The heart in interviewing

By Grace Xu
IHSPA Student Board Member
Carmel High School

I think many people who have never been on the reporter side of journalism often view the medium as a sort of storytelling without any of the flair, plain black text on white background, the healthy vegetables in the world of media — stuff that’s good for you, but not necessarily fun. I must admit, with some shame, that I too had my doubts in the beginning about how “fun” journalism would be with all of its inverted pyramids and succinct news reports, and wondered how much story and heart could really fit inside a newspaper. 

The answer? A lot.

These past four years, working for my high school newsmagazine publication, I have fallen head-over-heels for the process of reporting. Even when many staff members take on an editing position — which focuses more on page design — by their second year, I chose to stick with being a reporter, interviewing sources and writing stories. I’ve always loved storytelling, ever since Magic Tree House kickstarted my reading addiction back in first grade, but there is something unique to the storytelling that arises from reporting — it is the ability to have an intimate conversation with a complete stranger and bring their story to life for a wider audience.

I’ve had interviews ranging anywhere from a few minutes to nearly an hour (!), and every time, I’m always awed by how much story, how much heart, there is to uncover. One of my favorite interviews I’ve done was my first “long” interview. I’d spent over 30 minutes sitting in the Cake Bake Shop, interviewing — well, conversing with, really — Gwendolyn Rogers, the owner, for a piece about aesthetics vs. taste in foods.

What I ended up with was her life story, from being a stay-at-home mom who baked for her students’ teachers to the founder of a famous bakery even recognized by Oprah, along with a couple of complimentary macarons to boot (although I promise, the macarons are not why this interview is so memorable to me). This was the interview that helped me realize how in-depth and marvelous an interview could really be; interviews didn’t have to be spent as a perfunctory 10 minutes asking the source standard questions but could rather be sincere, empathetic conversations, wherein I, as the reporter, usually prompt and listen more than anything.

There are no tangents in interviews, nothing off-topic, never too much rambling. Even if I can’t fit the entirety of a lengthy interview into the story, the gestalt of a lively dialogue is always worth it as the reporter — and since realizing that, I’ve had a whole new world open to me in journalism, always coming out of interviews with at least of nugget of the unexpected.

When interviewing a chemistry teacher for a newspaper project about women in S.T.E.M., I discovered that she had actually once been an Eli Lilly chemist, but quit to be a stay-at-home mom for her children — before going back to college to get a teaching degree. When interviewing a student activist, I learned about her fellow activists on the west coast and their personal stories with pollution — and that she was leaving to attend an environmentalism convention with Greta Thunberg the next day!

I’ve uncovered from my interviews a student who sewed their graduation dress from scratch, another who is going to work as a Chinook mechanic in the US Army, a sociology professor and her experiences protesting, the events manager for the Indianapolis Colts, a student writer who has written a 50,000-word novel in a month, and so many more.

Truly, I wish everyone could experience being a journalist at least once in their life — it is astounding and humbling and wondrous, the sheer amount of life everyone lives — and it is a marvelous feeling to learn from the people around you, to put their stories onto paper, to bring their heart to more readers. 

To my fellow journalists, cheers to having many more astounding, humbling, wondrous interviews to come. To those who have not yet experienced journalism — what are you waiting for?

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