Another view - Dogged news hounds keep chasing the tale

26th June 2009 at 01:00

Can you teach people how to interview other people? Certainly, you can teach the mechanics: go with a list of questions; look for openings to ask supplementaries; and make sure you record the answers as accurately as possible.

But whether you can teach responsiveness, tact or empathy is another matter. Not to mention the "nose" for a good story, or how to follow up the promising leads and bypass the mundane ones.

But however you cook it, I still have to help my 20 or so adult media students to shine in a unit called "perform and write from interviews". Before letting them loose, I decide they should practise on each other.

"Think up some questions," I suggest. "Something a bit out of the ordinary."

Gillian shows me her list: What is your name? How old are you? Where do you live? How tall are you? What is your ambition?

Avoiding such words as "banal", I indicate the sort of story her questions might produce. Fred Smith is 22. He lives in Clapham. He is 5ft 8in tall. One day he hopes to be 5ft 10in.

To stop her feeling victimised, I bring in the rest of the group. "What are the elements of a good story?" I ask.

"Dog bites man - no story," says Derek. "Man bites dog - story."

"I've never heard of a man biting a dog," says Gillian.

I ask them to come up with an idea for a feature that will have an interview at its heart. We talk about approaches and analyse some articles I've brought in. Gillian takes copious notes.

The next week I go over their ideas with them. Gillian tells me she wants to interview her mother.

"Has she got anything interesting to say?" I ask.

"She's my mother," comes the indignant reply. "She's nice."

"OK," I say. "So far our story looks like this: `Student has mother - nice woman.'"

Gillian casts around for something more newsworthy. "She's overweight," she says. "Maybe it could be about obesity."

"OK," I say. "So now we've got: `Nice mum, big bum!'"

Gordon is more ambitious. "Can I go Gonzo?" he asks.

"Remind me," I ask, "exactly what going Gonzo might entail?"

"You know," he says. "Hunter S Thompson. Ken Kesey. The idea was to put themselves at the heart of the story."

"As I recall," I say, "they went out on the razzle, took a load of LSD and then wrote about it."

"Exactly," he says.

I find myself taking seriously his plan to spend a Friday night in Camden Town, drinking too much beer and listening to raucous rock music.

"Hang on," I say. "Who gets interviewed here? The barman?"

"Don't worry," says Gordon. "I'll get an interview with the band. They're up and coming. Everyone's heard of them."

Everyone, it seems, but me. But it still seems like a better bet than "nice mum, big bum".

Next, Derek. He's clearly been mulling over the implications of his "man bites dog" approach.

"I've found a great story," he says. "Really out of the ordinary."

He tells me about an amateur footballer he has come across who has only one arm.

"Could work," I say. "But you must be sensitive with disability."

"OK," says Derek. "But here's the best bit. He's a goalkeeper."

"Go for it," I say.

When the stories come in, there are some great interviews. Gordon has stayed sober enough to get something out of the next big thing in rock music. And even Gillian's mum turns out to have an interesting illness or two.

Sadly, Derek's piece about the one-armed goalie never did get written. "I was too late," he says gloomily. "He packed in football two years ago - hung up his gloves."

"Make that `glove'," I say.

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