Asking questions

We need to interview people to carry out our work as journalists.

But interviewing people can be scary at first, so it’s good to have a plan.

Firstly, do your research and make sure you’re interviewing the right person. It’s surprising how even experienced journalists can end up talking to the wrong person.

Once you’ve found the right person, there’s a simple fall-back you can rely on to get you going when you interview them.

People sometimes call them the Geography questions. That’s because they’re like a map to lead you through an interview. There are hundreds of questions you can ask in any interview, but these are the core, basic ones.

Photo by Lorenzo on

Understanding the geography questions and then getting confident in asking them is one of the most important pieces of learning on the course.

It’s important to realise that the answers to these questions will not only provide soundbites — they will also help you to write your scripts.

The Geography questions are:

How much?
What next?

Imagine you are going to interview somebody. You will want to know WHO? they are. But WHO is actually a big question.
* Obviously, you already know their name. But have you checked how you spell it? Note we always ask for and use full names. Tony O’Shaughnessy — not just Tony.
* It is also often useful to know what the person’s job or job title is. Depending on the story, it might be useful to know how long they’ve been doing their job.
* There are times when it can be relevant to the story to know the person’s age (normally this is just around stories involving younger or older people).
* You might want to ask things like how many kids they have, depending on the story.
So you can see, the WHO question is actually much more than simply somebody’s name.

Next you need to find out WHAT? they have done, or WHAT has happened to them, or WHAT they are unhappy about, or WHAT their biggest challenge or problem is etc etc.

You may need to ask WHERE? the story is happening. For Cardiff News Plus, you can’t simply say “Cardiff” — you will normally need to be more precise — eg. Llandaff, or Roath.

Most of our stories are “today” stories — but it may be relevant to ask the WHEN question — e.g. “When did the problem start…?

The HOW? question is sometimes useful — e.g. “How did that happen?”

Think of the HOW MUCH? question as the “numbers” question. Stories always involve numbers and quantities of some kind or another. Make sure you get the details. Some examples: “How many people work here?” “How much does it cost?” “How long has your shop been closed?”

Finally, the WHAT NEXT? question. There is always a WHAT NEXT question because stories don’t stand still. They are always moving forward and changing.

Understanding the Geography Questions and being confident enough to ask them all the time is a massive step in becoming a journalist.

Of course, you also need to be careful about believing what people tell you.

“Trust but verify” is an old Russian proverb and I think it’s good advice for interviews. Always remember that people may give you incorrect information — either deliberately or accidentally. Checking anything that might be disputed is vitally important for journalists.

If a contributor tells you she has three children, you don’t need to check that.

But alternatively imagine you are doing a story about a factory closure. A worker tells you 150 people are losing their jobs. Would you check that figure? Who with?

Or you come across this scene in Cardiff city centre.

There has been an outbreak of violence late on a Saturday night. A member of the public tells you two people have been stabbed and died. Would you tweet that? Or would you check it? Who with?

Finally if you can’t confirm some information, your safety valve is always attribution — or making it clear that it’s not you who is saying something. This is one of the reasons “say/says” is such a useful word. “Union officials say 150 people will lose their jobs.”

Look at this story and imagine you have booked the lead researcher of this project onto a radio news programme tomorrow. Work in your group and decide what questions you think the presenter should ask? One person from the group mail them to me by 18:00 on Thursday.