Ask TON: Getting Sources to Open Up


Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. This week, we ask experienced journalists how to get people to open up and talk like human beings. (Click here to see previous installments).

Scientists and other interviewees are often eager to talk about their work, but sometimes, ask a basic question and you’re left with answers like “that was explained in our paper.” And some sources are reluctant in general. They may not want to talk about controversial subjects; they may have been burned by other journalists, and are wary of the media; or they’re just difficult to approach. This can be difficult if your source is a key character in a feature story.

So, what can you do to break the ice?

Ed Yong, freelance writer and author of the Not Exactly Rocket Science blog at National Geographic:

When I interview people, I try to throw in several incredibly specific questions. Ask about some experimental minutiae from one of their papers, quote a part of a review they wrote and get them to explain that to you, or contrast their work with other work in the same field. If you’re feeling confident, try for the boss-level move of asking them a question that they’ve never heard before, or one that’s currently bugging them. You’ll know when you hit it—there’ll be a little breath of acknowledgment and a “That’s a good question.”

These types of questions may not get you great quotes, or may even be incidental to the piece, but they are great for establishing trust. They say: Hey, I’m one of you. They tell the source that you are a fastidious reporter who has done their homework, knows what they’re talking about, and will probably write a good piece. (Of course, for this to work, you’ll actually need to be a fastidious reporter who has done their homework and knows what they’re talking about.) I throw these questions in at natural points during an interview or perhaps right at the start if the source seems to be bristly or uncooperative.

Conversely, broad questions can also be great. Ask them about the origin of their latest study, or how they got into their field, or the most surprising thing they’ve learned through their work. These questions force a source to think in ways that can’t just be answered through a citation and they’ll also give you more color to work into your story.

I go for a mix of these two types. You can use them as a bridge towards more standard questions but then, why would you? If your source can genuinely answer you with “That was explained in our paper”, it may be a sign that you’re asking questions that you already know the answer to. Maybe try flipping things around: you summarize what you think you know, and ask your source if you got that right, or to elaborate on one part of it. Or even say, “I read your paper, but I didn’t get it. Can you walk me through this bit?”

I find that I get the most out of interviews if I let my own guard down a bit. A sincere “Wow, that sounds really frustrating” or “Wait, WHAT?” can go a long way.

Finally, if you can meet your sources in person, do that. Get them out of their office, away from a monitor, and into somewhere more informal and comfortable—somewhere where they’re more likely to let their guard down and talk casually to you.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR science correspondent:

To get someone to talk like a human being, you have to show an interest in the human experience, something that typically doesn’t get included in a scientific paper. A paper will outline the question being asked; it won’t explain why she personally felt drawn to this mystery, instead of the countless other ones she could study.

A paper will describe the data; it will not say what she was doing when her grad student called with the results, or if she did a little victory dance. A paper always has a Discussion section; it won’t tell you whether the implications of her work give her nightmares, or if she expects to be ridiculed, or what her parents think about it all.

Ask yourself, “If I put this question to two different co-authors on this paper, would they give me the exact same reply?” If “yes,” then throw that question out and dream up one that’s more revealing.

Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, staff writer for Science and freelance writer:

I’ve had to interview many reluctant sources over the years but convincing Ling Chung, the wife of convicted spy Greg Chung, was one of the toughest things I’ve done. She absolutely refused to talk at first but I persisted with calling her and we began having one or two minute conversations on the phone. It gave me hope that she would talk.

Later, when I made my first trip to Los Angeles to report the story, I showed up at her house. A neighbor who rents from the Chungs told me she wasn’t at home, but I knew it wasn’t true from the truck parked in the driveway, and called her from the gate. She answered and let me in. I found out that she was an artist. For a subsequent conversation, when she had withdrawn into her shell once more, I requested that we talk about her art. I was able to find her master’s thesis in fine art from a California university from three decades ago, and that became the opener of our next conversation.

I think she opened up to me eventually because my empathy was genuine. How did she know that it was genuine? I guess it was my persistence that convinced her. Not giving up is a powerful thing.

Rachel Nuwer, freelance science journalist and columnist for BBC Future:

Are you able to meet with this source in person? It’s easier to blow someone off in an email or over the phone than in a face-to-face encounter, so that could help your cause. You could ask her to show you around the lab, demonstrate a technique or explain some of the figures in her paper—anything to engage her. If possible, it might help to remove her from the lab setting. Go to lunch, take a stroll outside—anything to jolt her out of non-communicative scientist mode.

Another technique that I find helps is to ask the source to talk to you as if you were a high school student or a non-scientist friend at a cocktail party. Using ignorance to your advantage—”The paper is quite complicated, so I’d just like to talk through it all with you to make sure I understand”—often produces good results.

Asking detailed questions (“What was your first thought when you saw the numbers for finding X?”) rather than more general questions (“What were the highlights of your results?”) can also encourage reluctant sources to get specific. Finally, you could also straight-up tell this source (in a polite way) that you know the findings are in the paper, but this is for a reported story featuring her voice so if she could just summarize the work in her own words that would be great.

None of these techniques are guaranteed to work, however. It could be that this person is unwilling to talk for reasons completely outside of your control; she had a bad experience with the media ten years ago, for example, and now refuses to do interviews. In that case, reach out to co-authors on the paper, or to colleagues or graduate students involved in the work. In some cases, you might just have to find an entirely new source for the story, which is stressful and annoying but will likely ultimately benefit both the story and your sanity.

Photo at top by Shutterstock.


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  4. Sometimes I take the exact opposite tack recommended by Ed Yong. Instead of claiming expertise I claim complete ignorance and ask them to explain their work not as they would to a colleague but to an elderly relative or casual acquaintance.

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