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What If Your Interview Subjects Don’t Want to Talk: Ken Kobre’s Advice on Conducting Interviews for Videojournalists and Documentarians

What If Your Interview Subjects Don't Want to Talk: Ken Kobre's Advice on Conducting Interviews for Videojournalists and Documentarians

Ken Kobré is the author of the widest-selling text on photojournalism “Photojournalism: The Professionals’ Approach,” (Focal Press-Elsevier 1980) and is also the head of photojournalism at San Francisco State University.

He is also the inventor of the Lightscoop, a universally acclaimed camera accessory that improves pop-up flash photographs. Ken also has an active freelance career that has included Newsweek, Time, and The New York Times.

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 11 of his newest book, “Videojournalism: Multimedia Storytelling” written by contributor and celebrated journalist Jerry Lazar. The new book includes advice on what to do if your subject refuses the interview. The goal of the book is to offer videojournalists lessons in shooting, editing, producing, and distributing their own videos.

>The book can be purchased at Amazon and other retailers.

The following excerpt has been provided by Focal Press.


Thoughtful interviews are well planned. Planning means contacting your subjects, explaining your story and why you need their input. It also requires detailing who your story is for and how and where it will be used. Good preparation also demands you arrange a mutually suitable time and place for the interview. And it means preparing questions that will elicit the most informative and engaging responses. Never just show up on someone’s doorstep unannounced, expecting a thoughtful and cooperative subject to be waiting for you.

There’s no need to go into exhaustive detail in your initial contact. You want to offer just enough information so your subject will be prepared for the interview, but won’t give them the opportunity to rehearse responses. Offer general areas of conversation you’ll be exploring, but don’t provide a list of specific questions, as that will ruin any chance for spontaneity.

Choose a time and location that will provide minimal distraction and noise. Ideally, you can shoot your subject in his or her “natural habitat”—at work or at home, or in a location that’s appropriate for the story itself. Make sure to schedule enough time—and remember to include time for setting up your location for recording optimal audio and video.

You don’t want to be rushed. Depending on the nature and complexity of your story, you may need to make multiple visits, at a variety of locations—especially if you’re following a process over a period of time. Or things can
become more complicated as you unearth new information that requires an on-camera response or rebuttal from other sources. Let the subject know that.

How much time should you request for your interview? That really depends on too many factors for us to generalize. TV news reporters are accustomed to getting in and out fast. They have frequent and rigid deadlines to meet and they know that only a short sound bite—a telling comment or observation extracted from a longer interview—will be used for their minute-long story. They realize there is no point in burdening the editor (most likely themselves) with wading through a half-hour conversation for the “money” quote. Instead, they fire off three quick questions, and they’re good to go.

Videojournalists face fewer such constraints. But at the same time, busy audiences do expect and appreciate economy. Even though stories can be told more expansively, nobody has the patience to sit through rambling monologues, especially when so many other online distractions beckon.


If someone does not want to be interviewed, that’s certainly his or her right. Plenty of people are wary of strangers in general and journalists in particular. Even a public official is not obligated to grant an interview. But if a source is important to your story, here are some tips for enticing him or her to cooperate:

• Don’t use the word “interview”—it can be off-putting. Say you’d like to talk or chat. It sounds less intimidating. (But be clear that your conversation will be on camera.)

• Like a good salesperson, try to intuit what’s causing the resistance and overcome specific objections by anticipating and accommodating the person’s concerns.

• If it’s a question of the person not having enough time right then, offer a more convenient time or place—perhaps in the person’s car on the way to work.

• If someone is afraid of looking bad or sounding stupid, explain why his or her perspective is so vital and necessary for your story.

• If the person claims to have nothing to say, reiterate the information you are seeking. If he or she still feels uncomfortable, at least ask for suggestions of other possible sources.

• If you’re having trouble getting access to a source, particularly one in an official capacity who may be surrounded by protective underlings, be persistent. Call, write, email, or just show up. Find a mutual acquaintance (or another source) to serve as intermediary.

• Be clear that the story will be told with or without the person’s cooperation—and so to be fair, you want to provide an opportunity to tell his or her side of the story.

• Appeal to the person’s vanity. Each person has something special and important to contribute to your story. Emphasize the person’s unique contribution.

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