One of the most important questions I ask during interviews 

Photo by Karen Elliott Edelson via Flickr.

When you’ve been a journalist for years, you develop rote patterns for many of your reporting activities — sites you always visit, online searches you always conduct (hopefully including background searches on sources), and questions you always ask during interviews. Interviews have long been my favorite aspect of reporting.

I’ve developed a long list of questions that guide me when I’m preparing for my next interview. But one question appears on every single list of prepared questions no matter who I’m talking to or what topic I’m covering: Is there anything else I should have asked you but didn’t that you want to address?

I can’t add up the number of times this question has been utterly crucial to my reporting. One instance completely changed my line of reporting and where I pitched the story, it was during an interview with a CDC official about a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which are usually as dry as it gets. (It’s difficult to get them to answer anything that’s not already printed in the study.) When I asked that question at the end of the interview, the answer extended the interview another 15 minutes. The source pointed out a racial disparity in care that I had overlooked, leading me to make that fact the central angle of my story and heavily influencing who my outside experts were.

Other times, this question has led to other interviews (I also always ask who else they recommend I speak to), sudden epiphanies about the story I’m working on, the perfect kicker quote or lead, the final piece I needed to click into place for a nut graf, tips that become follow-up stories, tips that become stories on completely different topics altogether, and even just a collegial, informal follow-up conversation that cements a new relationship with a potentially helpful ongoing source.

Many journalists have had similar experiences with this question, so I asked a few on social media to share how this question had affected their reporting. Below are some of their answers.   

” I use that question as my last in every interview. Often it allows the source to repeat something they’ve already said, but succinctly or in a way they wish they had said it on the first go. Usually, this leads to a much tighter quote I can use right after the ledge or nut graf.” — Jennifer Chesak

“I always ask this question at the end of an interview and I find that sometimes it opens the door to more vulnerability. This is when I often get to hear the details about something persona, I had not yet asked, like a struggle the source recently went through and wanted to share.” —Rachel Sarah

“One of my favorites was an outside source on a news story who said, ‘Well, nothing about the ants, but do you want to hear about this other thing I’m working on?’ It led to this story.” — Jyoti Madhusoodanan

“Just a couple of days ago an interviewee gave me a beautiful anecdote. Also, a patient gave me insight into language. I had thanked her for sharing her story, and she said that many patients don’t like that term [“story”] because it makes it seem like what they are saying could be embellished or untrue. I also have had people mention things that lead to future stories.” —Teresa Carr

” Back in the days of in-person interviews, before COVID, a few times I asked this question as I was packing up my things to leave. I quickly learned to stop doing that, because I missed the best quotes by turning off my tape recorder too soon.” — Julie Grisham

” I asked that question of a resource management person who’d spent his entire career fighting against tamarisk trees (an invasive species). He laughed and said, ‘Now that I’m retired, I use burls from tamarisk trees in woodcarving to make beautiful things.’ I ended up writing about that in my book “Mythical River,” and it was a key example of how even things we hate can end up being useful or beautiful.” — Melissa Sevigny

“Over 30 years of reporting, I have always asked this question. I always thought I did it because I lacked an all-inclusive knowledge of almost any topic I was writing about. Sometimes admitting you are not the expert allows the real experts to find their voice. I’ve often learned so much more than I ever could have with just the standard ‘who, what, where when and why’ outline.” — Robin Seaton Jefferson

What unexpected places have interviews taken you when you asked this question? We’d love to hear your stories.

Looking for interviewing tips? Check out the resources below.

 

3 thoughts on “One of the most important questions I ask during interviews 

  1. Dan Keller

    Here are some other questions to be used as appropriate:
    — What are some of the limitations of this study?
    — What would your critics say or question about this work?
    — To a patient or someone else giving a testimonial: Are you getting paid or
    compensated by XYZ company or institution?
    — Can you summarize the main message in a nutshell? Or if a piece for patients or
    the general public: In a nutshell, what would be you advice to XYZ?
    — May I get your disclosures?

  2. healthperformance

    Yes, I have long used that question. One of the best, especially when the interviewee has relaxed. (So use it earlier if you have questions that might tick off the interviewee.)
    Another good question is: “What would your critics point out?” or “How do you respond to critics of this work?” (Also, who else should I talk to… including those who don’t necessarily agree with you?” Not everyone will respond… but the good scientists will, because they understand the value of critical analysis.)

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