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How to Interview Someone in Jail for TV News

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Some of the most sought-after interviews are with people who are in jail or prison. A reporter must work hard to land a jailhouse interview. First, you need to get the prisoner to consent to it. The sheriff or warden must then permit it. Finally, there are logistical obstacles that must be overcome. While this is a lot of work, the payoff of an exclusive jailhouse interview is worth the effort.

Approach the prisoner you want to interview. Going through a third party can help. Ask the prisoner's attorney or relatives to convey a message. Let the prisoner know that you want to tell his side of the story and that you will be fair. You can also write the prisoner a letter. This personal touch is often what sways a prisoner to consent to an interview.

Ask the sheriff or warden for permission. He can say "no," and there is nothing you can do about it. You must therefore make a good case for the interview. Emphasize the public good that will be served and politely imply that he has no good reason to deny your request. Call in some favors if you have to.

Arrange the details. Once you get all the clearances you need for your jailhouse interview, figure out how you will conduct it. The best approach is for you and your interviewee to sit together in the same room. This requires a lot of cooperation with the sheriff or warden. He must find a room, allow you to light it and set up your cameras, and provide guards to supervise everything. If you get permission for this arrangement, go all-out. Bring two cameras and a complete light kit. The other way to do a jailhouse interview is in a visitor's area, through the security glass. This poses several problems. There isn't very much room in a visitor's booth. Lighting is difficult because of reflections off the glass. Audio is also an issue, since the reporter must talk to the prisoner over a telephone. It is best to mic both the reporter and prisoner with wireless microphones. Allow plenty of time to compensate for these complications prior to the interview.

Do your homework. You won't have much time to do your jailhouse interview, so make the most of the limited time you have. Be prepared with questions you have thought out thoroughly and researched ahead of time. Know everything about the crime the prisoner is alleged to have committed.

Craft your interview in a logical way. The prisoner consented to do the interview, so give her her moment. The first questions should allow her to plead her case. Keep her on point and on her case. Usually, her answers will lead you to more questions. Once she is comfortable with you, press harder. Confront her point-blank about her alleged guilt. Toward the end, go ahead and get tough. The key is to build to the tough questions. The last thing you want is for your interviewee to walk away before you have a chance to file your story.


Kent Ninomiya is a veteran journalist with over 23 years experience as a television news anchor, reporter and managing editor. He traveled to more than 100 countries on all seven continents, including Antarctica. Ninomiya holds a Bachelor of Arts in social sciences with emphasis in history, political science and mass communications from the University of California at Berkeley.

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