Narrative Requires Conversations, Not Interviews

By Gorman, Kathleen; Hallman, Tom, Jr. | The Quill, May 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Narrative Requires Conversations, Not Interviews


Gorman, Kathleen, Hallman, Tom, Jr., The Quill


In earlier columns, we focused on how a story rises or falls on the strength of the reporting. And unless you're doing a computer-assisted project and strictly digging up data and crunching numbers, reporting always will be dependent on an interview with another person.

Every writer and editor in the business is comfortable with the news interview. We learned how to conduct them for the college paper, and as we moved through the newspaper ranks we refined our skills. These are interviews with school officials, city councilmen and the public information officers who front for various bureaucratic agencies. These are straightforward interviews that focus on the building blocks of a news story: Who, what, where, when and how. The ground rules are clear and simple, and the person being interviewed always has had experience dealing with reporters.

But the type of interview needed to produce even the most rudimentary narrative story requires a different way of thinking. Many editors aren't familiar with these types of interviews because they've never had to conduct them. The most common misconception too many editors have is that these interviews are just extended news interviews with feature-reporting techniques added to the mix.

These narrative interviews always work on several levels. A connection - and not just an intellectual connection - must be made. Sometimes the connection is brief. Other times, it can last over several months. But a relationship must be established. Without it, there can't be a meaningful interview. Without the interview, there won't be anything for the notebook.

Editors and reporters about to make the leap to narrative need to remind themselves that there is no good reason for the person to talk with you. A public information officer has an obligation to. Most politicians love to get their name in the paper. But the person who agrees to sit down with a reporter for a narrative interview gains nothing. For the most part, they have no experience with the press. And here you come along, asking them to share the most intimate details of their life. How they felt. What they were doing on that particular day. You ask them to share their hopes and dreams, their fears and desires. You're asking them to share what is most precious about themselves - their heart. If the subject doesn't trust you, doesn't like you, doesn't feel that connection, there is no way they will open up and give you what you need for your story.

These are not interviews in the traditional sense. They start with gaining access to a person's life. And the way to do that is to be yourself, be truly curious and open to letting the story take you where it wants to take you. It sounds simple, but some reporters hurt themselves when they come to an interview with preconceived stories or structures handed to them by editors who have never left the newsroom. …

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