It's my story: helping care-experienced young people give effective media interviews
Brush up your knowledge of the media
You probably know a lot more about the media than you think. If you watch television or listen to the radio then you are regularly listening to people giving interviews. As a ‘consumer’ of these interviews you no doubt form opinions of the content, style of interview and the personality of the interviewer and interviewee. You probably do this on a fairly subconscious level most of the time – although there are some times when a pushy interviewer or a very evasive interviewee makes you more aware of the process.
To prepare for training young people to give more effective interviews, it can be very helpful to start listening to all interviews in a new way. Do this with a range of interviews – not just the heavy-end political interviews (although there is a lot to be learnt from these about techniques). Listen as well to local radio interviews and interviews on television where a specialist, academic, sports person, celebrity or member of the public is being interviewed.
Whenever you hear someone being interviewed, ask yourself some of the following questions:
About the interview generally
- What is the purpose of this interview: for entertainment, to convey factual information, to put across a strong political argument, to convey powerful emotions ...?
- What is the ‘pace’ of this interview – in other words, are the people involved speaking fairly fast and in a punchy manner, or is the feel more laid back, with people speaking more slowly?
- What are the key points being made? Ask yourself: how might I explain these to someone in a text?
About the interviewee
- What’s my general impression of the person being interviewed?
- Do I warm to this person or find myself indifferent, or even slightly repelled by them?
- How much of my response is based on the person’s argument and opinions? And how much is based on aspects of their personality such as the tone of their voice, the clothes they are wearing or their body language?
- What techniques – if any – is this person using to get me on their side?
- How well do I think this person is responding to the questions that are being put to them?
- How much is the person actually answering the questions posed by the interviewer?
- How in control of their argument does this person seem?
- If I were in this person’s shoes would I do something differently?
About the interviewer
- What angle is the interviewer approaching this from?
- What do I think they are trying to get from this interview – answers to key questions? Interesting, entertaining or emotional responses?
- How does the interviewer pursue their aim? Are they pushy or confrontational to get answers from politicians, friendly and encouraging to help a nervous charity representative get their point across, relaxed and jokey to establish a bit of banter?
- Has the interviewer chosen the best style to get the most out of the interviewee from the audience’s point of view?
- Do I feel more or less sympathetic to the person being interviewed – or their point of view – because of the way the interviewer has behaved?
Key information about the media
In the accompanying training materials there are some exercises that will help young people to think about this topic. To be several steps ahead of them, so you feel more comfortable in answering questions, it is helpful to brush up on some key facts about the media. First some terms:
- Broadcast media is the term used for television and radio.
- Print media is the term used for newspapers, magazines and newsletters.
- Tabloid is used to describe the smaller size newspapers that traditionally contain more scandal, celebrity news, sports and personal stories. These include ‘The Sun’, ‘The Mirror’ and ‘The Mail’. (You may also hear the term ‘red tops’, which refers to the more extreme of these, because they have their front page heading in red, for example ‘The Sun’)
- The term ‘tabloids’ is also sometimes used to describe television channels or programmes which focus on scandal, celebrities and so on.
- Broadsheet is generally used to describe the more serious newspapers, which contain more world news, in-depth political issues and comment. (The term refers to the traditional larger size of these papers, but some broadsheets are now also produced in smaller formats, similar to tabloids, so size is no longer the determining factor.)
- New media refers to websites, chat rooms, blogs and ‘social networking’ (Bebo, MySpace, Facebook, for example).
- Together with websites, blogs (online columns) and podcasts (downloadable audio programmes) are becoming widespread and you may find that some specialist social care magazines and newspapers offer opportunities for young people to express their views online.
- National media – television, radio and newspapers – covers stories that are considered to be of national interest, even if they relate to local events. (You will often also hear the term network coverage relating to radio and TV: this means UK-wide, where ‘national’ is used to mean a specific country within the UK.)
- Local newspapers and local radio cover stories of interest to local people. They always look for a local angle on a national story and want to interview people who live or work in the city, town or village they cover.
- Regional television covers issues relating to the region its broadcasts cover. At the end of national news you often hear the newsreader say something like: ‘And now over to the news where you live’ and it switches over to different presenters in a different, regional studio. Regional does not always mean local, however: see below.
- Some stories start at a national level and are then picked up by local media and given a local angle. But some stories start at a local level and are then picked up by national news.
- Regional coverage is determined by transmitters and commercial licences. This may mean that the base and sphere of interest of your regional station may not be very local at all, or that your nearest large town is covered by a different region. Check that an interview on a regional station is going to reach the people you want it to.
- Often with television and radio, the person who researches the story is not the person who does the interview
- Different media have different news values – generally tabloids and channels like Sky and Channel Five are more interested in celebrities than world news. Radio 4, BBC 2 and broadsheet newspapers are more likely to cover in-depth stories about world news, finance, politics and so on.
The differences between broadcast and print
There are differences between giving interviews to radio, television and print media. Most of the differences are more for the journalist/broadcaster to worry about, than for the person who is being interviewed. Someone who develops the confidence to handle radio and television interviews will feel more comfortable about giving interviews to print journalists, because these are usually considered much less nerve-racking. However, the essential differences are:
With radio and television interviews, tone of voice, body posture and body language are always important. If someone is frowning or slumped in their chair this will come across to the viewers – whether or not they can see the person. You can hear someone ‘smiling’ on the radio. So for interviews for radio and television it is important that you help the young person to think about how they will come across. Their presentation may be as important as the actual messages they give. A great message can be damaged if it is given by someone who looks shifty and mumbles. Equally a rather dull message can sound interesting if it is delivered with enthusiasm. An interviewee can help get a message across by looking or sounding confident, warm and approachable, and not so nervous or hostile that the viewer/listener switches off to what they are saying.
Timing is also key with radio and television interviews. Most interviews, whether live or pre-recorded, are quite short, often only a couple of minutes long. (Even if the journalist has spent 20 minutes interviewing someone they will probably still only use a very small portion of the final interview.) So it is important that the person who gives a radio or TV interview is able to make their point clearly and concisely
Although there are many similarities between what makes a good radio or TV interviewee, some people seem to be naturally better at TV than radio and vice versa. This is probably because some people feel more/less comfortable in front of a camera. Also, some people may also have expressive faces but less expressive voices, which means they work fine on TV but are not so good for radio. Sometimes there seems to be no clear reason – a person who struggles with radio interviews suddenly blossoms on camera, and nobody is sure why. But these things are hard to predict without giving someone the experience to find out what suits them best.
In print what the person says is more important than the way they say it. So someone who takes time to ‘warm up’ in an interview situation or is less confident about speaking on air may be more comfortable giving an interview to a journalist. Some people are great at explaining things over the telephone or face-to-face but put them on air and they are very ill at ease. Many organisations have specialists who give great interviews to print journalists but never appear on radio or TV.
Never assume that just because a young person is good at speaking to print journalists that they will necessarily enjoy or be good at giving interviews to broadcast media. The other way round is usually safer, because if someone can speak calmly and succinctly on TV or radio, they will probably be fine talking to a journalist over the phone.
(It is worth remembering that although young people are often more anxious about giving interviews to broadcast journalists, they actually have more control in a live TV or radio interview than in an interview with a print journalist. When you are live on air nobody can edit what you say, but print journalists have to select a few sentences from a much longer interview.)
Whatever type of interview a young person is giving, the key to a good interview is always good preparation.
News and features
- A story about hostages being released is News. A story about how the hostages’ families have coped with their absence is likely to be Features.
- Features is the term used for more in-depth coverage of issues. Features may relate to a current news story or they may be about something more timeless. (Sunday supplements are full of features – in-depth articles about what it is like to live in a country a decade after the war ended, an exploration of a fascinating murder or political mystery from 50 years ago that has never been solved.)
- Newspapers and magazines often have separate News and Features departments and if you phone them they will often ask you: ‘Do you want News or Features?’
- In television and radio the distinction isn’t quite so clear to the outsider. But, for example, documentaries can be considered to be features, as can daily chat shows which do interviews about a range of topics that don’t necessarily relate to the big news story of the day.
- News is immediate – it changes all the time as old news stories are replaced by new news stories.
- ‘Breaking stories’ are the freshest, newest news – you usually find them on the front page of the paper, in the news headlines or running across the bottom of your television screen in a ‘ticker’.
- News staff work to incredibly tight deadlines – they are frequently expected to cover lots of different stories in one day and they often don’t have time to get a great deal of detail about a story.
- Journalists working on news programmes need to speak to people straight away – tomorrow is usually too late.
- Staff who work on news are usually found on the news desk rather than in any other department of a television or radio station or newspaper office.
- Sometimes very big stories and ‘breaking news’ push out other stories – the 9/11 story, Princess Diana’s death, the invasion of Iraq, took over almost all of the news channels and newspaper pages, and many smaller stories already written or filmed were dropped as a result.
Get some first-hand experience
If you have the opportunity to visit your local radio or TV station then take it! You can learn a lot about how journalists work from watching a station in action. For example, you will see the pressure journalists work under to keep everything running to time and you will probably be surprised at how small and under-staffed many local radio stations are.
A visit to your local newspaper may also be useful but it won’t be quite so exciting – and they may be too short-staffed to agree to this. Many local newspapers are run by just a handful of people using freelance photographers. If your local newspaper tells you they are too busy to speak to you or attend your event, they are probably telling the truth!
Get a real journalist involved
If you are able to invite a journalist from a local station along to talk to and interview the young people you work with, or even to do some interview practice with the young people, that will offer a valuable opportunity. Young people will see that journalists don’t have two heads. Also, interviewing for TV and radio is a skill and not everyone has a natural flair for this. A trained media professional will be able to provide a more realistic and probably more supportive experience for the young people. A trained interviewer is also in a better position to give helpful feedback and tips about getting their point of view across.