Wikipedia:Interviews

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Interviews highlight an interesting tension in Wikipedia policy. On the one hand, interviews can be published in reliable publications; they are regularly found in highly respected news sources such as The New York Times and BBC News. On the other hand, the material in an interview comes directly from whomever is being interviewed, and those people can say whatever they like. At first glance, it can be difficult to see where interviews fall with respect to Wikipedia's sourcing policies. Are they primary or secondary sources? Do they count as reliable sources, or not? This essay addresses the issues involved.

Who, what, where[edit]

Anyone can be interviewed by anyone and about anything. It's helpful to figure out four things before you try to analyze whether the source is useful on Wikipedia:

  • The interviewer: Is this a recognized journalist?
  • The interviewee: Is this person an expert, a celebrity, a man on the street?
  • The subject: Is the main subject of the interview the interviewee's own life or activities (e.g., a film critic interviews a dancer about her upcoming performance) or something else (e.g., a radio host interviews a physician about the advantages of flu shots)?
  • The publication: Is this a reliable source such as a broadsheet newspaper, respected magazine, reliable broadcaster or news outlet that specializes in interviews, like Fresh Air with Terry Gross or The Andrew Marr Show? Is it a personal blog? Was it published by the subject or the interviewer?

Primary or secondary?[edit]

Close-up of a horse's mouth.
If it comes straight from the horse's mouth, it's a primary source.

Certain types of sources are easy to classify as primary or secondary. A newspaper article written by an eyewitness to an event represents a primary news source about that event, and a book about the event written by someone who did not witness it that combines the article with many other sources is a secondary source about the event. Some interviews combine both primary and secondary material, very similar to a book that contains well-researched content in addition to autobiographical material. In general, written interviews published by reliable sources are not simple transcripts, but are edited by the publishing organization, and this may qualify them as secondary.

The general rule is that any statements made by interviewees about themselves, their activities, or anything they are connected to is considered to have come from a primary-source and is non-independent material. With the exception of comments by experts in the relevant field, Wikipedia cannot use comments made by an interviewee to cite claims that would normally require either secondary or third-party independent sources (though primary sources are sometimes considered acceptable within an article for supporting uncontroversial claims by the interviewee about him- or herself).

Sometimes, publications may include short bio or other commentary about an interviewee. That content may or may not be secondary or even written by them. It's not uncommon for publications to request a short bio from an interviewee or pull one from his or her website or from here on Wikipedia and publish it uncritically, editing only for space. To be secondary, the source has to contain their own thoughts, which that sort of uncritical parroting of what someone else said clearly lacks.

Independence[edit]

The interviewee may or may not be independent of the subject matter. In some cases, the interviewer is also not independent.

Independent sources are more generally reliable than sources that have a conflict of interest or are otherwise involved in the subject. However, non-independent sources can be the most reliable source possible, depending upon the material to be supported. An artist stating her motivation is more reliable than an independent person speculating upon it.

Reliability[edit]

Interviews are generally reliable for the fact that the interviewee said something, but not necessarily for the accuracy of what was said. The publications are merely repeating their comments, typically with minimal editing. No matter how highly respected a publication is, it does not present interviewee responses as having been checked for accuracy. In this sense, interviews should be treated like self-published material.

Two steps are necessary to determine the reliability of material in an interview. First, we must determine whether the material is primary or secondary as described above, and then the reliability of the publication.

If the material is primary, then it is treated as if the interviewee had written the same content on their website or Twitter. As long as we can be reasonably certain that the material was written by them, then the Wikipedia policy on primary sources applies. Such material can be used, but needs to be used with care, and only to cite facts that can be verified from the source itself.

While primary-source material from interviews is treated the same as other primary-source materials, it is necessary to verify that the comments attributed to the interviewee were actually made by them. Publications with a reputation for reliability can usually be trusted to report their interviewees' words accurately and without embellishment, but there is no guarantee that other publications will do the same. For example, an interview posted on a blog could have altered the interviewee's words, or even be completely fictitious. If there is any uncertainty about whether a particular interview is a reliable and accurate depiction of what the subject said, then it should not be used and until it can be resolved.

If the material is secondary, and if it is published in a reliable publication, then it can sometimes be used to cite facts about third parties, and to cite opinions. However, care must be taken to ensure that normal editorial standards have been applied to the material (also, note WP:BLPSPS does not usually allow such sources to be used for claims about other living people). Depending on the publication, such material may not undergo the same level of fact-checking as other types of articles. For example, the introduction to an interview may rely entirely on facts provided by the interviewee. In general, the longer and more detailed the material, and the more reliable the publication, the more likely secondary-source material in an interview is to have undergone proper fact-checking.

Check for clarifications and corrections[edit]

Due to the "off the cuff" nature of interviews, fact checking by the interviewee is not as rigorous as it would be if they were submitting a written reply to the same set of questions. Interviewees often say things in interviews that they later realize were inaccurate or incomplete. It is therefore necessary to check whether the interviewee issues a clarification or correction to their remarks.

Notability[edit]

The essence of notability under Wikipedia's notability guideline is a more technical definition than in common language, and is the evidence that the subject has attracted sufficiently significant attention from the world at large over a period of time.

Within the broad concept of notability are various sub-guidelines, including the general notability guideline. There we have a specific definition requiring that others not connected with the subject take note and that they do so by offering their own secondary thoughts in reliable sources. Under this definition, anything interviewees say about themselves or their own work is both primary and non-independent. If it's primary and non-independent, our guidelines make clear that it does not contribute to notability.

An independent interviewer represents the "world at large" giving attention to the subject, and as such, interviews as a whole contribute to the basic concept of notability. The material provided to the interview by the interviewer and the publication is secondary. The material provided by the interviewee may be primary, if the interviewee is speaking about his own life, or may be secondary, if the interviewee is recognized as an expert on the subject being reported.

Interviews show a wide range of attention being given to the subject and should be weighted accordingly.  Elements of interviews include selecting the subject, contacting the subject, preparation of questions, and writing supplemental material such as a biography.  At one extreme, a subject may approach a niche magazine and succeed in getting an interview published, which is marginal and only barely more than self published, and may even be discounted under WP:NOTPROMOTION. Some are just softball Q&A allowing the interviewee to say anything he likes. An example would be a fan magazine interview with a celebrity about their new movie or new child. They're not likely to question them sharply on whether the movie is any good or whether motherhood is really a joyful experience. The interviewer is there just to keep the individual talking, not to introduce their own thoughts. These kinds of interviews are broadly unhelpful in establishing notability.

At the other end are interviews that show a depth of preparation, such as those that include a biography. An interview presented as investigative journalism of the sort we associate with 60 Minutes can be helpful. In these interviews, the interview material is often interspersed with the interviewer's own secondary analysis and thoughts. The interviewer may even present their own evidence challenging claims the interviewee makes and offering their own conclusions in their summary, perhaps calling for action of some kind. Any of the content merely quoting the interviewee should be treated as primary. But the material the interviewer brought to the table is secondary and independent and contributes to the claim that the subject has meet the requirements laid out in the general notability guideline.

See also[edit]