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Interviewing about the hard stuff

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by toolsofignorance, Nov 18, 2008.

  1. Here's a question for those older and wiser than moi. I'm working on a story right now about a player whose mom was recently diagnosed with MS. That's not solely what the story is about, but the focus is (potentially) going to be on the kid and his mom. I'm going to be talking to them both for the story and wanted your input on exactly how to broach the issue of the diagnosis. It's something their family took pretty hard, obviously, and it's still fairly fresh. Also is the added bonus that I've known this family for a few years now non-professionally (though we're only familiar, not BFFs), and I'm not quite sure how to balance the professional approach and the familiar sympathy.

    In some ways I think the mom might actually be easier from the emails we've exchanged because she seems pretty willing to be open in discussing it, but the kid is a rote quote machine (think Crash's lesson on dealing with the media in Bull Durham). While I've known him outside his sport, I've interviewed him professionally in the past and when we veered from talk of said sport to the more personal stuff, he tended to shut down at once.

    This is my first time really dealing with a touchy subject like this and I want to make sure I do it right. I figured this sort of advice would be useful in the future as well, hence the broader topic subject. Suggestions?
  2. CentralIllinoisan

    CentralIllinoisan Active Member

    Get the two together in a relaxed setting and have a digital recorder between you all. With mom there, he might be more willing to open up ... especially if you let her lead discussion or ask questions of him.
  3. Tom Petty

    Tom Petty Guest

    look them in the eye.
  4. jps

    jps Active Member

    yeah ... I'd be in their living room. familiar, comfortable ... easier to feel relaxed there.
  5. Cadet

    Cadet Guest

    The good news is you know them, so they'll be more comfortable with you. The bad news is because they know you, I'm sure you feel extra pressure not to screw it up.

    The best way to not screw it up is to make sure you show compassion. Yes, you have to be professional, but don't think you have to be so professional and objective that you have to be detached. If they invite you to their home, go. If they offer you an iced tea, accept. If there's a way you can relate, do so without shifting the focus of the conversation. ("My grandmother had MS, so I know how tough it can be. What treatments have your doctors prescribed?")

    As suggested, get them together. Try starting out the conversation with general statements and see if they follow. "Tell me about your last few months" or "explain a little about MS" might be all you need to open the floodgates, then just pipe in with follow-up questions like "who takes you to therapy?" or whatever. If the kid isn't participating, ask him pointed questions like "Jimmy, have you ever taken your mom to therapy? What's that like for you?" If the kid still isn't talking, ask mom about him ... "So, mom, how does Jimmy handle it when he has to watch you at therapy?"

    Good luck.
  6. ink-stained wretch

    ink-stained wretch Active Member

    1. What do you know about MS? You'll need more than a passing knowledge to ask the right questions.

    2. "How does it feel …?" is a question best left to TV people for a meaningless sound bite. In the course of your conversation, they will tell you in a nuanced and authentic way.

    3. Don't ask questions that can be answered yes or no.

    4. Don't be too quick with follow up questions. Let there be some silence. People always want to fill the silence. Let them. That's where the gold is. Count to 10 if it helps before asking a follow up.

    5. Be direct. Don't pussyfoot around a chronic condition.

    6. Start by asking questions you know the answers to — here's where your research is critical. People lie, even sick people.

    7. Once you've written the story, go back and take out every adjective and adverb you've written. The facts speak louder. Drama and emotion will come from their mouths not your pen.
  7. very good advice so far

    i'd add this -- when asking tough questions in general, don't beat around the bush, don't stammer, don't hint at the question. just ask it.
  8. I Digress

    I Digress Guest

    I agree with Write. If they've agreed to be interviewed, they know you're going to ask about it and there are a lot of people who 'like' talking about the hard things in their lives. Doesn't make it easy, but they see value in telling their own story, so that it might be a help to someone else. And if there are tears, don't be embarrassed or pushy. Let it play out. Keep interviewing. It's gold.
  9. EE94

    EE94 Guest

    you might be surprised at how well people handle these things, especially if they've educated themselves on it.
    Having people acknowledge it makes it seem less threatening than "something we dare not mention"
    Obviously you have to gauge their responses as you go, but be confident when asking the questions.
  10. You nailed it, Cadet.

    Thank you all for the great advice. Ink, the answer to your question on how much I know about MS is "not much," aside from the general. Which is why researching the disease is my main priority before the interview.

    Some good stuff here. Thanks, all.
  11. accguy

    accguy Member

    All good stuff. I would, however, give them a few other questions first to get them warmed up. Get them going and it shouldn't be too tough to keep them going.

    In cases like this, I tend to use things like, "What do you remember about the day blah, blah blah." Get them talking and see what they offer up without much prodding. Then follow up on areas from there.

    The good thing about interviews like this is that it's not like you're trying to squeeze it in before practice or while trying to make deadline after a game.
  12. Ace

    Ace Well-Known Member

    This could be a tough story. I wonder what you are thinking the angle will be.

    You say it's a "kid" and his mom. So I don't know if you are talking high school or college or what. A younger kid may not really know how to react.

    And if this is a recent diagnosis, I don't think they really know what to expect or how things may change.

    MS is a chronic disease from what I know and may manifest slowly over time.

    So I would try to hone in and get very specific. Asking broad questions like "Where do you go from here? How did you feel when your mom told you?" Are probably not going to get very good responses.

    I would try to get very specific. To the mom. What was going on with you that made you think something was wrong? (Maybe she could barely walk up the steps or had trouble playing piano, whatever).

    What has changed already in the family?

    "A lot," he said.

    That doesn't really mean that much. (If you say that the kid leaves practice early to drive his mom to a doctor's appointment, for example, that's something the reader can latch onto.)

    So hone in on those things and ask for examples.

    Ask about specific things they are doing differently, relating differently, etc., and don't fixate on just getting a bunch of great quotes.

    Good luck.
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