Comment: Why journalists should record every interview

Comment: Why journalists should record every interview

record interviews

Every year for the past five years I’ve taken groups of between 12 and 120 students studying for bachelor’s and master’s degrees and shown them a set of slides. It’s a whistle-stop tour of interviewing people as a journalist.

The slides have changed over the years, and are tweaked depending on the level of qualification I’m teaching at, but they have one key message: interviewing is really difficult.

By my count, there are at least 13 different things a journalist has to do at any one time during an interview – from ensuring they’re getting the basic information they need to build a story, to listening and reacting to what their interviewee is saying, to writing down and recording what is happening. Journalists also, I take pains to note, need to ensure they are actually acting as a human being engaged in a conversation – something I think we too often forget.

The number is an undercount: when I teach off the slides, I always end up adding more things to be aware of off the top of my head. All of which is to say interviewing is a really hard skill. But it’s vital: interviews are the building blocks of stories, and without conducting original journalism using interview skills, you don’t have a story (believe me: some of my students have tried).

‘Crucial to have an unimpeachable record’

It’s also a skill you get better at over time. No one is a perfect interviewer. I’m far from it. But I also know that it’s crucial to have an unimpeachable record of what was said in an interview, from notes and a recording.

That’s important because of another thing I teach my students. They’ll be complained about. It’s our duty to teach would-be or early-career journalists the reality of this profession. It’s why I stand in front of my students, show them any one of the charts outlining the trust in different professions, and journalists’ place near the bottom of them, and explain that in the UK, six in 10 people they vox pop will be answering their questions politely while thinking they’re liars and scum of the earth.

[Read more: Trust in UK news media boosted since pandemic but still lower than pre-EU referendum]

At some point in their career they will publish a quote from an interview that the interviewee claims is wrong. They will be asked to defend it. And because we’ve had nearly a decade of debate around “fake news” and media bias, the old-fashioned contemporaneous note in shorthand won’t cut it alone.

Which is why a viral tweet that ignited the journalism world angered me so much. Cindi Andrews, the editor of the Evansville Courier and Press, posted a “journalism tip of the day” advising reporters – “esp[ecially] new ones” – to stop recording most of their interviews. She said doing so was time-consuming and led to an over-reliance on quotes in stories.

A reporter’s notebook is a good way to quickly take key points from an interview, but can sometimes be written down incorrectly, or can act as an incomplete record of what happened in the interview. I know I’ve previously mistakenly written down a quote because I was busy trying to simultaneously ask the next question of an interviewee – and had to double-check the quote with an audio recording, correcting the error before publication.

Yet if we followed Andrews’s tip to the letter, that wouldn’t be possible. A misquotation would run without the opportunity to correct it. What the editor seems to have done is to diagnose a real issue – that early-career journalists often don’t listen enough in interviews – and proffer a solution that compounds the issue.

She also said that transcribing interviews slows down the reporting process too much – something I’ve never had an issue with as someone who has no shorthand, relies on longhand notes and transcribes interviews a lot. She appeared not to have heard of Otter, an automatic transcription service – which admittedly needs a wary eye for literals.

Advice like ‘using a sledgehammer to crack a nut’

Andrews was pilloried by everyone from freelances to established staff writers. She later tried to walk back the comments, but triggered a global debate about the merits of different ways of journalism.

“It’s the best of both worlds to be able to record stuff,” says Paul Wiltshire, course leader of the University of Gloucestershire’s NCTJ-accredited journalism programme.

Andrews’s advice, Wiltshire believes, “is a bit like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut”. While there are issues with young journalists and trainees not fully engaging with interviews, instead trusting the recorder to do the work for them and potentially missing a key follow-up, the solution isn’t necessarily to foreswear recording devices entirely.

“To suggest that we shouldn’t use recordings seems to me to be going into that battle for trust with at least one of our arms tied behind our back,” says Wiltshire.

It’s that issue that worries me the most about Andrews’s erroneous advice. We work in a world where interviewees are more willing than ever to try and push back against accurate quotes of their own words that they realise – in the cold light of day – portray them in a bad light.

I recently had a PR try to claim that the mention of a high-profile customer of the business their client represented had been made off the record partway during an interview. They alleged I had discussed taking the mention off the record, and had proactively agreed to it. They pursued this with my editor, and only backed down when I explained I had an audio recording of the entire interaction that showed that to be a lie. (That recording was also invaluable when my editor rightly asked questions about the interview.)

“I think there’s a perception that you could make up a note if you wanted to,” says David Banks, a media law trainer with more than 20 years’ experience. Forensic analysis of notes could disprove claims that contemporaneous interview notes were amended after the fact – but that would require taking a dispute to court, says Banks – when most squabbles over misreporting are settled long before then. Recordings, therefore, can quash uncertainty earlier on in the process.

‘Learning opportunity’ for early-career journalists

This is the bit of the story where you’d include comment from the person who started the conversation. I asked Cindi Andrews for an interview; she declined to speak. Michael McCarter, the managing editor for standards, ethics and inclusion at the USA Today group, which publishes the Evansville Courier and Press, did not respond to a request for comment.

As a practising journalist and a lecturer training the next generation of those entering our industry, I find it disappointing that someone is so willing to give bad advice that harms the standing of the media isn’t willing to defend her stance – or even debate its merits.

I’d have liked to ask Andrews whether she thought that by advising against recordings, she was treating the symptom of the issue – that journalists too often rely on copying and pasting in chunks of quotes into stories – rather than the root cause. I’d have been eager to understand whether she thought that an overreliance on quotes was less a failure of the act of reporting, and more a failure of writing and editing. I’d have liked to share experiences of the problem she’s evidently seen with her reporters, and the bad habits I try to identify and remediate in my students.

It’s doubly disappointing, given Andrews subsequently tweeted that she “was looking forward to a spirited discussion” about the issue.

There is good to come from all this, though. It’s a learning opportunity. In my next class, teaching undergraduates and postgraduates looking to enter the world of journalism, I’ll be able to point to Andrews’ tweet and explain why it’s wrong. I’ll be able to explain why it’s vitally important they record all their interviews and why, despite her protestations, it’s important to have an accurate record of everything said – even if it’s a story about when the cicadas will arrive, or a new restaurant opening, which Andrews hints are inconsequential enough to not matter about accuracy.

And hopefully my students will learn. Learn how to report and interview properly, and to steel yourself to enter an industry whose practitioners have never been more hated by the rest of the world. I also hope they’ll learn that even people with big titles can be catastrophically wrong – and often. And that they’ll think that of me, too.

Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance journalist and author of YouTubers (Canbury Press, 2019) and TikTok Boom (Canbury Press, 2021). He is a journalism lecturer at Newcastle University.

Main image Maotonfi/iStock

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1 thought on “Comment: Why journalists should record every interview”

  1. I would like to express my gratitude to Chris Stokel. It was very interesting and informative for me as a novice journalist and writer. I completely agree with the arguments in the article.

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