What cherubs learn from difficult interviews

Students at the Medill-Northwestern Journalism Institute work hard to develop interviewing skills. In this podcast by Aleeza Schoenberg, cherubs share their most difficult interview experiences.

Anum Shafqat sat in front of her computer constructing an email to the leader of an anti-Muslim organization for her trend story about Islamophobia. In the email, Shafqat asked the man for his views about her topic. Two minutes later, he responded, “I don’t believe in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy or Islamophobia.”

Shafqat mulled over the hostile response for two days before sending her source another email asking him to elaborate.

“It was hard,” Shafqat said. “I am Muslim, and it’s difficult for me to talk to a person who is against an entire religion. But I learned that’s what journalism is. You have to take yourself out of the equation, showing other’s perspectives, not your own. Next time, I’ll take more of a neutral stance.”

Cherubs interviewing John Kupetz. Photo by Alexis White

Cherubs interview instructor John Kupetz. Photo by Alexis White.

At Medill cherubs, students said they faced challenging interviews, not only through email but also over the phone and in person. Though cherubs said these experiences were negative at the time, looking back, they are grateful for them. These encounters have taught them to deal with difficult people early in their journalism careers.

During the first interview assignment, cherubs went to Evanston and asked residents if they thought 2016 would be the year that U.S. voters would elect the first woman to serve as the nation’s president.

Sammy Norrito approached a man wearing a baseball cap and worn out overalls who was sitting outside Starbucks. Norrito asked if she could speak to him. Only after their interview did she hear from another cherub that he was carving pieces of wood that said phrases like, “Down with the Iran Nuclear Deal.”

“He yelled at me for being a member of the liberal media,” Norrito said. “I apologized profusely and felt helpless. But in a way that was helpful. After that, I would interview anyone because nothing could be worse than that.”

Katie Ho interviews a source over the phone. Photo by Nora Crumley

Katie Ho interviews a source over the phone. Photo by Nora Crumley.

During class, cherubs shared their negative interviewing experiences. In turn, instructors gave cherubs interviewing tips. Through one-on-one discussions with instructors as well as an Interviewing Basics lecture with Bret Begun and Cynthia Wang, students learned how to prepare, conduct and follow up on their interviews.

Alicia Vargelis said she noticed an improvement in the way she interviewed between the start and the end of the program.

“I used to interview people and get surface level quotes, nothing that showed who they were as a person,” Vargelis said.

Vargelis said she learned the importance of showing empathy and building a relationship with the people she interviewed. When she approached a source who was unwilling to talk, Vargelis started off with basic questions, then transitioned into asking more personal ones.

“What I learned through class is that if you want a person to open up, you can’t ask them the most personal question right away,” Vargelis said. “You need to get on a level with your source so they trust you.”

As each week passed and cherubs continued to learn from their mistakes and from their peers, they became more confident approaching strangers.

“The skills I have learned at cherubs have changed the way that I do interviews,” Vargelis said.

Cherubs interviewing other cherubs in front of Fisk. Photo by Alexis White

Hannah Schoenbaum conducts interviews in front of Fisk Hall. Photo by Alexis White.