Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview


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Dog with Tilted Head

I know people who can’t take a tone above about 4000 cycles per second, or hertz.  That’s about the frequency of the standard 1950’s plastic whistle.  Spending so much time in TV and radio, you get used to hearing test tones, squeals, hums and buzzes as you wander through a station and past various studios, editing bays and engineering benches.  But you assume they are temporary; the equipment is warming up, somebody is checking gear, whatever.

But tonight I heard something in an NPR story by Tom Bowman that I’m sure couldn’t have made him happy.  While he reported on a story, I heard a tone at about 12,000 hertz.  At that frequency, the sound is like a teeny, needle sized drill going into the side of your head.  And I know how it happened.

Sometimes, when you’re working in a studio, something isn’t quite right.  There is a mismatch somewhere, a loose cable, a bad circuit, a bleedthrough, an open pot – something.  And you think you’re hearing it but you’re just not sure.  So you record your narration and you edit the soundbyte and the piece is finished.  But then, you hear it later and you hear that thing you hoped wasn’t there, but clearly now; 12,000 hertz that isn’t in the soundbyte.  And you know what that means … it was you.  Not the field gear, not the phone, you.

And to the audience, they might think they’re hearing something else coming from somewhere else; it’s the refrigerator, or the TV or the computer.  Maybe it’s the Android.  But for Bowman and every newsie or producer/editor who spends their day hunched in front of Audacity or Adobe Audition, they know it’s not that.  They know the audience isn’t imagining things.  They’re hearing something that shouldn’t be there, they just aren’t sure what it is.

But we know, and man, that sucks.

Written by Interviewer

December 2, 2015 at 11:24

Thank You

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Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Written by Interviewer

November 27, 2015 at 03:02

Posted in Scratchpad

Don’t Forget the X Factor

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Female terrorist

Oregon Governor Kate Brown said Oregonians have a moral obligation to accept Syrian refugees despite reports that one of the Paris attackers had a Syrian passport.  According to NPR, this has led 23 governors to say they do not want any Syrian refugees and that the President should reconsider his policy of admitting up to ten-thousand refugees.

In a subsequent story, emphasis was placed on the number of single, combat aged men, who assumedly are most capable of conducting such terrorist operations.  However, the story ignored the number of single, combat aged women.  Jayne Huckerby, an associate professor at Duke University law school who advises governments in counter-terrorism strategies told the Los Angeles Times that female terrorists have a long history of exploiting gender stereotypes to avoid detection, and through counter-terrorism measures, have become more effective.  She says women account for about 10% of those joining Islamic State from Europe and about 20% of those joining from France.

Female terrorist ranks include 57-year old grandmother Fatima Omar Mahmoud Al Majjar.  She attempted to kill two Israeli soldiers in 2007.  Also, Samantha Lewthwaite, the infamous “White Widow” for her involvement in a case in Kenya in 2011.  According to Philip Perry of Liberty Voice, female acts of terrorism have skyrocketed since the 1980s, taking place in such countries as Palestine, Iraq, Israel, Chechnya, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco and Sri Lanka. Half the suicide bombings in Turkey, Sri Lanka and Chechnya since 2002 have been perpetrated by women. In 2008 Iraqi female bombers had detonated themselves 21 times before the year was even halfway over.

The moral obligation of the United States to help people fleeing for their lives remains unchanged.  And as these stories are told, the media must continue to struggle to not profile.  But newsworthy statistics that are part of the equation should also be part of the story.

Photo by Hanna Kozlowska of the Chauthi Duniya newspaper

Written by Interviewer

November 18, 2015 at 06:31

Teaching to the Wrong Test

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Melissa Click

Two University of Missouri faculty members are apologizing to journalists they tried to bully off the campus’ Carnahan Quad yesterday.

Assistant Professor of Mass Media, Melissa Click (shown) and Director of Greek Life, Janna Basler tried to prevent at least two journalists from covering an event called “Concerened Students 1950”, a student and faculty group that says it seeks the liberation of black collegiate students.

According to CBS, the event was promoted by the school and journalists were invited to attend.  But two days before the event, reporters were told not to attend.  Video reporter Mark Schierbecker and photographer Tim Tai were forced off campus, but not before Schierbecker’s camera captured Click yelling to other students to provide some “muscle” to help eject them from the event. Religious Studies Department chairman Richard J “Chip” Callahan, who was standing behind students blocking the videographer said to Tai when he appealed for help, “Don’t talk to me.  It’s not my problem”.   The St. Louis Post Dispatch reports that Callahan and Click share a common address.

Schierbecker’s video has gone viral and has sparked an ironic debate over communications professors who censor with critics ranging from Jonathan Chait at the NY Times to Rod Dreher from the American Conservative condemning Click. CNN Money is reporting that Click has blocked access to her Twitter account while Basler has deleted her account.  She and Basler were also roundly criticized by other communications faculty for their behavior.

After the clash, Concerned Students 1950 tweeted an image of a flier upholding the First Amendment right of the media to be welcomed and showed their appreciation for the coverage.

Both Basler and Click have issued apologies.  Basler’s said, in part, “I regret how I handled the situation and am offering a public apology to the journalist involved.”  In Click’s statement, she said “I regret the language and strategies I used and sincerely apologize to the MU campus community and journalists at large for my behavior …”  Click has also resigned her courtesy appointment with the University’s School of Communications.  According to Linkedin, She has a B.A. in Business Administration from James Madison University and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The University clarified that Click is a professor of communications, not journalism.

But even that, it seems, is debatable.

To me, the worst part in all this is that something we thought could be depended on to bring us a good story; i.e. journalism, was attacked by the very people responsible for promoting it, while that thing that deserved to be highlighted, namely the continued injustices to blacks and other minorities, was sidelined by this ignorance and ridiculousness.  Even sadder is that students didn’t know they were helping do it to themselves.

Video image by Mark Schierbecker

Cecil the Lion and OR-7

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wolf in scope

What do lions and wolves have in common?  Canus lupus and panthera leo aren’t exactly close relatives.  But yesterday, biologists with Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife recommended removing wolves from Oregon’s endangered species list.  The new rules to be voted on, will let the state kill more of the predators based on conservation targets in the state Wolf Management Plan.  It also lets farmers kill wolves that are chasing livestock.  And the announcement reminded me of something.

Up until two years ago, wolves were the darling endangered predator.  State residents heard wall to wall coverage on the movement of OR-7, a radio tagged wolf that wildlife officials labeled as the key to helping the recovery of Oregon’s discimated wolf population.  But recent news reports speak of the existence of other wolves thought dead who have sired more wolf pups in heretofore unknown packs as well as those by OR-7 and other wolf breeding pairs.

It is interesting to see how the narrative shifts as circumstances change.  Of course, life is a fluid situation.  But stories that sound initially mythic can plant the idea in people’s minds that once something is, like a hero’s journey, (even if that hero is a wolf), that story never can or should change.  Removing those same wolves from the endangered species list and making them subject to be shot by hunters and farmers crashes hard into what we were hearing in 2013 about how OR-7 was practically the last of his kind struggling to survive.  And as we heard more stories of how he was suceeding, the fairy tale of the heroic and anthropomorthized wolf grew.

If any of Oregon’s radio tagged wolves, and especially OR-7 is killed, will we experience our own Cecil the Lion moment?  How will journalists tell the new story and how will the audience reconcile it with the old one?

It’s an example how life continues even in fairy tales after “The End”.

Written by Interviewer

October 30, 2015 at 23:26

She’s More than That

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Card Tricks

Stephen Colbert, the new host of the Late Show, recently interviewed Malalla Yousafzai.

I’ve seen her in other interviews, most notably with Jon Stewart.  I remembered the story about how her brothers needed to mind her because she was a world famous activist and how they aggravated her because they ignored her.  I remebered the story of her being shot by the Taliban when she was 15 and how she had been advocating for girl’s and women’s rights since she was 11.  And although Ms. Yousafzai is supremely impressive in her work, I had a sinking feeling that Mr. Colbert’s interview would be a loose retreading of Mr. Stewart’s conversation.

As an interviewer, it can be a struggle to not ask the questions everybody asks.  When interviewing authors, for instance, promoters often send a list of questions.  I think that’s pitiful and ridiculous.  If an interviewer is interviewing an author but is too lazy to do the research to create some decent questions, they shouldn’t be wasting the guest’s time.

At the very least, it shows a lack of imagination.

But then, out of the blue, Stephen Colbert asked Ms. Yousafzai if she knew any card tricks and pulled out two decks of cards.  Apparently, she likes magic and knows how to do card tricks.  The Late Show did its due diligence and discovered that jewel in advance.  And he didn’t have to do much coaxing.  She picked up the cards, he made her laugh and she responded by doing a card trick that completely changed the  interaction between her and me, the viewer.

Suddenly, I didn’t see her as the world famous, UN addressing, Nobel Prize winning, Malalla Fund inspiring icon.  Suddenly, I saw her as a 17 young woman year old who could relax enough to have some fun and put one over on Stephen Colbert.

I have to thank Stephen Colbert for that.  He reminded me that the job of a good interviewer is to reveal a part of a guest that a listener or a viewer might not expect to see; a part of the guest the audience might not even know is there.  We can get so used to seeing people a certain way; a hero, a villain, a victim, a geek, an entrepreneur, we can forget they have layers. They have senses of humor and fears and joys and mischevious sides.

There are at least 141 references to that card trick online.  With so much at stake surrounding every little thing she does, how often does someone like Malalla Yousafzai get a chance to goof on somebody else?   So when a good interviewer lets them be a little less of what they’re known for and a little more of who they are, its great for all of us.

Written by Interviewer

October 20, 2015 at 14:52

TV Logistics of Interviewing the President

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Rose Garden

The interview between President Obama and Steve Croft of CBS News highlights some of the logistical issues when doing an interview with a high profile interviewee.

The interview was presented in at least two segments.  One segment was the portion that took place inside the White House.  In that interview, there are occasions when Mr. Croft’s face is predominant in the shot, times when Mr. Obama’s face is predominant and times when both men are in the shot.  Here, there is the luxury of at least two and maybe more cameras.  These cameras are on tripods and the room has excellent lighting and sound.  This arrangement gives the viewer a full, high quality view of the interchange between both people together and individually.

It also is the best situation for the editor who must later reduce the entire conversation to something that fits into the available broadcast time slot.  The reporter knows to re-ask questions if necessary, to ask the interviewee to repeat answers if needed or to get reaction shots (a look that implies the listener is concentrating on what the speaker is saying).  This is good for the editor because reaction shots not only help move the conversation forward in the natural back and forth way people expect, but they give the editor a chance to butt portions of the conversation together that might not have been together in the original talk.  This can help truncate the conversation or cover a mistakes.  In an indoor setting with those kind of resources, do overs are less of a big deal.

But the other segment of the interview took place along the walkway bordering the Rose Garden that leads to the President’s office.  Here, there was only one camera.  It was shoulder-mounted, or possibly on a body-pod.  The lighting and sound is not as good as it is inside.  The shot may not be as steady.  So the reporter and camera-operator need to use different techniques outside.

One of them is the classic walk and stop.  The President and Mr. Croft are chatting as they walk down the sidewalk toward the camera while the camera is also moving backwards.  At some point, Mr. Croft stops.  Mr. Obama then also stops and the camera-operator gets the chance to better frame the two of them while they continue to talk.  This is a technique reporters often use to take subtle control of the conversation.  You’ll see them use this slightly dramatic device a lot at the start of their stories as part of their lead in.

But one camera greatly limits how this portion of the interview can be edited later because there isn’t the flexibility that comes with video provided by other cameras.  And if you have an interviewee like the President who is being closely managed by a communications manager or other staff who probably want to get him inside, there may not be time to get the best shots that make the editing easy and seamless later.

This was clear during the outside portion.  You see the President and Mr. Croft standing together.  The shot was framed so that Mr. Obama’s right profile was facing the camera while Mr. Croft was to his left and almost centered.  In the next shot, the two men are at 45 degrees to each other and centered in the camera – a two shot.  In TV parlance, the abrupt scene change is called a jump-cut.  Since there was no second camera, there was no reaction shot, so the abrupt change couldn’t be hidden.  And its likely that the decision was made that the President would not be asked to repeat answers so the camera operator couldn’t get a shot that would make the editing easier and less jarring later.

I’ve spent many years behind a video camera, both in the studio and in the field, and as just as many in an edit bay.  When you’re shooting and you know you can’t get the shot you need, you’re not looking forward to the editing because you know it’s not going to look the way you want.  But sometimes, it just can’t be helped.

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Written by Interviewer

October 12, 2015 at 22:59


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