Stay-at-home mandates may end, but many elements of social distancing are here to stay. For some of our utility communicators and freelance writers, this presents a new challenge.

How can you interview subjects—and better yet, build trust—from a distance?

A freelance writer asked us for phone interview advice last month, so we turned to the experts: the NewsData reporting team (they are a friend of the family). These reporters, based out of Seattle, Wash., and the Bay Area, Calif., cover energy and natural gas policy across the Western U.S. and Canada. We asked them 5 questions on social-distance reporting:

  1. How are phone interviews different from in-person interviews?
  2. How does the interviewing medium impact the power of a story?
  3. How do you establish trust over the phone?
  4. Can you provide sample questions or question-starters that work well?
  5. Other thoughts about how to make this work FOR you, rather than against you?

We hope their insights help strengthen your remote reporting skills!

Steve Ernst, Editor

Clearing Up

Steve Ernst

Phone interviews are different for news stories than for a full-length feature. It’s tougher to get the little details that make for a good feature-length story over the phone. But you can still get the subject to share details.

I start with a list of questions or topics that I want to discuss, but my goal is always to try to have a conversation with the person, and get them talking, rather than interrogate them. The danger is some people tend to talk without saying anything, so you find yourself in the spin cycle, and that’s why you’ve got your list of question to fall back on.

The feature stories I’ve reported over the phone, I ask people “tell me everything that you remember about” whatever the event. “Where were you sitting, what was in the room.” From the response to those question, you can start to get some details for you feature story.

The biggest thing is to try to get people to relax and speak freely.

Abigail Sawyer, Staff Writer

California Energy Markets

Abigail Sawyer

It’s probably easier for us trade journalists to do this sort of thing since we’re usually interviewing professionals and experts who have some familiarity with talking to the media.  From what I see of Pioneer’s coverage, it’s usually a lot more personal about the people they serve.  I could see how picking up the phone would feel very different from making those in-person visits!

Perhaps FaceTime, Zoom, etc. could be useful in this era at helping to establish a connection? I would also suggest that the subjects provide their own photos whenever possible.

David Krause, Staff Writer

California Energy Markets

David Krause

Depending on the situation, phone interviews can be slightly more focused on a specific subject, I’ve found. You have a bit more time to look at your notes and questions while at your desk, as opposed to out with someone or talking with people in public.

For most news stories, I don’t think there is much impact on the power of a story if the interview is done over the phone. For a feature or column, you might not be able to provide illustrative details about the situation if you don’t have access to a place or group of people.

I try to start phone conversations by asking questions that I can relate to as well, or on subjects I’m curious about that I think the person I am talking with is curious about too.

This helps “break the ice” since we can’t see each other and make more friendly, in-person conversations. For example, I recently interviewed an energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, and I talked with him about his previous experience working in the Northern California utilities industry, because I had worked inside the industry for some time. That wasn’t the subject of our interview, but helped start the conversation.

Video calls can be an option as well, if both [sides] are more comfortable with this. I’ve also found emails work well right now, because people are busy and often on new schedules. Emails give people time to respond when their schedule allows and often leads to more productive phone interviews, because they can be more prepared on specific questions.

Aria Alamalhodaei, Contributing Writer

California Energy Markets

Aria Alamalhodaei

This is a great question from the freelancer. I have some advice to add on establishing trust. This advice applies to in-person interviewing, too, but I definitely think trust is slower-growing over the phone.

Although this isn’t so much the case at CEM—I interact with a lot of public figures and corporate PR folks who talk to the press all day long—in my other freelance work I frequently chat with people who have maybe never spoken to the media before.

In those cases, I think one of the biggest things a writer can do to establish trust is to make very explicit the editorial process.

  • I reiterate the publication I’m writing for.
  • I let them know that I’ll be recording the conversation for record-keeping purposes and that I will be the only one to hear the raw recording
  • I tell them (roughly) when the article will be published.

Then, I ask them if they have any questions for me about this process or how their words might be used (I’ve even heard people suggest that you make sure your source knows what ‘off the record’ means).

Again, this is really not necessary if you’re speaking to a company spokesperson or a state Senator, but if you’re chatting with an Average Joe I think it goes a really long way in establishing trust, especially in this time when people have such little faith in the media in general.

Mark Ohrenschall, Publisher/Editor-in-Chief


Mark Ohrenschall<

I don’t have a lot to add beyond the sound advice our folks mentioned above.

For me, preparation (questions, topics, background) is essential for any interview (phone or in-person), as is establishing a “human” connection at the beginning. The latter is even more important over the phone because you’re not looking someone in the eye.

For example, when I recently interviewed Seattle-area utility leaders for a series of podcasts on how their utilities were handling the pandemic, I started each interview with, “How are you doing?” Those broke the ice and opened the communications, and led to interesting tidbits.

One leader said she was working from a houseboat on a Seattle lake; another jokingly suggested his wife and daughter were looking forward to his return to the office rather than him working from home; and another mentioned she appreciated learning more about her colleagues through all the video meetings, such as the colleague with an impressive wine collection in the background.

Another thought: Adaptability and flexibility are important, such as being willing to veer from a prearranged list of questions/topics to explore unanticipated topics that come up in an interview.

Curiosity and empathy are excellent traits in any interview setting, perhaps even more so over the phone.

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