Getting people to talk is what journalists are supposed to do, and the best journalists know exactly how to do it.

By Aidan Jones

Two Pulitzer Prize winning journalists shared how they get their best interviews during a presentation on interviewing techniques on the third day of the Global Investigative Journalism Conference being held at Wits University in Johannesburg.

“Establishing a rapport with your source is really important,” said Cheryl W. Thompson, an investigative journalist at The Washington Post. “One of the best ways to do this is to find common ground; this helps you win their trust.”

Thompson also emphasized the importance of preparation: “You are doomed if you don’t prepare by researching your topic beforehand.”

Thompson added that leading with tough questions is a deal-breaker and will almost inevitably prevent communication.

“It’s not about you [the journalist], it’s about them,” said Mark Schoofs, investigations editor at BuzzFeed News. “Your number one goal is to engage and get their version of the story, not to tick off your questions.”

Schoofs emphasized the importance of asking the right open-ended questions at the right time and in a polite manner.

“I’ve never really had any success by being aggressive in the way I ask questions,” he said.

Both speakers pointed out that effective questioning and rapport building needs to be balanced with the proper use of silence.

“Listening is one of the best attributes a journalist can have,” said Thompson, who quoted famed investigative journalist Bob Woodward’s statement that journalists should “let the silence suck out the truth.”

Schoofs explained that journalists should use the inevitable awkwardness created by silence to their advantage: “It’s going to be awkward, but you as the journalist have the advantage of knowing it is, so you can lean into it.”

The 10th Global Investigative Journalism Conference runs from the 16 through 19 November 2017.  Conference organisers said over 1 000 delegates from 130 countries are in attendance.