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.
Let’s talk about spokespeople.
Often times, they are employees of the organization they represent, meaning they are staff rather than contractors. That is an important distinction because it can affect the vehemence with which they defend their organization against allegations. It means they may likely be emotionally invested in their co-workers by believing they not only have to protect the mission of the organization, but the relationships they have with the people in it. And they likely have had to work very hard over a long period of time to convince their organization’s management structure to (1) trust that they will represent the organization faithfully to the press, and (2) convince that organization to let only them be the official voice when bad things happen. Neither of these are easy to accomplish.
Organizations, by and large, have a bury their head in the sand reaction whenever something happens that attracts media attention. Even good things that draw media focus can make managers unskilled with the media circle wagons. Management views outreach as exposure. A good media relations person, by contrast, builds relationships with the media. They want to talk to reporters. These two attitudes conflict frequently within organizations. Only by showing aplomb and bringing consistently good press do PR people convince managers to relax when a reporter calls. That’s the trust part.
Being the only voice, that’s harder because if an organization has not had a spokesperson or if that spokesperson has been ineffective, a new spokesperson must establish ground rules for employees in their interaction with the media. And for employees who feel that talking to the media is no big deal, this can be an uphill fight for the spokesperson. At some point, I’ll talk about bosses that say dumb stuff. But with regards to employees, those unaware of particular company policy or discreet legalities can say some incredibly stupid things that can live in newsprint or on the Internet forever. Management that has not made it clear that every employee must run any media contact through the spokesperson is setting them up to be called after hours by a reporter to confirm something that maybe, should’ve never been made public.
So a recent story by NPR was illustrative in showing how PR people can fail and how the media can end up doing an end run around them. The US Customs and Border Patrol, an agency of US Homeland Security is at the center of scrutiny over the deaths of several dozen migrants that have crossed the southern border illegally in recent years. When NPR’s John Burnett visited a CBP facility in April and asked questions of an official about the hierarchy of response officers must employ when confronted with rock throwing migrants, the female spokesperson abruptly ended the interview. Maybe this happened because the NPR reporter asked questions that were not part of any pre-interview briefing between the reporter and the CBP. But NPR most likely made it very clear that they wanted to know about CBP policy regarding hierarchy of response. The interview was probably cut short because the agency was so hyper-sensitive to this issue, that hyper-sensitivity had trickled down to the spokesperson. Perhaps management told her that under no circumstances do we want to address hierarchy of response since addressing it opens up the possibility of liability. And she, being a good soldier, fell on that sword by turning away a national news reporter with a running recorder from a pre-arranged interview.
It didn’t look or sound good. Hear it here at about 2:18.
Months later, NPR went straight to the new head of the CBP, R. Gil Kerlikowske. He’s had a reputation for prying open agencies by holding news conferences within 24 hours of incidents with negative press potential. This had proved a winning strategy with the media but ran smack up against inertia by bureaucracies that hate bright lights. He is now doing the same thing with the CBP and told NPR that he would not only be more transparent but that he would specifically address directly the issue of hierarchy of response in a public way.
There is no doubt that the new manager and his new media policy is what got NPR in to see him. Otherwise, that would’ve been impossible and NPR would’ve had to rely on leaks or other means and methods to discover agency intentions. To get an idea of how impenetrable agencies can be, think about how open the NSA or the IRS are with the media. Mr. Kerlikowske’s efforts are a big deal.
Getting back to that spokesperson, she may still have her job. After all, she was just doing her job. But I have no doubt that the irony was not lost on her, especially if she comes from a news reporting background. Spokespeople tend to be the best informed and the most tuned into general society within the organization. They read the mood of the surrounding media and balance it against what they know is happening inside the organization. Then, they give their best advice to management. It’s possible that spokesperson, from her own experience with crisis management, told her managers to be more open. But she was probably overruled by a higher media authority, likely a public affairs office at Homeland Security, a cabinet level agency.
So you can bet that when NPR did its end run around her, if she still had that job, she may have felt a little betrayed. It’s her job, ultimately, to do what she’s told. But betrayal is not a feeling spokespeople are unfamiliar with. You can trust me on that one. For sure, I’ll bet she thought long and hard about how her own years of experience were considered (or not).
As I write this, CBS News and Scott Pelley are breaking into regular network programming with news that a Malaysian airlines jet outbound from the Netherlands has crashed in Ukraine near Donetsk. The jet was cruising at a normal altitude of 33,000 feet and was carrying 298 souls. First responders report that body parts have been found scattered as far as 7 miles from the crash site, indicating the aircraft broke apart while still in the air.
In describing the incident, Mr. Pelley noted that the jet was 1/2 of the way through its journey when the incident happened.
I want to stop here and acknowledge that when breaking news events like this happen, it is well documented that a lot of the first information to be released is wrong. This might be because sources are unreliable, or the full scope of the event isn’t fully known. These are things that can be uncontrollable despite the due diligence fast moving news bureaus try to conduct before releasing the story for dissemination.
But some mistakes that have nothing to do with any of that are just plain puzzling. Mr. Pelley and CBS needed to check a globe to see that Kuala Lampur is 6333 miles from the Netherlands, while Donetsk is 1642 miles from the Netherlands. That means the jet was 1/4, not 1/2 of the way through its flight when it crashed.
Is this a big deal? No and yes. No because we get the gist; a plane crashed, innocent people were killed. And it generates hard questions, like was the crash in any way related to the political unrest in Ukraine or President Obama’s announcement yesterday of sanctions on heavy weapons like the kind that are capable of shooting down airliners? That’s what’s centrally important.
Yes because things like distance do not change. Distance is something that can be easily checked. And if it’s not considered important to verify, then why do we have things like rulers and spell checkers and scales and calipers. On a societal level, do we really care then about things that tell us distance or capacity or speed if we don’t take them seriously? And where else does this kind of cavalier treatment happen? Maybe in our financial institutions? Maybe behind a 3d printer creating intricate parts? Maybe in surgery?
As a writer and reporter, I remember every time I realized after doing a story that there was something in it I got wrong. I want to forget those mistakes but I can’t. But what I can do is research the hell out of the things that are immutable so I can at least be sure I get them right.
There are lots of things that change in the course of a developing story. And the flurry of the moment can disadvantage a news organization trying to be the first to give sketchy details of an important story. But for some things, there are few excuses for getting them wrong.
Sometimes, it never comes. You talk to someone and they say they can unequivocally help you. They say they know people who can help you. And if they can’t find anybody else, they promise they themselves will help you. And then they don’t. If you’re on deadline, this is the worst because you have this promise in your back pocket. You’re assuming you’ll get what you need when you need it from this source who worked so hard to convince you that they are reliable. They may sing their own praises all day long before they promise to help you, but not after they decide they can’t. Afterwards, they don’t call, they don’t email, nothing. Crickets. They’re OK with that. And you have to be too.
Maybe something comes up and politically, they were reminded that they were offering to speak on something way above their pay grade. Or maybe they got cold feet or realized they weren’t the expert they thought they were. Or maybe they just changed their mind because they remembered they hate the media and along the way decided that if they ignore you, you and their broken promise would just go away. So what do you do?
From the beginning, you don’t believe them. You call five other sources as soon as you hang up. And then you call five more because you know one of them will call you back. And you get what you need and you move on. You forgive them, because people say a lot of things they shouldn’t say when a reporter calls and don’t say a lot of things they should say when a reporter calls. They can’t help it. We just have this power.
And then you forget them because you’re still on deadline.
If the source that promised to call in an hour calls in three and the story is long since done, you say thank you and hang up. Because if they really wanted that story told and if they really wanted a voice in telling it, they would’ve called you back with something and sooner. But if they don’t call back at all, that’s OK too because at some point in the future, they’ll have a story they desperately want told. And you’ll be there.
Yesterday, I spent several hours trying to get a state agency to talk to me about a program they had created to help homeowners deal with the possibility of forclosure. I saw the story on Feedly and it sounded like a good one. I called the agency, identified myself and the staff person was reluctant to tell me the name of the program case manager. She directed me to another state agency where I had to leave a message on voicemail for their media relations person. That person called me back an hour later and said the case manager had been called and she was ready to talk to me about this program. I called the case manager and she said she hadn’t received any call and needed it before she could talk to me. I called the media relations person back and got her secretary. I told her I didn’t understand why it was so difficult to let me tell what I thought was a GOOD story. Half an hour later, I was called back by the media relations person who told me again that the case manager had been called and told it was OK to talk to me. I called the case manager and conducted the interview. I edited the story and it aired.
Supposedly, bureaucracies will talk to you all day about the good they do but will clam up like a safe if you want to talk to them about problems. That’s the assumption, anyway but it’s not always true. What’s seems more true is that everybody watches the news but nobody likes reporters. And waiting for call backs with reluctant interviewees when you’re on a deadline to tell even a positive story is a bad taste that’s hard to forget when that same agency sends out a press release about something they want to get coverage for. Your first thought, even if just for a second is, “You ignored me then and you want me now?”
So sometimes, reporters call with questions first and identification second. I did that this morning. I called an agency with some general operations questions that weren’t on the website. When I was asked who I was, I said so. That is an ethical responsibility. But if reporters aren’t asked who they are, sometimes in some situations, they don’t volunteer it because saying you’re a reporter is often followed by a promise to call back that never comes. Some people say it is unethical for a reporter to not immediately identify themselves when they call with questions. And if I’m asking the same questions that an average citizen might ask, the argument then is it’s not about the questions but about the intented use for the information.
Reporters not identifying themselves as they collect information for a story is not unprecedented. In 2004, the Poynter Institute, a leading journalistic ethics organization, published a story about the work of the Contra Costa Times and their investigation on the accessibility of public records. Times reporters called public agencies and asked for very general public information but didn’t identify themselves as reporters. And in each case, they were eventually thwarted by officials for arbitrary reasons. You can read that story here.
I called Poynter and talked with Al Thompkins. Mr. Thompkins has advised media organizations on ethical issues for years. He said with the Times, reporters were posing as citizens because citizens should have access to public information in a way no different from journalists. That was different than me because my intent for the information was for reportage, not general interest. I didn’t first identify myself because it might’ve resulted in no call back for a story I need to complete. Many organizations may be obliged to talk to citizens and journalists, but when a journalist is identified, they have to follow a protocol. In that case, the person who answers the phone deserves to know who they’re talking to.
But Mr. Thompkins also said that doesn’t mean there is never a time when a journalist doesn’t identify themselves. He once did a story about how the offices of then Senator Al Gore weren’t recycling. This was during the time when Senator Gore had just written “Earth in the Balance.” When the story came out, Mr. Gore’s office manager was practically apaplectic. Mr. Thompkins says if an individual or an agency has information that is relevant to a story, the first words out of their mouths should be, “Of course we’ll give you what you need. We just need to go through this process first.” In that respect, he said I was not as fair with the person on the phone as I should’ve been.
So that’s why I feel like crap. I think in my whole career, that was the first call that didn’t lead with my ID. I shouldn’t have let my experience the day before color me. But on the bright side, Mr. Thompkins said that as an ethics expert, my self questioning is just what he wants to hear. At the same time, he said he doesn’t want to hang up thinking I’ll be “pussy-footing” around anybody from here on out trying to block a story because of this minor sin. But for reporters, having reluctance to reveal yourself is always a tantalizing tease because you know officials and bureaucrats can run like white tailed deer even if the goal is to make them look good.
That’s bait I can’t take. Live and learn.
This is a quickie.
I’ve talked before about some of the techniques interviewers use to get people to talk, including things that are against the conventions of regular conversation that make them so uncomfortable that it forces them to talk.
One of those things is the forced silence interviewers employ to make people keep talking. In regular conversation, most people struggle to avoid dead, awkward silence. But reporters and interviewers, as a way to make people talk about things they’d rather avoid, sometimes stay purposely quiet, leaving the interviewee to stand alone in that silence. Within moments, usually, they say something, anything, to not be in that silence anymore.
Nancy Updike, a producer for This American Life recently used this tried and true technique to mixed effect. Ms. Updike was doing a story about Iraqis and how they privately claim a shiite or sunni identity but profess an Iraqi nationalism publicly. In the course of her interviews, she was talking to an Iraqi university professor that was describing this tendency of Iraqis to do this.
This is a good place to stop and say that many times, reporters want to drive home a point by in some way, putting a spotlight on it. Whether it’s the special emphasis with which a narrator says certain words, quotations in a print story, a camera operator lingering on a shot for a overly long moment or, as seemed to be the case with Ms. Updike in this story, forcing silence on silence.
It seemed to me that Ms. Updike was not only trying to show the hypocrisy of the professor by focusing listener attention on the fact that this authority was part of the problem he was describing, but forcing that expert to dig his own hole of hypocrisy even deeper by leaving him in reporter silence to ramble about that hyporcisy.
To an extent, the technique worked in that the professor admitted that, yes, he did do what he said Iraqis in general do. But it stopped working when that authority, having admitted his complicity, stopped talking and, in fact, started calling out to Ms. Updike. She had remained so quiet for so long that he thought the connection had been broken.
At that point, Ms. Updike’s silence started to look unnecessary. The admission had been extracted and journalism had been served. When the professor started to call out, “Nancy, Nancy …” he was suddenly humanized in a way we all can relate to when we are talking with someone and sharing ourselves only to realize the call may have dropped.
She jumped back in, acknowledging that she was still there and after that, there were no more forced silences. But it is an instructive example that every journalistic technique walks a wire between information gathering and manipulation. And for a storyteller, you probably don’t want your audience thinking you’re more prone to the latter.
You can hear this at about the 49:30 minute point at this “This American Life” episode #529 The Human Spectacle.
This is a link to a great autopsy of a rough interview – http://www.oregonlive.com/celebrity-news/index.ssf/2014/06/mila_kunis_chilly_interview_wi.html. The interviewer is Stephen Whitty of the Newark Star Ledger. He is trying to talk with A-list actor Mila Kunis. She was doing press interviews for her upcoming film, “The Third Person”. Witty’s review of his talk w/Ms. Kunis is an in-the-trenches up close look at how interviews can go wrong and how you don’t always know why.
The main thing to remember when doing an interview is you don’t know the frame of mind of your interviewee. You might assume that because you are in a good mood and have done good interviews in the past that your interviewee will be in a good mood and trust that you know what you are doing. It is the most reasonable kind of magical thinking but it is based on nothing.
The truth is that any interviewee can have a lot on their mind. Besides personal issues though, famous interviewees can add annoyance with studios and agents who make them to do interviews to interviewers who may (as far as the interviewee is concerned) inadvertently ask them the same pedantic questions as the interviewer before.
Whitty is triaging the interview while he is conducting it and Ms. Kunis seems to be shooting down every approach he tries to get her to open up. He wonders if his opening question triggered her ire over a fresh Marie Claire interview that may have gotten a little too personal. It only gets bumpier from there.
He wonders if he is being punked (Kunis is engaged to Ashton Kutcher) and he tries to triangulate where she is most comfortable to do the most talking. He asks her about the movie roles she’s taken and is she trying to branch out from previous ones. Not especially. Is she willing to talk about her family’s emigration from Russia? She considers that question pat. His question about whether she has any family in the Ukraine, in light of all of the current political turmoil there, gets Whitty a flat “no”. And Ms. Kunis anticipates his next question, which is whether or not she identifies with what is happening there. She does not.
Whitty is trying all of the tricks that, in tough interviews, are intended to get an interviewee talking about themselves on an emotional level. But it’s not working. He asks Kunis has she always wanted to act and she plays down her own attraction to acting at an early age. So connecting her childhood ambitions to her adult career is out. He knows she has been interested in creating her own projects, but she says that although her company is looking at scripts featuring strong, smart women, she herself isn’t interested in doing any directing.
By this point, Whitty has fought his way through some rough interpersonal dynamics to get to where Kunis is starting to warm up. But unfortunately, his time with her is about done. When he apologizes for upsetting her with not so great questions, she says that it was in fact, “a good interview”. And to be fair, it may have been. Sometimes, we just want to vent. And if Ms. Kunis beat up on Mr. Whitty for her own reasons and he didn’t give up or roll over, she may have considered him worthy of her time, thus grading him high for his willingness to take punishment.
Or maybe, as Whitty says, she’s just a “truly wonderful actress”.
You can tell the sign of a real pro when they question themselves first rather than blame the interviewee for a rough conversation. He says, “And to be fair, it could all be me”. He knows sometimes, interviews are just hard and the interviewer isn’t always as good as they want to be. But that’s probably why he’ll keep doing great ones like this one no matter how terrible they seem on the surface.
Because in the end, we do learn something important about Ms. Kunis. We learn that she can be fussy and impatient and short tempered. In other words, human just like the rest of us.