8 Questions to Ask Journalists Who Request an Interview

If you work in media relations, you likely field interview requests on behalf of your organization.

When those calls come, you should be asking more questions than the journalist.

Woman's hands looking at a smartphone while she's working at a computer
That first conversation with a journalist is an opportunity to learn more about the story they’re working on.

What follows are important questions to ask journalists whenever they contact you looking for an interview with somebody in your organization.

Why are these questions important?

Some are important for purely practical purposes. For example, you need to know how to reach the journalist to confirm the interview for them. You’ll also need to know their deadline.

And if you must hand off the request for another team member to fulfill, they’re going to need all that information. But more importantly, you’ll be gathering intelligence. Every piece of information you gather about the story idea the journalist is pursuing can help your interviewee prepare. It might even help you decide whether to grant the interview at all.

Questions to Ask Journalists

1. What Story Are You Working On?

This is the most important question, for several reasons.

As the media relations contact, knowing what story the journalist is working on helps you identify the correct spokesperson or expert for them to speak with.

You’ll also be able to advise your spokesperson about questions that are likely to come up during the interview. Asking this question will help you detect whether the journalist is taking a particular angle on the news story. If they seem set on an angle that runs contrary to the position of your organization or spokesperson, that’s good to know.

2. Who Would You Like to Interview?

Journalists might not know the right person to speak with. Or, they might have a very specific person in mind.

If they do have someone in mind, it might not be the right person. Perhaps the person they’ve requested doesn’t have the appropriate authority or expertise to speak publicly on the topic, and the journalist simply doesn’t realize that. In this case, you can direct the journalist toward a more appropriate interviewee.

Sometimes the journalist has their sights set on a high-ranking person in your organization, or even the highest-ranking person. You may want to offer them someone slightly down the ranks. That way, if anything goes wrong during the interview it won’t be on the big boss. And you will still have somebody higher up to turn to in case any mess needs cleaning up.

3. Why Did You Choose That Person?

This is a really useful question because it reveals how well the journalist has done their homework. 

If the journalist isn’t clear about the expertise of the person they’ve requested, it will become obvious in their answer to this question. You can say, “Well, that’s not really the work Person X does—perhaps I could recommend somebody who would be a better fit?”

On the other hand, it may become obvious that the journalist has done a great deal of research. And their answer may reveal a great deal about what most interests them about the topic. From this you can discern their likely line of questioning. This is all helpful in preparing the spokesperson.

4. What Other Voices Will Be in the Story?

This question will help you determine whether the story is about YOU (your organization), or a broader issue shared by your competitors and comparable organizations. Most of us prefer the latter, especially if it’s a sensitive story.

If your spokesperson or organization happens to be on one side of a contentious issue in current events, this question may help you find out whether your opponents are being interviewed, and perhaps even which ones. You can prepare messaging to counter their likely arguments.

5. Which News Outlet Are You Working For?

The proliferation of online news outlets with strong political perspectives makes this question particularly important. In most cases you will be familiar with the news outlet and perhaps the journalist. But sometimes they will be new to you, in which case you may want to research their past coverage of similar topics.

When you’re looking through their archive, ask yourself:

  • Does the outlet have a strong point of view?
  • Has their reporting been fair and accurate?
  • Does this topic seem like a departure from their usual coverage?

You can usually tell by looking through their archive whether they’re requesting the interview in good faith, or simply want to write a hit piece. If you don’t like the answer to any of the questions above, proceed with caution or politely decline the interview.

Lastly, this question can help you weed out freelancers who are simply fishing for stories. If the journalist has vague ideas about maybe someday pitching this topic to an undetermined outlet, you might suggest they circle back to you once they have a firm assignment. 

6. What is Your Deadline?

As a media relations professional, you should be aiming to serve journalists as well as your organization. They work on tight deadlines, and knowing those deadlines will help you get them the person they need, by the time they need them. And it will ensure that your organization’s voice isn’t left out of a story when you have important messaging to convey.

7. Where and How Would You Like to Do the Interview?

If the interviewee is signing up to be on TV, they’re going to want to know about it!

Woman being interviewed by TV news outside a building
A TV interview my require a different level of preparation than other formats, so make sure you know the plans.

For many people, a live interview on radio or TV is a very different beast than a phone chat with a web/print reporter. So, the more of these details you can share with the interviewee, the better they’ll be able to prepare:

  • By phone, Zoom or in person?
  • Live or recorded?
  • What sort of location?
  • Will the comments and quotes be inserted into a news report, or will it be a complete conversation with an anchor/host?

8. What is Your Mobile Number and Email Address?

Make sure you have all the journalist’s contact information. They may be running around in the field by the time you find a person for them to interview, and not checking their email as frequently as they would in the newsroom. A mobile number is really handy in those cases.

Once you have this information, you can enter it into the Broadsight Tracker. If the journalist isn’t already in your system, Broadsight will automatically create a new contact and you’ll be able to pitch that journalist future stories on similar topics.

Ensure Your Tracking Information is Complete

At UBC Media Relations where Broadsight Tracker was developed, several of the questions covered above are mandatory fields for every media interaction we enter into our tracker:

  • What is the story you’re working on?
  • Who would you like to interview?
  • What news outlet are you working for?
  • What is your mobile number and email address?

If your organization uses Broadsight, you may have custom fields you want to include with each entry. If you do, make sure these are on the list of questions you ask journalists when they call.