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Words of Wisdom

Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them.

— Flannery O'Connor

December 2009

MEGHAN: Howdy Ags and welcome back to “Write Right.” We are here with Dale Rice, the director of Journalism Studies here at Texas A&M University.  In our last episode Mr. Rice discussed Feature vs. Hard News Writing. Today we are talking to him about how to approach sensitive and difficult interviews. First I asked Mr. Rice to describe a time when he faced a difficult interview.

DALE RICE: Another reporter and I were examining an old murder case, and we went into it just wanting to kind of understand how this murder had happened. And we had been in the town only a few hours when the county judge took us into his office, shut the door, and said, ‘are you staying in a motel here?’ And we said ‘yes,’ and he said, ‘it’s not safe; you better go up the highway fifty, sixty, seventy miles; don’t stay in this town.’  It’s like ‘whoa,’ there must be something more in this murder case than meets the eye, and it turned out there was a whole lot more. It turned out that the town was happy to hang the crime on a poor guy and his mentally retarded brother while the sons of many of the more well to do people in town may have in fact been involved in a gang rape and ultimately the murder of the victim. And when you begin talking to people about a several year old murder and asking those kinds of questions, those sorts of things are really really sensitive, and you have to prepare well and really understand what you’re going for and be ready to adapt any time you get a tiny little piece of new information, be ready to explore that.

MEGHAN: What types of sensitive or difficult interviews might a journalist face?

DALE RICE:  Well I think there are lots of sensitive subjects for interviews and lots of difficult interviews; you can have a difficult interview on the most innocuous subject just because the person is just really difficult. On the other hand you can also face great difficulty with sensitive issues. I think some of the most sensitive things that you end up doing, you realize, aren’t nearly as difficult. The first time I had to call whose loved one had just died in a terrible accident; and I thought, oh, I can’t believe I’m having to do this. And I discovered the person who answered the phone is the person who may be a friend or relative who is upset yes but is not distraught. And another thing I discovered, in a tough situation like that is, many people find it very cathartic to talk about the person that they just lost unexpectedly and they are really happy to be able frame the way memory of that person is going to be, is going to appear, to tell you what a wonderful grandmother the person was, or what a wonderful son he was; they’re often willing to give you lots of detail. And also, I think the ones that are much more difficult, much more sensitive are when you are really doing investigative work and when you are looking to get people to reveal information that they may not want to reveal.

MEGHAN: How do you confront someone on a sensitive or difficult subject like that?

DALE RICE: I think the way that you have to confront people in investigative pieces with sensitive information is to initially make them feel at ease in the interview, so rather than being confrontational and probing about the most difficult things, you start by asking far more innocuous questions. And you slowly build up so the subject gets at ease talking about things and so perhaps they’ll be less on guard if you move into the more difficult stuff, the more sensitive kinds of things you want to find out. Those I think are not nearly as sensitive as the kinds of things I would say are like the family issues stories. There are a whole lot of stories that you can be out there working on that involve situations where families are going through difficulties, and it’s not to say that a death is not a difficult issue but it may not have the same kind of sensitive aspect as let’s say an unwanted pregnancy might have or things that deal with the way in which people are going to perceive you within the community. And those kinds of  things, whenever things begin to involve or bring into issue the morality of the community or of a family, those are the things that get really sensitive, that people get really upset about. And I think those are the kinds of things that you have to follow the exact same principle; you start off asking the more innocuous questions, and then as you move into asking the difficult ones, you may even have to apologize and say ‘I really hate to ask you this but I feel obliged,’ and then ask them the tough question.

MEGHAN: How would you approach someone on the street and question them about a condition they have, whether it be, for example, pregnancy or a physical disability, without offending them?

DALE: Oh then I would just simply go up to somebody and say ‘I’m going to apologize right up front if I’m being offensive because that is not my intention at all, but I couldn’t help but notice this certain situation, and I’m writing a piece on the subject and I’m just wondering whether you would willing at all to talk about your experiences?’  So you give them the perfect avenue to say, ‘no I can’t talk to you at all,’ but you also by letting them know that you’re not intending to be offensive, you’re not intending to put them on the spot, you’re giving them an exit but at the same time you’re letting them know that you would love to engage them on the topic if they would consider it. That usually opens the doors; I would say that 95-percent of the time, when I’ve had to do that kind of thing, the person has agreed to the interview. Only rarely have I had someone turn around and say ‘no I’m sorry I just can’t talk about it’ or ‘’I just don’t want to.’ Occasionally that happens and you have to be understanding.

MEGHAN: It can be difficult to approach a stranger and question them about the most personal aspects of their life, but as Dale Rice points out it can be done. The key is to approach the prospective interviewee in a professional and respectful way and kindly ask them if they would be interested in helping you with your story. In the interview, you should always start by asking less serious questions and move to the more in-depth questions, as the interviewee becomes more comfortable. As you become more confident as a journalist and focused in your questioning this process will become easier. For more information about writing for journalism, check out our other interviews with Dale Rice on our website at And stay tuned for our next episode where Dale Rice will discuss the use of technology in journalism. Thanks for listening to this episode of “Write Right,” we’ll see you next time.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute The University Writing Center, Texas A&M University.

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