Sometimes the quality of an investigation hinges on the quality of questions asked at the outset. Asking the right interview questions, in the right order, can lead to places an investigator never even considered.
The aim is to get the correct information and capture adequate detail to form conclusions, but it’s not always an easy task. Interviewees may not know all the details, may be reluctant to cooperate or may have underlying reasons for deceiving an investigator or omitting information.
That’s when good investigative reporting skills can help, starting with the standard five questions asked by every news reporter gathering facts for a story.
The 5 W’s of News Reporting
The famous five w’s of news reporting: who, what, when, where and why, provide a great place to start. With these five questions the investigator can often narrow down the basic facts of a case:
- What happened?
- When did it happen?
- Where did it happen?
- Who did it?
- Why did it happen?
The last question, why, can be the most telling of all, as it requires that the interviewee sometimes make a judgment or offer an opinion about the facts presented.
Of course you won’t get all the information from those five basic investigation interview questions. You will need to ask many more questions, including:
- How did it happen?
- Who was present?
- Who else may know more?
Let the Questions Lead You
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Sometimes an interviewer can find out unexpected facts by following the narrative wherever it goes and digging into the holes along the way, so to speak. If subject mentions a bit of information that is surprising or contradictory, follow it up with: Tell me a bit more about…
Mine for New Sources of Information
Often your first interviewee can provide suggestions or ideas for others who should be interviewed. Ask the interviewee to list everyone he or she knows of who has knowledge of the event you are investigating. Ask if there is anyone else who might be able to back up what he or she is saying.
Just because you have made a list of people to interview doesn’t mean there aren’t others you haven’t thought of. Look beyond the obvious for sources who may be able to corroborate or refute information you have gathered. Take a cue from a good reporter and dig, dig and dig again to find the sources you may not have considered.
Restate periodically what the interviewee has said. This ensures the interviewee is committed to what he or she has said and that you have heard correctly. It also assures the person that you’ve been listening. A good reporter repeats the statements to ensure the subject is quoted correctly.
Once you have confirmed the facts, ask follow-up questions. If a witness avoids a question, ask it again later and try rephrasing it.
- Ask witness for new evidence, new leads, or additional relevant information
- Ask the subject if there’s anything else he or she would like to disclose before you conclude the interview
- Allow the subject time to think before responding
- Use silence to prompt the subject to fill in the gap with more information
A good reporter takes good notes. Even if you don’t know shorthand, you can still capture everything by asking the subject to repeat information or to speak more slowly.
Many investigators use a second person whose job it is to take notes during the interview. This allows the interviewer to concentrate on the questions and answers, rather than on writing. Another advantage of having somebody else take notes is that the investigator can pay attention to the non-verbal signals the interviewee is exhibiting.
A reporter may record an interview using an audio recorder and this is also something investigators may wish to consider. There are both pros and cons to using this practice in investigations. But that’s a subject for another blog post.