Vox Pop

The art and science of the interview

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Stone Wall

The frustration reporters can feel when they (1) get useless information, (2) get no information or (3) get late information needs to be put in context.  Emotionally, it can be disheartening when a source knows you need information, you have been clear about when you need that information and you still you don’t get it even when they may have agreed to give it to you. These people know they are in a tactical power position, but it is an opportunity for the reporter to think strategically.

The journalist knows that they are not the only person who is or has ever been irritated, stymied or stonewalled regarding the issue, whatever it is.  But they are not now, have never been and will never go through this alone.  They are part of a much larger tradition of truthtelling that knows overcoming obstacles is part of the fun.

Secondly, reporters and journalists will continue to seek, to pry, to ask, to investigate within the confines of the law; all for the purpose of informing the larger society of those people who arrogantly step outside it.  Because fortunately, every aspect of society is but a subset of society much like a bacteria is only one in a body full of co-existing organisms.  When one goes rogue, in other words, when it begins to attack the body like an auto-immune disease, the body responds to protect itself.  Biology majors can appreciate the analogy of journalists acting as the complement system of the body politic. In the human body, the complement system is comprised of proteins that are the first to rush to any hostile thing that invades the body.  They then send out calls that tells the body it is under attack.

Lastly, the wonderful thing about that reporter frustration is that it yields results.  They might not be the results a reporter is hoping for.  But like a forensic scientist who finds a fingernail behind a couch, although it wasn’t a smoking gun, it was just as good.  Many times, people who think they are saying nothing, giving nothing, yielding nothing are throwing fingernail clippings all over the place.  They say “No Comment”.  They have their assistants run interference in ways that range from forcing reporters to leave endless voicemail messages to downright rudeness and intimidation.  They email blast statements many levels removed from the first person or any measure of professional responsibility.

It’s all good, because every one of those non responses the public eventually sees in stereophonic high definition.  Again, it’s all good.

To authorities that hide, conceal, obscure or deny when the law provides no clear justification for doing so, know that journalists will, to coin Winston Churchill, “never, never, never, never, never give up”.  Never.  Because reporters know you aren’t really angry at them.  They know you’re really afraid of what the people will do when they decide they’ve heard and seen and had enough of you.

Written by Interviewer

August 15, 2014 at 06:23

Posted in Scratchpad

A Hypothetical News Story in the not so Distant Future

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Police react to TV News use of Facial Recognition software

This all began with the shooting of an unarmed black youth in the outskirts of Manvigor three weeks ago.  Officer Ryan Kastenmunchen, 33 and a fourteen year veteran of the Manvigor police force shot and killed 14 year old McKinley Post in the mostly hispanic neighborhood of Coreyville.  Police say Post was out on the street after curfew with older teens who ran when confronted by police.  Witnesses say Post did not run but laid face down on the ground.  The accounts then say officers went through Post’s pockets, and when Post protested, another officer standing in front of the prone youth shot him three times in the head.  Police say Post did not obey officers commands to lay face down and wrestled with an officer for his gun.

Manvigor police chief David Renner, refused to release the name of the officer for fear of retailiation against the officer and his family but we know officer Kastenmunchen’s name because network affiliate KAAC Channel 15 in Manvigor used facial recognition software to scan the Internet.  Officer Kastenmunchen was eventually identified by a photograph of him in a 2011 edition of the law enforcement trade publication, “Police On The Front Line News”. 

According to the Manvigor Auditor’s Office, Kastenmunchen is on temporary leave with pay pending an investigation by the Manvigor Police Internal Affairs Division.  Sunshine laws in the state allow police to withhold information relevant to specific incidents, but in those where officers themselves are have been removed from duty, their names can be released after an intial investigation lasting no longer than 15 days.  The anti-establishment hacking group Incognito initially identified Officer Kastenmuchen but the department said no one with that name worked for the Manvigor police. 

This morning, we learned that Chief Renner has ordered police responsible for maintaiing order in Coreyville to begin wearing black nylon mesh over their faces.  We know that because we have video from a KAAC photographer who managed to get a shot of an officer before that officer realized he was being photographed.  As you can see here, the officer runs toward the photographer with his hand extended and then the video ends.  Police spokesperson Melody Caine released a statement saying “The police must maintain order in light of the recent unrest in Coreyville and it hopes all good citizens will work with the Manvigor law enforcement to help bring calm and order back to our community”.

Written by Interviewer

August 15, 2014 at 03:54

Posted in Scratchpad

The Outrageous Sh*t People Say

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Interviewers can’t afford to judge the people they’re interviewing for two main reason.  First, if they judge, the interviewee may stop talking.  Usually, the more a person talks, the more comfortable they get.  And if they feel they are being allowed the freedom to get comfortable, they will, over time, be more and more honest with what they are saying, even if those view are repugnant to many listeners.

The fact that those opinions may be repugnant to some is not the point, however.  The point is allowing them to be heard and then, letting the public whether represented by the legal system, the activist community or the woman on the street, to respond.  They may respond with new legislation, an arrest or the kind of public pressure Americans are so good at applying.

It is not the job of the interviewer to judge.  It is the job of the interviewer to honestly provide a direct highway from the interviewee’s mouth to the listener’s ears and let the chips fall where they may with the acknowledgement that sometimes, there is no reaction.  Maybe people are not listening because they’re doing something else.  Or maybe they are listening but they don’t see the subject as rising to a level where it affects them directly enough to respond.  But that too is not the interviewer’s job to worry about.

The other reason why an interviewer can’t judge is because judgement tends to lead to confrontation.  An interviewee with a controversial view has been honed with a prize fighter’s prowess to hit back whenever they feel attacked.  And a judging interviewer may question those views in such a way that the interviewee feels attacked.  This can escalate until you have both trying to outtalk each other.  It is bad for the interviewer because it lessens his credibility but great for the interviewee because he has been able to draw a heretofore impartial interviewer down to the level of shouting.  You’ve heard the expression, “Never wrestle with a pig.  You get covered in mud and the pig likes it”.  That is a saying that should be at the front of every interviewer’s mind whenever they find themselves in conversation with someone with controversial views.

Again, the best and only thing a good interviewer can and should do is make it comfortable for their interviewees to talk and then, let them.

Written by Interviewer

August 12, 2014 at 00:49

Oil Trains in Oregon

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BNSF recently disclosed that up to three oil trains cross Oregon each week. This is a :60 spot that encourages citizens to press their legislators to be more active in managing those trains and their contents.

Written by Interviewer

August 2, 2014 at 05:23

The Segue

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This is a quickie.

CBS This Morning anchor Charlie Rose was talking about a women named Cassandra Blackwell who had created a Tumbler account called “Beyoncify my Boyfriend”  Ms. Blackwell, as a way to deal with a breakup, had photoshopped Beyonce’s face on her ex-boyfriend’s face in all of her photos with him.  The site has gone viral.  It was a cute story.  All of the anchors had smiles on their faces.

But next, Mr. Rose had to go to a story about the shooting down of Malaysia Flight 17 in Ukraine.  And because the previous story had been funny, it took a few seconds for him to have the voice and facial expression appropriate for that story.

The transition from happy to sad and vice versa is always a tough one for TV (and radio) hosts.  Blooper tapes show plenty of anchors still giggling as they try to tell a following story of tragedy.  For Randy Newman fans, the verse from his hit “Dirty Laundry” pops into mind.

“See the bubbleheaded bleach blond.  She comes on at five.  She can tell you about the plane crash with a gleam in her eye.”

But all of us should know by now that is an ugly caricature.  TV has trained us to read every facial twitch and micro-expression.  And social media makes inappropriate anything from authority figures not considered absolutely homogenized behavior.  But anchors are people and it’s not even a mistake when a funny story lasts too long in their mind.  More likely, it’s the producer who needs to take care to not put such diametrically opposed stories back to back.  It’s a reminder that a newscast is a team sport.  And to carry the metaphor a little further, sure, the athlete needs to rely on their training to not do something that loses points, but sometimes, the coach has to give players transition time between hits to recover.

Which, by the way, in the news business, is called a segue.

Written by Interviewer

July 31, 2014 at 23:31

We’re Outta Time

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This is a quickie.

Here and Now host Jeremy Hobson gets much love for very simply telling an interviewee that the interview was over.  He was talking to Eric Kingson, a professor of social work at Syracuse University.  Mr. Kingson was talking about the necessity of the Social Security Trust Fund and how, the looming problems of its underfunding can be alleviated if the rich would pay more and if Congress did not raise the minimum age again, since raising it could lead to another big cut for retiree benefits. 

The interview went smoothly.  Mr. Kingson provided a lot of valuable information.  Mr. Hobson professionally moved through his questions.  But at the end of the interview, after Mr. Hobson said goodbye, Mr. Kingson asked if he could add “one more thing.” 

“No, because we’re out of time” said Mr. Hobson, and that was that.

Interviewers always have to balance the message with the clock.  They also have to consider the candence and thought processes of the inteviewee.  They mix all of this together and decide, when they’ve got seconds to go, is there really time for one more thing.  Mr. Hobson decided, no, there wasn’t.

As an interviewer, I admire that decisiveness because it requires making the hard decision.  There were likely plenty of people affected by social security changes that wanted to hear more.  And the interviewer wants to be seen as the accomodating good guy that gives people their voice to a listening audience in the name of Democracy and all that.  And interviewees sometimes do think of “one more thing” to add that they consider important to the overall message. 

But Mr. Hobson probably has, as have all interviewers been, burned by interviewees who asked for time to say one more thing and instead, talked and talked until the interviewer is left in a panic trying to meet a network time cue so as not to piss off every station down the line.

I think the audience appreciates the fact that as nice as the interviewer can be, they also have to bring out the hammer sometimes.  That helps them keep the crediblity they need for the audience to respect them.

Again, good full stop, Mr. Hobson.

Written by Interviewer

July 29, 2014 at 00:48

Posted in Scratchpad

Things That Go Bump

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This is a quickie.

Most studios have microphones that are mounted to boom arms that are attached to walls or ceilings.  Back in the day, it was more common that microphones were attached to boom arms that were bolted to desktops.  And in many studios, microphones were in movable stands that sat directly on those desktops.  Why am I bringing this up?

Because those relatively unsophisticated setups of guest mics on desktops gave listeners another aspect of the passion guests might have for an issue.  How?

Because when a guest pounded a desk, you could hear it.

Today, besides mounting microphones away from anything that can pick up vibration, many microphones rest inside what are known as shock mounts which absorb even more vibration.  In a studio, vibration is seen as the enemy of good quality audio.  But when you are interviewing a guest with a old school setup, vibration can be your friend.

When I say pounding the desk, I don’t mean Nikita Khrushchev style shoe pounding the poduim at the UN pounding.  I mean very soft but distinctive bumping the hand or a semi closed fist on a desktop whenever the answer holds a lot of passion and energy for the guest.  When a guest chooses to do that bumping can be telling and often, they don’t even realize they’re doing it.  It’s another one of those unconscious “tells” that I’ve talked about before here. Conversely, holding back emotion and showing no tells is the anti-emotive, which I talk about here.

An interviewee may be answering a question for which, if you listen to their voice, they seem very calm.  But hearing their hand bumping the desktop belies a passion and conviction much deeper.  And when they do that is also significant, as they may be unknowingly emphasizing to themselves how strongly they feel about something.  These are things the interviewer needs to pay attention to because they can help him or her direct the next question.

An interview is a complex interaction between the interviewer and the interviewee.  Then there is the interaction between the audience and the interview.  But often, the key aspect of a conversation is guest interaction with themselves.

Written by Interviewer

July 20, 2014 at 01:24


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