lose their jobs.

The recent case involving the venerable CBS News program 60 Minutes is just the latest ethical lapse to make headlines. Reporter Lara Logan and producer Max McClellan were ordered to take a leave of absence after an internal investigation determined their story about a terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, was “deficient in several respects.” Their critical error was to ignore information that should have made them doubt their key source.

If two experienced professionals can get caught in an ethical morass, how can student journalists avoid missteps? Temple University’s School of Media and Communication offers a road map in a new pocket ethics code (printable PDF) that breaks decision making into 10 steps: five dos and five don’ts.

The basics will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the SPJ Code of Ethics and the guide itself acknowledges that ethical decisions are rarely easy. But it does provide simple and highly practical explanations of what to do and what not to do. Under the heading “Do Tell the Truth,” the pamphlet offers advice that 60 Minutes would have been wise to follow.

…always report with the goal of 100 percent accuracy of all facts, quotes and ideas presented. Do not stop reporting when you are tired or bored, stop when there is nothing left to be uncovered or said.

All journalists should also pay attention to one of the don’ts: “Don’t Suffer in Silence.” The guide suggests that students ask a professor for help if they find themselves unsure of how to proceed while on assignment. I’d expand that advice to urge journalists to speak up about any ethical concerns, not just on stories they’re covering but whenever questions arise, whether in the field or in the newsroom.

It can take courage to challenge more experienced colleagues, and they won’t always listen. But I’d be willing to bet that the team at 60 Minutes wishes someone had waved a red flag vigorously enough to draw attention to the flaws in their story.


Smart strategies for more online video sharing

You’ve seen the statistics — millions of Americans will watch more than a billion videos online today.  And who better to dominate the online video audience than TV stations?  Yet, how much video gets aired that never makes it’s way to social media or the Web?  A ton! provides some new ways of thinking about video sharing.

1.  Turn those graphics into video explainers.
  Think about how much time goes into creating a great infographic for a news story, but it’s often on the screen for just a few seconds and then gone forever.  Instead, you could follow the Economist’s example and add a voiceover to provide an explainer and highlight details of the graphic.  Publish to YouTube or embed on your website and you have another video viewing opportunity for the audience.

2.  Break down stories into Instagram-friendly tidbits.  Great stories have memorable moments, so next time you’ve created one, edit the story down to a clip of 15 seconds or less and pop it on Instagram with a link back to the full story on the station website.  You’ll expose more people to your work and potentially drive traffic back to the website.

Let us know if you have other ideas for getting more of your video posted — we want to hear from you.


How TV news jobs have changed

The transformation of the television news business has been so dramatic that “if someone showed up from the year 2000, they wouldn’t know what to make of it,” says WAFB morning anchor Matt Williams.

Williams’ day is filled with the usual anchor tasks: writing stories, teases and bumps; hosting a two-hour show; and making public appearances. But there’s much more on his plate: developing content for the Web and the station’s mobile app, tweeting and posting to Facebook. As a story in the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report puts it, Williams is not merely a journalist any more. “He is a one-man marketing department promoting both the Matt Williams brand and WAFB-TV.”

 The anchor’s job isn’t the only one that’s changed:

Teleprompter operators (at WAFB) now post sports scores to Facebook between newscasts. Receptionists put recipes on the station’s Internet homepage in their downtime. Reporters in the field take pictures on their iPhones and tweet updates all day about the stories they’re covering. Everyone is constantly “on.”

Across town at WVLA, news director David D’Aquin says that at his station everybody does everything.

No one in this newsroom says, ‘That’s not my job.’ But the cool thing is, we have a lot of millennials who are very tech savvy, so this is second nature to them.

All that “doing” comes with an opportunity cost, of course. There is less time to think, to dig, to double check.  Social media puts journalists in touch with more people in more places than ever before but what exactly are they sharing?

“The challenge is really to find the time to do quality journalism and not just branding,” Williams says. “Before, you could really dig in deep. It doesn’t happen as much anymore as it should, but we try.”


Infographic and timeline tools made easy

It’s one thing to know your story could use an infographic or a timeline, and it’s quite another thing to build one yourself!  So, here’s a look at two, free online sites that make building either a breeze.

The good folks at Northwestern University’s Knight Lab have created an open-source tool called TimelineJS that allows you create an interactive timeline as long as you know how to open a Google Spreadsheet.

TimelineJSIt’s designed to let  you pull content from sources like Twitter, Flickr, Google Maps, YouTube, Vimeo, Vine, Wikipedia and SoundCloud — with proper attribution, of course.  As long as there’s a URL for the media you want to use, you can plug it into the timeline.

The San Antonio Express-News used the tool to create a timeline in conjunction with a high-profile money laundering trial that began with events that took place in 2005.  Knowing the story stretched over such a long period, the news outlet knew a timeline was a natural way to bring the audience quickly up to speed.

When you want to take a multimedia approach to visualize data, offers another user-friendly tool. has been around for a little more than a year now and it offers you a plug-n-play way to create an easily embeddable visual element on your website.

You can display your data as a traditional pie or bar chart, as well as a line graph or pictorial, treemap or word cloud.  You can add quotes, photos, video, a countdown or text, adjust the size of the graphic and select one of several default themes.  Continue with the post to see an infographic Advancing the Story created in less than 15 minutes. Continue reading ‘Infographic and timeline tools made easy’ »


Correspondent talks about coping skills for journalists

PinkstonFormer CBS correspondent Randall Pinkston has covered more than his share of important stories.   Whether it’s the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the Newtown school shootings, he’s been on the front lines for more than 30 years.  Sometimes, Pinkston says, the emotion gets the best of him.

“I struggle with that.  There have been several stories where I’ve felt overwhelmed, times when I’ve come to tears interviewing someone,” said Pinkston.  “I would apologize and admit that was unprofessional.  To the best of my ability, I try to take ‘me’ out of it and just report the facts.”

Now, working for Al Jazeera America, Pinkston says he thinks one of the missing pieces in journalism education and in-service training for professional journalists is a discussion of coping skills followed a traumatic event.

“It’s a serious concern that’s been ignored for too long.”

In his own experience, Pinkston says he’s seen CBS make crisis counseling available following certain stories, such as in the aftermath of 9-11.  Yet, organizations like the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma recognize that the cumulative effects of covering smaller tragedies, such as car accidents and child abuse stories, can take their toll, too.  So, Pinkston says, journalists have to recognize their own limitations.

“First, don’t be a substance-abuser, too many journalists rely on drugs and alcohol to cope,” said Pinkston.  “Do talk to your colleagues; that can sometimes be the ultimate therapy. And knowing when it’s time to take a break, that’s critical.”

Pinkston says sometimes you have to ask for time away from the job to regroup.  Even when you’re not dealing with trauma, Pinkston urges journalists, especially those just getting into the field, to recognize the need to prevent the career from becoming all consuming.

“You have to plan how to live your life other than journalism,” Pinkston said.  “You need to exercise, maintain personal relationships – otherwise you’ll be on your laptop on the Web 24/7.  It’s really easy for journalism to become your one and only thing.  Having a life requires time management.”


5 best practices for user-generated content

The AP’s Eric Carvin, Pro Publica’s Amanda Zamora and CNN iReport’s Katie Hawkins-Gaar pulled together some excellent advice for anyone hoping to do a better job with content contributed by the audience.  In true UGC style, they crowdsourced many of the best ideas from the journalism community at large. Here are the Top 5 pieces of advice from their session at the Online News Association conference in Atlanta.

1.  Job one is to get it right.  Josh Stearns is a so-called verification junkie and he’s curated some concrete tools and apps for fact-checking social media on his blog. Another good suggestion from the New York Times’ Jennifer Preston is a reminder that Twitter’s advanced search lets you narrow tweets by geography and other parameters that can help you vet the content.

2.  Build a community first.  Jareen Imam from CNN’s iReport says it helps to create relationships with communities before you need them.  It’s also important to think about the way you ask for contributions.  Especially when you’re dealing with people following a traumatic event, don’t just say “Hey, folks, give us stuff” — instead you might try, “We want to hear your stories and give you a platform to express your view.”

3.  Reward contributors.  News organizations have to make it worth the audience’s effort.  Instead of rewarding people with money, you create a way to say thank you, by showing the participants what their contributions led to.  For example, NPR created an app that pinpointed accessible playgrounds for children with disabilities, and built into the app was a way for the public to identify more playgrounds and to share photos and other valuable information with those most interested in the issue.

Screen Shot 2013-10-18 at 8.52.21 PM4.  Know what you’re asking.  Before you ask contributors to send in a specific type of content, try it yourself — you’ll figure out what actually works and what doesn’t.  CNN’s Dorinne Mendoza says they’ve also found that the more boundaries you set and the more specific you can get about what you want, the more creativity you’ll get from the audience.  For example, iReport’s “Hurricane Katrina Then and Now” required a lot more effort than they first thought, since the the photographer had to “line up the old photo with the present-day view, linking the past and present in one frame.” The very strict guidelines led to a more powerful project.

5.  Tap into people’s passions.  PBS received more than 1,000 responses when they asked Phish fans to share their reasons for investing in the music.   Steve Buttry from Digital First Media also suggests that news organizations “prime the pump” — especially for “the albatross of annual stories” such as Mother’s Day or Halloween when you could just simply let people tell their own stories.


What do news directors look for when hiring?

It’s a perennial question and the answer keeps changing: What are TV news directors today looking for in new hires? For Geoff Roth, who’s building a new television newsroom from the ground up at Fox 46 in Charlotte, N.C., the list is long and challenging. You’d better be able to shoot, write and edit if you want to work for him, but that’s just the start.

The equipment new journalists can expect to work with is changing rapidly, too. Roth plans to equip everyone in his newsroom with iPads so they can shoot video and feed it from anywhere. He had some success with that approach at KRIV in Houston, when he sent eight reporters out with iPads to cover a ferocious storm. When none of the other stations could go live because it was too dangerous to put up the mast of a live truck, Roth says, his reporters had solid 4G signals and went live from all over the area.