Molly Ball has covered politics for The Atlantic since 2011. Before that, she was a political reporter for POLITICO and the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Journalist’s Resource met with Ball recently to ask about her work and the process she uses for gathering information. During the conversation, she shared some great tips on interviewing political figures. Here are our favorites:
1 — Record the conversation while also taking notes by hand
Often, reporters take such complete notes during interviews that they won’t need to refer to a recording to write their story. But it’s a good idea to record interviews with political figures “as a backup,” Ball says. These recordings will come in handy when you need to double check something or defend a quote or fact used in your coverage.
Taping interviews also can help you fine-tune your interviewing skills. Go back and listen to the recording, paying attention to how you asked the questions. Note whether you asked the same ones repeatedly, using different words – a technique that can be useful but might not be the best use of the limited time you’ll likely have with a major political figure. “It’s valuable to hear yourself interview,” says Ball.
2 — It’s OK to ask “dumb” questions
Asking very basic questions can be helpful because it allows the person you’re interviewing to explain an issue or situation in his or her own words. Says Ball: “You can ask what might be a dumb question or [about] something they’ve already answered before and get new answers.”
3 — Don’t rush to fill the silence
When you’re interviewing a source, there will be lulls in the conversation. Ball’s advice is to hold off on asking another question or making a comment to fill the gap. When you allow a source room to speak (or when he or she feels the need to fill an awkward silence) they sometimes share valuable information. And when they start sharing, you’ll want them to keep going. Says Ball: “Let them fill the silence and take things where they want to go.”
4 — Don’t be quick to agree to rules
Before granting you an interview, political figures or members of their staff might try to set limits on the topics you can discuss. Ball warns against agreeing to such limits. “I wouldn’t accept any subject matter being ruled off in an interview,” she says.
5 — Make clear agreements about on/off the record comments
Before an interview begins, be clear about whether you’ll allow your source to make comments off the record. Public officials, especially those who work with reporters regularly, often will already understand that their statements are assumed to be on the record and useable for publication — unless a specific agreement has been made to allow some comments to be off the record. Never allow a source to suddenly claim at the end of the conversation that some parts of it were off the record. Says Ball: “Be confident enough to say ‘No, we didn’t agree to that.’”