Live TV interviews: Working with inexperienced interviewees

Education Resources,


By Simon Perez 
Associate Professor of Broadcast and Digital Journalism, Syracuse University

Earlier we discussed conducting live television interviews with people who are accustomed to doing them – first responders, politicians, athletes. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes you have to talk to witnesses who have no idea how the TV business works and may be nervous about going on camera to share what they saw. When you’re trying to talk to someone who’s not familiar with the news, it’s up to the reporter to assure, encourage and explain.

Here are a few things you might want to remember when dealing with an inexperienced interviewee:

  • Be transparent and understanding – In the case of witnesses to traumatic events, going on TV is probably the last thing they want to do. But it’s your job to ask and convince them it’s a good idea. Notice the verb is “ask.” You cannot force anyone to do an interview, but the reason we try for these interviews is their stories are the ones that help inform the public.

After someone agrees to be on TV:

  • Tell the subjects what’s expected of them – Explain everything: where to stand, who’ll hold the microphone, where to look.
  • Tell the subjects what you’re going to ask – Assuage fears by confirming you’re only going to ask questions the subject knows the answers to. It’ll be just like the conversation you had before the cameras were rolling (and thousands of people were watching).
  • Start the story yourself – Inexperienced interview subjects don’t appreciate how little time there is in the newscast, nor do they have the news judgment to sift through the background and get right to the good stuff. If you begin with the lead up, you can then let the subject pick up the story at its most compelling moment.
  • Be prepared to interrupt – Again, the key is to inform the viewers, so if the subject gets off track, get the focus back quickly with a polite “Let me ask you this...”
  • Help the viewers understand – Introduce the witness and why that person is being interviewed at the beginning of the interview and re-state that information at the end.

Interviewing well-versed public officials is about holding the powerful accountable. Interviewing the inexperienced layperson requires something more of the reporter: an ability to help someone convey information our viewers might find beneficial.

Simon Perez is an associate professor of broadcast and digital journalism at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. In the summers of 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 he returned to his former job as reporter for KPIX TV in San Francisco. He has chronicled his newsroom experiences and the lessons he hopes to bring back to the classroom at