Interviewing adults

Photo: Marko Verch via Flickr

by Leah Samuel

Good journalists look beyond the people and places closest to them to discover more stories to tell. Your school community is bigger than the building and kids in it. You’ve got teachers, administrators and other workers in your school, as well as parents, volunteers and others with ideas, points of view and stories for the kids in your audience.

But getting older people to give you their time, attention and thoughts can be challenging. Meet that challenge by being prepared.

Dress well

When dealing with adults, it helps to look like one. But you don’t need to dress like you’re going to a job interview. Wear your school uniform, if you have one and want wear it. If not, let the school dress code be your guide — nothing too tight or revealing, like shorts, tank tops, leggings or miniskirts. The key is to be comfortable, appropriate and somewhat professional. As a high school student, you can probably get away with casual stuff like jeans. But skip the ripped ones, along with hoodies and clothes with words across your chest or your butt.

Go to them

Meet face to face, in their space. Take the time to go to where they are. Get written permission from your parents and teacher if you have to go off campus. If someone’s job makes them relevant to the story you’re reporting, then it’s good to see where they do that job. If that’s not possible or necessary, meet them at a public place that’s convenient for them.

Avoid meeting adults at their homes. Most of them won’t ask you to do that, anyway. But if they do, ask why, and discuss it with your teacher. If you must visit an adult source at home, take someone with you. But discuss it with your teacher or parents first.

Be attentive

Unless you’re using it to record video or audio, silence your phone. And leave it in your backpack, or a least power it down. You’ll be less tempted to look at it, and you won’t be suddenly distracted by the phone vibrating in your pocket or buzzing on the table. People long out of high school often assume that teens are constantly on Snapchat or their favorite social media. Don’t let them. Keep your eyes on their eyes. If that feels weird, look at their eyebrows, or the bridge of their nose. Or lower your eyes and nod at the; it makes you look like your thinking about what they’re saying. Smile at their corny jokes, ask them to repeat anything that seems unclear.

Use a pen

Take notes with a notebook — the kind with paper in it. Yeah, it’s old-school, but it works well and it’s not as distracting as a tablet or laptop. And batteries die. So, actively take notes, writing down most of what they tell you, even if you are already recording it in some way. Don’t worry, only the most important and interesting things they say need to be written exactly as they said it. For the rest you can use abbreviations or shorthand. Continuously scribbling makes you look like you’re focused on their every word. And it gives your eyes and hands something to do if you’re nervous.

Be polite

It’s okay to feel intimidated. You know that lot of adults can be judgmental or dismissive with teens. But be polite even if they’re not. Don’t use their first name without permission. Thank them for their time. It will help them relax with you, and you with them.

Ask your questions, even the tough ones. Ask again if they don’t give you a clear answer. That said, don’t be a jerk. Listen to why they are reluctant to respond. Then explain why you are asking the question, and how it helps your story. Then wait.

Be patient

When you’re asking for basic facts like names, jobs and how long they’ve been working somewhere, you’ll probably run right through those questions. But then there are the questions that require some thought — their opinion on an issue, their memory of an event, that question they really don’t want to answer. So ask. Then Stop. And. Wait. Keep in mind that by the time most people hit 25 or 30 years of age, they often don’t think as quickly as you do. Give them time to answer. Let your source think about their response. Yeah, silence can be awkward and nerve wracking. But they might fill it with something interesting, if you let them.

Be respectful

Keep in mind that many teachers prefer to keep their lives separate from school. Respect that by not being too specific about where they live unless they permit it. Otherwise, just write, “near northwest Boston,” or “several blocks from Fenway Park.” And don’t disclose where they hang out without permission. You can just call it “her favorite cafe,” or “the gym he goes to.” Or interview them at a place they would recommend to students, like a museum or nature trail, and ask them talk about show you why they like it.