WorldMag.com WORLD Magazine / Telling the Truth / Chapter Four
Field Reporting and Interviewing

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The sacrifices of John Twyn and others started the process of making the world safe for biblically directed reporting. You should partake of that liberty by being out in the field, not sitting in the office. Many writers like to be thumb suckers, sitting in air-conditioned comfort, worshipping their own muse, and then writing brainy thoughts. The desperate need of Christian publications is for pavement pounders, those who will walk down mean streets to get the specific detail that distinguishes reporting from essay writing.

Hanging around news sites is vital: "You can learn a lot just by watching," Yogi Berra is reported to have said. For example, to write a story about homelessness, you should eat with homeless folks at a shelter; you might do so both as a reporter and dressed as a homeless person. To write about the impact of federal environmental laws on workers in the timber industry, visit the home of a logger who lost his job: "Mrs. Lynch home-schools her children in a modest sky-blue house with a For Sale sign in the small front yard." Wherever you go, sit and listen.

Remember as you do so the importance of biblical direction. The theme of the Bible is, as noted in chapter one, God saves sinners. The overall theme of your reporting should be that there is a God, there is salvation, there are sinners. Bible-based bits of reporting have a theme derived from those great themes. Since we as reporters are fallen sinners, we will often find in the course of reporting that the specific themes we came up with at first are wrong. Nevertheless, every reporting excursion should start with a theme, or thesis, because, as you spend time looking around, you need a sense of what to look at most closely.

You may find that your original theme was wrong, but you should always have one–be prepared to revise it–or else the tendency is to dither. With a theme in mind, keep looking for ways to tell a lot with a little. Train yourself to observe and record the details that help to characterize a person, a meeting, and so forth. For example, to give an impression of a conservative congressman who will not give in to liberal, government-expanding political pressure, note that:

Henry Hyde’s office also has room for the two bulldog bookends of twentieth-century British politics, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, and a portrait of Thomas More, the sixteenth-century English lord chancellor. . . . Hyde has a bust of More as well: "He gave his life for a principle."

When you are thinking of skipping that last interview, keep in mind the sacrifices of those like More and the Puritan journalists; they had different theologies but a similar opposition to totalitarian government, and they got to work early and stayed late. You should get to the site of an interviewee ten minutes ahead of time, and then redeem the minutes by observing; if possible, you should stick around after the main event also. When covering a meeting, you should stay afterward and elicit reactions. (The most important hours for a baseball reporter are not those during a game but those before and after when he talks with players in the clubhouse.)

Some stories can be written well from afar, but being there makes the difference in specificity of detail. For example, a World article about a Virginia Republican convention began by giving a sense of convention, i.e., lots of people crowded together.

Just four elevators were available to hoist Virginia Republican convention delegates 18 floors to the Christian Coalition hospitality suite atop the Richmond Marriott. The night before the 14,000-plus delegates selected Oliver North as their candidate for the U.S. Senate, a mighty throng made the pilgrimage to suite 1809 to drink a glass of punch or a bottle of Miller Sharp’s nonalcoholic brew and schmooze with like-minded Christian conservatives. Merely to board one of the elevators could take up to 15 minutes; then there was the slow, shoulder-to-shoulder, belly-to-back ride that seemed to stop at every floor. Once the elevator reached the top, delegates and journalists moved like huddled masses to get near one of the doors. In more ways than one, the Christian Coalition’s two-room suite was a bulging, big tent.

That opening played on the Coalition’s desires for expansion; another bit of specific detail showed the tendency of Virginia’s Republican Party generally.

Thousands [of Virginians] first became active in the party last year, on the coattails of home-school activist and lieutenant-governor candidate Mike Farris. Evidence that the state’s GOP understands the needs of the big-family Christian delegates was posted on several of the doors leading to seats at the Richmond Coliseum: Notices read, "Nursing mother’s station, 20-U."

Then came interviews with delegates, with visual as well as aural details provided.

Delegate Tom Ruzic of Newport News was one of those who asked hard, issue-related questions. Wearing a home-made sticker that read, "I am the Religious Right," Ruzic explained that North left him unsatisfied. "Nobody gave me a good reason to vote for Oliver North. He was just a ‘great American,’ a blood-and-guts, kick-butt hero," the Deerpark Baptist Church member said. "But what were the specifics that he was going to do? Nobody ever told me."

Collect, collect, collect. You will want more in your notebook than you can use. Make notes to remind you of sights and sounds. You will find that "writing blocks" almost always occur because you do not have good material. Some people try to write around holes in their research, and some get away with it for a while, but the common denominator of good stories is tenacious research. Writers who do not have adequate material often try to make up for that lack by adding rhetoric; they end up with heat but no light. It is far better for writers to use a computer screen that occasionally flashes this motto: "Sensational Facts, Understated Prose."

You also need to know enough about a story to find a face with which to personify it. Reader interest is highly correlated with the human interest of stories: More people like to read about people than issues. Strong articles allow readers to identify themselves with characters in a story and project themselves into the situations described. For example, it is easy to write a theoretical story about school vouchers, but the question becomes real to otherwise-uninvolved readers when you find a face.

Thelma Hunter watched her granddaughter J’Keisha’s behavior and school work decline. J’Keisha, who lives with her grandmother, hadn’t had any behavior problems at her suburban kindergarten north of Austin. But when Mrs. Hunter and J’Keisha moved to the poor east side of Austin, they found her first grade to be a different story. "It was really bad," Mrs. Hunter says. "Kids were fighting. She saw a kid beat unconscious there, and no one stopped it. And J’Keisha’s behavior was not real good there." She knew she had to get her granddaughter out.

Mrs. Hunter tried to transfer J’Keisha to another school, but in Austin that proved impossible. That’s when she read an article in the local newspaper about a private voucher plan that was working in San Antonio. "If only we had something like that in Austin," she said.

You need to search for material with strong narrative and descriptive opportunities. Good narrative demands characters plus action: words and sentences have to show movement, and readers need to see action. Talking heads are deadly, and lack of characterization also cramps stories. As William Randolph Hearst accurately pointed out, "People are interested in the fundamentals–love, romance, adventure, tragedy, mystery." You will need to practice journalistic fundamentalism, and that means describing briefly the characters introduced into a story: Physical and occupational characteristics are easy, mannerisms and ways of thinking are better.

Figure 8 suggests a good positioning.

Introducing character and action at the right pace is an art. Like the good storyteller who does not list the plot details at the beginning of his story, you should not recite facts without drama. You should introduce characters who are forced to confront problems in realistic ways, and do so at a pace that places readers on a slope with a gradual ascent. For example, this first paragraph introduced one side in a culture war.

There is a Petri dish down in the warm, close-to-the-earth culture of south Mississippi. It is called Ovett, population 300. For more than one hundred years, Ovett citizens have lived in a largely Christ-influenced culture. It has had its problems, but none the prevailing ethic hasn’t appropriately spoken to. Many residents are from the "free state of Jones," a name given the county after many of its citizens refused to fight for either side in the Civil War.

The second paragraph introduced the other set of characters, and the story was off and running.

About seven months ago, however, a new challenge entered the community. A social activist lesbian couple–Brenda and Wanda Henson (who consider themselves married)–have come to town intent on creating a lesbian-feminist retreat center from which, in part, to educate the area according to their convictions. Christian residents say the Hensons represent a cultural threat that must be contained, if not completely expelled.

Good stories often show conflict between individuals, between individuals and physical obstacles, between our natural tendencies and the slow sanctification brought about by the Holy Spirit. You need to show the conflict, and not merely string together heated quotations. Here is how a draft of one article began:

"The Clinton presidency is the most antifamily administration in history," commented Bob Morrison, education policy analyst of the Family Research Council. "In all earnestness, it is breathtaking." Kay Cole James, the executive vice president of FRC, agreed. James A. Smith, the director of government relations for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Christian Life Commission, told World that the President has been pursuing a "truly radical, anti-biblical, immoral agenda."

Those all are good statements, but a story that goes on in that vein, slinging quotes like hash, gets old quickly. A revised version, however, provided specific instances of antifamily policies. For example, Clinton administration proabortionists appeared to be using the IRS.

"Tactics of delay," sighed Patricia Bainbridge, executive director of Life Decisions International, a nonprofit organization devoted to researching and revealing corporate sponsors of Planned Parenthood and other pro-abortion organizations. Though LDI applied for "501(c)(3)" tax-exempt status in December 1992, "We still do not have a ruling. It’s been a matter of one minute our application is in Brooklyn, the next minute it’s in Washington . . . one story after another."

In the 1980s it was easy for pro-life groups to receive 501(c)(3) status, which for years was given almost automatically by the IRS to a variety of educational and philanthropic organizations. Ms. Bainbridge’s earlier experience was typical: "I’ve gotten 501(c)(3) for pro-life organizations before. It was the simplest thing in the whole wide world. I head up a local Christian Action Council. We applied for and received our 501(c)(3) within 60 days–90 at the most."

Now, however, her attempt to get the tax-exempt status for LDI has been going on almost a year with no end in sight. Ms. Bainbridge sent World 12 pages of documentation. . . . IRS agents have specifically mentioned LDI’s opposition to Planned Parenthood as a reason for the delay in the ruling.

Details make a story real. Football players making a goal-line stand hear the crowd chanting, "Defense. Defense." Calls for "detail, detail," should ring in your ears. Describe. Be specific. Dump vagueness. Show, do not tell. Do not summarize scenes; recreate them. Do not say, "It was a Christian environment"–show the readers what made it so. In Mark Twain’s words, "Don’t say the old lady screamed–bring her on and let her scream."

You are the eyes, ears, and nose of each reader. You are providing vicarious experience, going places the readers have not or could not, ranging from major-league locker rooms to radio studios. For example, one article about a popular talk-show host began:

Marlin Maddoux has spent his morning sifting through dozens of articles and editorials. They’ll be fodder for his 90-minute talk show, Point of View, broadcast from a Dallas studio bordering on elegant.

Maddoux has a staff of 25 (not counting his USA Radio Network’s new division), three satellite uplinks, and a stealth-bomber shaped table with ample microphones for his guests. . . . Behind the glass wall, three 20-something staff members run sound and equipment checks. To ease the pre-show tension, one engineer pipes in a satirical spot cribbed from Rush Limbaugh’s show earlier in the day. The engineers are unabashed Maddoux fans; they laugh at his jokes, react with horror to his ain’t-it-awful news nuggets. By 1 p.m., the entire studio is focused on Maddoux. . . ."

Every generalization should be followed by specific detail to indicate the truth of the generalization. If you say a person is witty, give an example. If you say a campaign is being run debt-free, show us how.

Farris is running a debt-free campaign so he can with credibility attack the Democratic incumbent, Don Beyer, as "big-debt Don."

Part of that effort to run a lean campaign was apparent in the Richmond Center, across the street from the coliseum, where all the campaigns had set up tables to distribute literature, campaign buttons, stickers, balloons, and T-shirts. Working the Farris table was a homeschool family from Front Royal who run an advertising and promotional items business. Dan and Tracie Thomas and their two sons, Chris and Davis, assembled campaign trinkets on an as-needed basis. Davis, the youngest of the boys, banged out four campaign buttons per minute on a hand-cranked machine. T-shirts were emblazoned with the Farris logo upon purchase. A sign warned people to stay away from the T-shirt press: "This press is hot–and so is Mike."

"This way," Mrs. Thomas explained, "there is no cash outlay for the campaign." Unused materials, like T-shirts and unstamped buttons, could be returned at no cost to the campaign.

Good descriptive material should be spread throughout the story. Sometimes it is necessary to trim it–and if the descriptive detail gets tedious, to use a machete. There is no need to show readers insignificant or irrelevant objects; those clutter up the room. But good descriptive writing can make a biblical point better than formal editorializing. The most effective editorial page of a typical newspaper today is its front page.

Use all your senses, not just your ears. Some articles are not show but show-off: The reporter is proud that he has interviewed someone important and that he has compiled many quotations. What is missing in the torrent of words is a word picture: mannerisms, gestures, habits, chin strokings, and leaning back in chairs. Describe, describe, as in this continuation of the Mississippi lesbians’ story.

The hamlet of Ovett appears peaceful. The center for local activity these days is the Ovett Little General Store, a one-stop grocery and general merchandise store from a pre-Wal-Mart age that is attached to the local post office. Inside, a flock of visitors finds bags of corn and dog food on one wall; screws, rakes, hoes, and other hardware on another–and groceries in between. In the store’s front, townsmen–some in overalls and almost all wearing caps–regularly sit, drinking coffee and Cokes, and eating hot hamburgers fresh off the store’s own grill.

Outside, on the west edge of town, one thin, bearded man is rounding up stray deer dogs into the cage in the back of his pickup. "It ain’t worth fifteen cents," he says of the retreat center, then politely excuses himself to chase dogs. On the other end of town, past the patch of winter collard greens in one resident’s yard, a group of white Charolais cattle lie around.

Then connect location, residents, and values:

But it is the nine churches sandwiched within the east and west sides of town that do give a lot more than fifteen cents about what is happening just three miles or so outside town. In fact, church folk from Ovett and other communities have set up the Ovett Defense Fund to gather donations for potential litigation or a buyout of the lesbians who have moved next door.

Residents are concerned about their children watching lesbians publicly display their unnatural affections and promoting their views in local public schools. Kathy Stevens is a 27-year-old pregnant mother of four from Petal, near Ovett, who also serves as area representative for Concerned Women for America: "[The Hensons] have the right to own their land and they have the right to be on it and do everything they want on it," she told World." But when they start talking about impacting our schools, that’s where I come in."

At this point remember the motto–"Sensational Facts, Understated Prose"–and do not do a rhetorical strike on homosexuality. Instead, writer Joe Maxwell doggedly dug out detail about the two particular lesbians in this story.

Wanda Henson’s antipathy for Christianity seems to have begun as a child. Now she’s 39 years old and a committed, politically active lesbian; when she was still a young teenager, Wanda considered running away from home. Instead, she ended up staying for a month or two in the home of a Southern Baptist minister–William Wyser–whose family had once lived across the street from hers.

"She was having trouble at home between her father and mother," Wyser, who at 68 still pastors a church near Wanda’s hometown of Pascagoula, told World. . . .

Marriage records at the Jackson County Courthouse in Pascagoula, Miss., on the Gulf Coast, show that Wanda at age 16 married Arthur Francis Elliot on March 8, 1971. Wyser performed the ceremony. The rocky marriage produced two children. Wanda says that her husband "kept calling me queer" until she took note of it.

About four years later, the two divorced.

Eventually, Wanda, a nurse, began working at a shelter for battered women on the coast. It was there that she met Brenda Henson, now 48 and originally from Loveland, Ohio, who moved to the coast in 1981 after her second marriage. The two-time divorcee and former alcoholic claims she was a victim of incest and spouse abuse.

Ms. Henson, a former Southern Baptist who is now a Unitarian and a practitioner of "women’s spirituality" and "goddess worship," and Wanda, whom Brenda describes as a "recovering Pentecostal," fell in love.

On December 16, 1988, according to public records at the Harrison County Courthouse in Gulfport, Miss., Wanda Faye Reeves Elliot legally changed her last name to "Henson," an act Brenda says was to honor Brenda’s mother.

After more background information, it’s time to return to the lesbians’ present pursuit:

So when 120 acres of worn, cut-over land and pig farm outside Ovett became available for $60,000, they jumped at the chance. They pooled their resources and got help from groups including the Lesbian Natural Resources organization in Minnesota, which donated $13,950. It wasn’t long before the land was paid for in full and the Hensons had set up camp.

Next came a description of the camp, which the reporter reached:

over a white sand and clay road, back through gnarled, cut-over, hilly land and some grown-over old vineyards.

The road finally emerged into an opening on a hill, where two drab brown, two-story rectangular buildings sit.

Just before the buildings was a fire circle about 20 yards in diameter, marked off with a heavy thick-link chain, the kind that might be used to anchor freighter ships. On the perimeter of the circle five white poles–two to three feet high–were equidistantly positioned, each having a solar light affixed at the top. . . . Hanging from a shed was a wreath of grapevines, about two feet in diameter. Inside, a string pentagram was formed, adorned with snakeskins and bird feathers.

Then came interviews:

Brenda Henson stepped from behind a clear plastic barrier hanging from one building. "Hello," the short, round woman with stubby, thin blond hair said, extending her hand, her face seeming gentle and kind.

After a few moments of breaking the ice, Brenda led the way past an open-air room where several women offered a welcome. One had a Mohawk and combat boots; another might just as well have come from an outdoor church social.

Inside an adjoining office, while Brenda continued the interview, Wanda talked on the phone with a lesbian from Maryland. "We’re beginning to get a response from all over America," Wanda told her. "I really have faith in the lesbian/gay nation. . . . We’re a mighty big family."

At another point, she likened their particular situation to that of Rosa Parks’ efforts in Birmingham. "We’ve joined [blacks] in the front seat of the bus," she said. "I think the history we are making here is real significant."

When reporter Maxwell asked about the pentagrams present in the camp, Brenda:

acknowledged that she "worships the goddess. I practice women’s spirituality." Wanda abruptly hung up the phone and jumped in: "We don’t want that to be printed, because what you are doing is setting us up to be attacked again."

Shortly after, Brenda acknowledged, "I believe in Mother Nature. . . . God is in everything–god or goddess, he or she, in all living things."

But the women appeared progressively irritated, and the interview ended soon after.

After more description, a summary was in order–and by this point the writer was not preaching at the reader but confirming what the reader now had seen: "The story of the lesbians and Christians of Ovett is about a clash, not only of cultures, but of fundamental religious beliefs: pagan nature and goddess worship against Christianity. . . ."

Interviewing
As the Ovett story shows, interviewing for directed reporting demands planning; the interview should not just be a fishing expedition but a search for specific information and insight. You should develop a particular line of questioning, depending on the intent of the article and should also ask some general questions that allow the interviewee to open up entirely new areas of which you may be unaware. Sometimes interviews can lead you in a direction very different from that you anticipated–but you still need to anticipate.

Planning for an interview starts with thinking about what an article should include, and what you need from the interview to make a story and fill in the gaps. Write down the information needed; structure questions accordingly. Think to yourself, The story is X, so I need Y. Remember that your goal in interviewing is not to be a megaphone for the interviewee but to get what you need to write your story. Know what you will ask: You are in charge of the interview.

While pushing hard for specific material, retain flexibility. Be prepared to change your theme if your initial assumptions appear incorrect. Be careful not to guide the interview overly much, and do not put words into the interviewee’s mouth. At the same time, guide the interview enough so that the interviewee will not neglect your theme.

With a reluctant interviewee, you may have to follow the information-eliciting techniques learned by parents: avoid questions that can be answered yes or no; encourage the recalcitrants to go further by asking, "And then? What happened next?" When stuck, ask five-W questions: "Who taught you that? What did you read that was influential? When? Where? Why?"

Whether you are interviewing a friend or a foe, follow the standard that is used for arms-control agreements: Trust, but verify. Remember that the interviewee is not God; nor is he a cockroach. If you have reason to suspect the interviewee’s honesty, ask some questions to which you already know the answers, and see if he is telling the truth. If he tells you something different from what you have heard, challenge. In any event, with anyone, do not believe everything you are told.

When concluding an interview, it is useful to lay down a marker by saying that a follow-up question may be needed; ask if you can call if something else is needed. The subject will agree, and will be prepared for another contact. You also should come away from the interview with printed material, when possible. Be a pack rat: Collect copies of speeches, articles, and books.

Although the following should go without saying, remember basic manners. Reporters have such a reputation for rudeness that you can win respect by not staying overly long, by saying thank you, and by not using a person’s first name unless invited to do so.

After the interview, you will want to record additional impressions immediately and then go to work trying to write a strong article by combining interview material with narrative, as in the following example.

Michael Farris says his wife gave him the best piece of advice 10 years ago. "It’s not just getting the words correct that’s important," Vickie Farris said. "It’s like singing a song. You have to have good words, but you also have to have a pleasing melody."

Farris, an outspoken and sometimes brassy evangelical Christian leader, used his pleasing melody last week to capture the Republican nomination and win the right to seek the office of Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor.

This does not mean that Farris–who became known for his work in representing Tennessee parents opposed to a public school reading series that included not only obnoxious material but also Cinderella and The Wizard of Oz–is a compromiser.

Mike Farris’ melody is uncompromisingly in harmony with his worldview. "All these politicians are saying ‘I am personally opposed to abortion but.’ I say, ‘I am personally opposed to abortion and.’ There is no dichotomy between what I personally believe and what I am going to take into action. I think a lot of people who are not necessarily coming from the same vantage point that I am like the fact that I am a straight shooter. What you see is what you get."

Having a pleasing melody does mean that Farris makes light of the opposition’s scare tactics, instead of angrily attacking them.

Farris–and court records back him up–says the case had to do with parental rights and religious freedom, not banning classics. . . . Farris zealously defended his position, but he did it with good humor and wit. One of his campaign stickers said, "I like Mike and Toto too." Videocassettes of Cinderella and The Wizard of Oz played during his hospitality party Friday night before the delegates were to vote at the party’s nominating convention in Richmond. All the speeches on Saturday ended with rousing music, but Farris’ speech was followed by a rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

Another way of using interview material is to take one person’s comments and let others react to them. Former Attorney General William Barr is an evangelical who now practices law and heads the First Freedom Coalition, a group that lobbies states to reform their prison systems. He says there are four purposes for a prison.

"The first and most important is incapacitation," he explains. "We’re separating the criminal from society, so he is unable to commit a crime. Second is retribution: exacting just punishment, which I think is one of the aspects of the criminal justice system that has been forgotten in this country. It needs to be reinforced that punishment serves an important purpose in and of itself. Third is deterrence. Finally, there’s rehabilitation, to the extent that’s possible."

The small group of inmates seated in the prison chapel listen as Barr’s analysis is read to them. Then they nod.

"There are some people in here–predators–who should be kept in," Eugene responds. "I agree with that. But it’s not as many as most people think."

Reporter Roy Maynard skillfully organized the comments so that they provided perspective on Barr’s four purposes.

Kenneth addresses retribution.

"That’s part of why there are prisons," he says, "but it’s a part that isn’t working. If it did, then crime wouldn’t continue as it does in here. Where’s the retribution? People can come in here and spend years at the domino table. They can work a little bit and they can go to the substance abuse counseling, but even that doesn’t require much from them. . . .

Rehabilitation, the men agreed, was almost non-existent.

"All the humanistic rehabilitation programs in the worldthe drug counseling, the job training–won’t give people a sense of value for life," says Mike. "Without a redirected value system, it doesn’t matter what vocational expertise people are given."

"I saw something the other day," Kenneth says after a pause. "I saw a guy give his radio to someone else as he was getting out. ‘Hold onto this for me,’ he told him. ‘I’ll be back.’ He’d been through all the rehabilitation programs, and he was laughing when he said he’d be back."

Some interviewees are not particularly personable, but you should avoid getting too friendly with those who are, or being influenced by the interviewee’s apparent friendliness. Some interviewees will push you to talk about yourself, but do not spend valuable time in that way: Turn the questions back on the interviewee. Some journalists advise interviewers to pretend to be on the interviewee’s side–but that, if you are not, is lying. Be a professional.* Do avoid off-the-record conversations. Never volunteer to go off the record; fight to stay on it, and, if necessary, explain your editor’s dislike for the practice. Off-the-record conversations may be necessary when a source’s health or job are in jeopardy, but remember that you are working for the readers, not carrying mail for the interviewee. Remember that you will have to tell readers the reason for going off-the-record with particular sources; a statement such as, "The source preferred to be off the record," does not wash. If necessary, indicate to the source how his comments may be used, without making a commitment.

When a source asks to go off the record, find out what he means by that: information to be used for your background only, information that can be used but not attributed at all, information that can be attributed not by name but to "a source in the xyz department," or what? Unattributed quotations that disparage a person are worthless, unless you have lots of on-the-record quotations saying similar things.

Attribution should be kept simple. For a short quotation, place the attribution at the end, on the grounds that what the speaker said is usually more important than the fact that he said it; if the opposite is true, put the attribution at the beginning. A long quotation should include an attribution in the middle, both to break it up and to let the reader know who is talking.

Distant Interviewing
Your sense of the story determines whom you need to interview, what you need from them, and whether you can do the interview by phone. Telephones should not be used, except in emergencies, for in-depth interviewing that attempts to get at character. In theory, interviews by phone should by used only for eliciting a comment on a particular issue or a particular item of information. But in practice, while longer stories almost always are reported on the scene, many short, breaking-news stories depend on reporting from afar–by "remote control." The key to writing such a story is persistent distant interviewing.

The problem with writing a story via telephone is that you are not in the field to observe–and yet, descriptive material and narrative telling what you have seen is vital for a story that is to have moving feet and not just talking heads. There is only one way out of the trap: You need to interview trustworthy people who can become your proxy eyes–and you need to elicit from them the type of specific detail that you could have seen had you been there. Here is how World used an interview with David Hooten, a missionary in Rwanda, who described how he and his wife had made it through a couple of roadblocks but saw trouble ahead:

"I slowed down, but there was no blockade. No logs or tree stumps or rocks like they normally use to stop you–except just the people, the mob was there. I forced my way with the vehicle through them. I did not want to stop in the middle of them because I had a pretty good idea what was happening. I tried and was able to get through them. I slowed down on the other side to see if I could get a sense as to what they were doing."

That pause could have cost the missionary and his wife their lives had they not been alert and able to keep going.

"Sure enough," he said, "they came charging after us. One guy got a hold of the side of my door. I had my window down. He hung onto it trying to get me to stop. The rest of the crowd came at us with machetes and clubs and different implements. . . ."

Hooten rammed the vehicle into gear and tore away from the crowd.

Such stories can also be told in narrative based on interviewing rather than through quotation.

A foreshadowing of what might be in store was recently played out on the streets in Johannesburg when thousands of Inkatha supporters marching with tribal shields and spears clashed with machine-gun-armed supporters of the African National Congress. . . . Brutal tribal fighting raged in the midst of Johannesburg’s gleaming skyscrapers. When the fighting ended, 53 lay dead and nearly 200 were wounded. The aftermath of this day of carnage brought new pleas for negotiation and compromise.

Some missionaries can be very helpful as foreign correspondents, but my point is: emphasize the importance of pushing for specific detail, which goes for everyday domestic reporting as well as international coverage. For example, when interviewing a young mother who has made the transition from salaried professional to full-time mom, do not settle for a vague statement from interviewee "Jennifer" that money is tight; probe for the concrete.

Jennifer says, "I buy store brands, I compare prices. When we buy a car, we’re not going to buy the Ford Explorer, which would be our vehicle of choice if we were both still working. Instead, we’ll go with a less expensive four-door domestic."

Your goal, in short, is to guide the interviewee to help you write your article. You need to come away from the interview with stories, anecdotes, and specific incidents: "I don’t go for Del Monte, I’ll get Pathmark on some things. I buy generic dishwasher detergent, generic baby-wash–I’ve found that generic corn-chips are okay, too." If the interviewee makes a generalization–"the church growth movement is counter- productive"–push him to talk about what he has seen or studied. If he says someone is generous, push for an anecdote that shows generosity. Remember: Specificity is felicity. Write truck, not vehicle; write Ford truck, not truck; write Ford Ranger, not Ford truck.

Always push the interviewee for descriptive information: What exactly did you see? What did he look like? Names, dates, times, colors, locations, ages, numbers. You want specific detail that allows the reader to see. If you do not have time to visit or are not allowed into a maximum-security prison, get a description from a trustworthy guard. If you are writing about an earthquake, get graphic description from someone who was there.

You also are looking for quotations within the narrative. If a person says, "I was worried, and I was praying," ask for specifics: "What were you praying? Were you praying out loud? What did you say?" Press for lively quotations. Push the interviewee to use metaphors or similes by asking, "What was it like"? If the subject has said something substantively interesting but in a bland way, rephrase the question and see if you can get a livelier response.

The etiquette of telephone interviewing often involves calling the interviewee to set up a time for questioning. When making such a request, do not say, "I’d like an interview." Instead, say, "I’d like to ask you about x, y, and z"; specify how much time you will need. If you are able to proceed directly to the interview, the best way to start is to explain quickly what your story is about and how the subject can help.

If you are interviewing by phone, write out your important questions in advance and refer to your list. (If you are doing an in-person interview, at least have a list of questions in your head; you should also have some written in your notebook so you can refer to them toward the end of the interview and be sure you have covered the essentials.) Either way, do not recite to your interviewee a list of questions; start with one, preferably an easy one. Then, avoid questions that can be answered yes or no; do not waste time; do not promise to publish the interview or any particular answers. Listen much, speak little; you do not want your interview to contain much of your own voice.

Taping
Reporters still debate the question of "to tape or not to tape." Tape recorders do have their disadvantages: They produce among some interviewees the wary-wording syndrome, and among others the dreaded oratorical tendency. Tape recorders can fail to work, so reporters even with tape recorders need to take some notes. Listening to and transcribing relevant parts of the interview takes a long time. (That time can be reduced if you have taken some notes during the interview so that you know when the best answers came.)

Nevertheless, recording allows you to concentrate on the subject instead of your notes; to make regular eye contact; to carry on a conversation rather than an inquisition; and to watch for body language and other nonverbal signs. Furthermore, people speak in distinctive ways that may get lost when in note taking the tendency is to translate them into your own idiom: Taping provides an accurate record of just how a person speaks.

Another practical side to taping is that not only can you check quotations, but people are also less likely to accuse you of misquotation. Tapes are also an important protection in a litigious age. Overall, you should tell your interviewees that you regularly tape, and then you should proceed to do so unless they object.* If you are not taping, you will have to develop some kind of reporter’s shorthand, such as jotting down the first letter or two of each word; then, if the comment is important and you need to fill in the words while you still remember, ask a filler question so you will have time to go back. Most reporters at the least turn words such as with into w.

Whether you are taping or not, do not worry about conversational pauses, unless you are interviewing someone for radio. When the in-person interviewee is not answering your question, just stare at him; eye contact helps to elicit response. Expectant silence is also helpful.

One of the striking aspects of the work of early Reformation-era reporters is that in adverse circumstances they took down speeches, with an accuracy praised by their contemporaries–without tape recorders. With the technology and the freedom God has given us, we are without excuse if we do not do at least as well.


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