Crafting probing interview questions: a guide for aspiring Journalists

As a journalist, your mission is to expose, enlighten, and educate. Challenging interviewees and facilitating a conversation that draws out thorough and thoughtful responses is integral to this mission. A journalist's true strength lies in crafting probing interview questions that stimulate enlightening dialogues and yield insightful answers. This piece is a helpful guide on how - and why - to draft these stimulating inquiries.


Probing interview questions:

Probing questions are in-depth inquiries aimed to elicit significant, detailed responses. They're designed to look beyond the surface, converse deeply with the interviewee, and bring about valuable information that typically wouldn't be volunteered. These open-ended questions often begin with 'how,' 'why,' and 'what,' driving the interviewee further into their thoughts, analysis, and views, thus resulting in a rich and engaging discourse.



The cornerstone of crafting probing interview questions starts with diligent research. Knowledge about the interviewee and the topic at hand empowers a journalist to ask poignant questions that hold accountability and elicit revealing replies.

Research includes understanding the interviewee's background, their work, views they might have expressed in the past, and the current trends, anomalies, and debates related to the topic. This extensive groundwork allows a journalist to draft questions that lead to meaningful responses, revealing a bigger picture or a deeper truth.

Before you meet your interviewee, you must develop a solid understanding of the person and the topic at hand. This involves methodical preparatory research via reading their works, watching their past interviews, grasping their viewpoints and familiarizing yourself with their mannerisms. This background knowledge will help you sculpt your questions accordingly and anticipate likely responses. It will also demonstrate respect for your interviewee's time.



Before drafting the questions, it’s crucial for a journalist to identify the main goals of the interview. The objectives guide the direction and depth of the questions. Are you aiming to extract a particular piece of information or understand an individual's perspective on an issue? Perhaps you're looking for a detailed account of a situation or a personal anecdote. Setting clear objectives is vital, helping you stay focused on leading the conversation towards achieving those goals.


Question design:

Draft a comprehensive list of questions that covers both basic information and more complex queries. Ensure your questions are concise, open-ended, and focused on understanding the subject better. Prioritize your questions so that you capture critical data if time becomes a constraint.

An aptly constructed probing question is open-ended, inviting the interviewee to share expansive thoughts. It engages the conversation partner to think, analyze, and speak at length, instead of giving a brief answer. These questions often address topics like personal experiences, beliefs, and viewpoints.

A successful probing question could be, “Can you expand more on your process for developing this project?” Rather than simply asking, “Was the project successful?”


Responding to interviewee's responses:

Active Listening:The best journalists aren't just inquisitive - they're excellent listeners. Carefully tune in to what your interviewee is saying, maintaining eye contact, and subtly nodding to communicate your understanding. Active listening cultivates a deeper insight into the interviewee's perspective, which will improve the overall quality of your piece.

An overlooked aspect of designing probing interview questions is the ability to adapt on the spot. An effectively conducted interview is a dialogue, not a simple Q&A session. As a journalist, it is crucial to listen intently to your interviewee's responses, adapting your subsequent questions. This flexible approach can lead to unexpected insights, furthering the richness of the discussion.



While crafting probing questions, it's essential to handle the interviewee's feelings with care. Your questions should respect the interviewee's rights to privacy and personal boundaries. A skilled journalist investigates responsibly while preserving respect and empathy, not stirring controversy or provoking emotional discomfort needlessly.

A journalist’s role is more than distributing information; it is about amplifying perspectives, initiating conversations, and shedding light on obscured realities. Probing interview questions are fundamental tools to fulfill these roles, making the difference between a forgettable interview and one that drives the narrative, influences opinions, and attracts viewers or readers.

Any budding journalist aiming to improve their interviewing prowess should focus on the techniques of crafting thought-provoking, probing questions. In the world of journalism, he who asks the right questions controls the conversation, thus becoming a significant contributor to public knowledge and discourse.


Mastering the art of conducting effective interviews:

Journalism is a powerful tool that shapes public opinion and echoes the voice of the people. The backbone of all high-quality journalism, be it print, digital, or broadcast, is primarily research and interviewing.


Build trust and rapport:

An interview is more than just an exchange of words - it distinctly involves the exchange of trust. Be respectful, patient, and show genuine interest in what they are saying. Establishing rapport allows an interviewee to be more comfortable and more likely to give thoughtful, detailed responses.


Be present:

While it's essential to follow your prepared list of questions, don't be afraid to deviate based on the conversation's natural flow. If the interviewee mentions something interesting or unexpected, probe further into it. Being nimble and present in the moment can lead you to discover exciting angles you hadn't considered.


Use silence:

One of the most powerful interviewing tools is silence. Most people are uncomfortable with prolonged silence and will instinctively want to fill it, often with additional information that can add depth and context to your story.


Be ethical:

As a journalist, adhere to the principles of truth, accuracy, and fairness. Always inform your interviewee about how their information will be used, respect off-the-record requests and offer the opportunity for clarification if needed.


Coherent closure:

End the interview gracefully by giving the interviewee a chance to add anything they feel wasn't covered. Thank them for their time and make sure to contact them if you need to verify any facts or details after the interview.

To conduct effective interviews, journalists must become skilled communicators, shrewd observers, and empathetic listeners. Every interview holds the potential not just to inform, but also to uncover fresh narratives and shape meaningful dialogue. By harnessing these tips, reporters and journalists can make the most out of their interviews, producing compelling content that captivates audiences and adheres to the highest journalistic standards.

Conducting an interview is indeed an art that evolves with practice and experience. Remember, perfection doesn't exist, but continual improvement is a realistic and honorable goal. Dive deep into the world of your subject, be it a person or topic, and bring out the pearls of wit and wisdom to share with your readers in a fair, honest, and compelling manner.


Not every interview is the same: trauma-informed reporting


Journalism is a pillar of our society that delivers the truth and informs the public about significant events. However, sometimes the call of duty requires journalists to engage and interact with individuals who have endured highly traumatic experiences. Navigating these delicate situations involves empathetic reporting, careful communication, and a compassionate understanding of the victim's emotional state.

To learn more about crisis reporting and trauma-informed reporting, check out this blog post.


Empathetic reporting: navigating interviews with trauma victims

Empathy, defined as the capacity to understand and share another person's feelings from their point of view, should be a reporter’s guiding force when interviewing trauma victims. Journalists are not robots; they are human beings tasked with conveying human stories, which inevitably involve emotive accounts from subjects who've experienced a multitude of events.

When interviewing trauma victims, sensitivity isn't just an option—it’s a necessity. Every question should be thoughtfully planned, and hypotheticals should always be avoided. It is crucial to remember that those individuals have gone through intense trauma, and we must respect their emotional space and boundaries.

Patience is key in these situations, as subjects might struggle to articulate their experiences or may need longer pauses during the conversation. Rushing through an interview or urging victims to disclose more than they're comfortable with is not only unethical but can cause further distress.

Moreover, journalists should take into consideration the language used during the interview. Respectful language, void of loaded or judgmental phrases, provides a safe environment for the interviewee. This approach lets victims know that they are not being blamed for what happened and ensures they feel understood during the conversation.

An important point to note is that an interview with trauma victims is more than a fieldwork assignment—it should be seen as an opportunity to educate the public about the realities and effects of traumatic events.

Therefore, journalists should aim to illustrate an accurate picture, demonstrating the resilience of victims as well as the challenges they face. Focusing on strength and survival, rather than simply the horror, can not only inspire readers but also present victims in a light of respect and dignity.

Small gestures also make a significant difference. Words of empathy and understanding show that reporters don't view them merely as news sources, but as human beings. Gently reassuring them, offering them a break when needed, or expressing genuine appreciation for their courage to share can create a more comfortable atmosphere.

Interestingly enough, a trauma-informed approach in journalism is not only beneficial for the victims but also beneficial for the reporters themselves. Such an approach can lead to richer, more substantive stories, and it decreases the chance that the journalist will inflict inadvertent harm—and consequently experience a form of secondary trauma or burnout.

While the aim may be to report objectively on tough topics, journalists carry a moral duty to conduct interviews in a way that respects trauma victims' lived experiences. Prioritizing empathy over information gathering brings humanity into the heart of journalism. Doubtless, respecting and preserving the dignity of people in their most vulnerable moments reflects the true essence of journalism.

No interview, scoop, or headline is worth exacerbating an individual's distress.

Thus, as custodians of truth, journalists must wield their power with acute sensitivity and understanding. Balancing the pursuit of truth with compassion and respect creates not only an ethical journalist but also an effective, respected communicator.

Being empathetic and careful while interviewing trauma survivors is more than good journalistic practice; it's an embodiment of humanity's finest trait—empathy.