Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

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

Shutters and President Obama

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President Obama has just finished speaking about our nation’s most recent mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon.  As of this writing, the Associated Press is reporting 13 people have been killed by an as of yet unidentified shooter at Umpqua Community College in Douglas County.  It was by far Mr. Obama’s most passionate, most animated and most comprehensive speech about gun laws, gun rights and gun violence in the United States.

Amelia Templeton of Oregon Public Broadcasting said he sounded “weary” to be making what the President himself reluctanly called another “routine” speech about another school shooting.

What I noticed was the frequency of camera shutter clicks as he spoke.  At the start of the press conference, the throng of photographers were clicking furiously.  It sounded like there were at least a dozen or more photographers in the room.  But as he spoke and the intensity in his voice rose, the clicking diminished, until by the very end of the speech, there were hardly any clicks at all.

Photographers are trained to pick up fine changes in facial expressions to capture the emotion in their pictures.  Perhaps all of the angles they were looking for were found in the first few minutes of the conference.  But I wonder if they were caught off guard by the fury in Mr. Obama’s voice and for a few minutes, forgot to press their shutters.  It’s possible.  I know I stopped and turned toward the radio, surprised by the frustration in his voice.  News people can be temporarily suspended like everybody else.

May God bless the victims and their families in the wake of this needless tragedy.

UPDATE: As of 5 p.m. PST, Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin has confirmed 10 causalities and three critically wounded.

Written by Interviewer

October 2, 2015 at 05:50

Posted in Scratchpad

Edit This

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An unflattering video. Suspicious editing. People’s character under attack.

This isn’t about the current controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood. ICYMI, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards defended herself before a congressional committee yesterday. The issue was a secretly recorded video that seemed to show planned parenthood employees talking about the organization making money from the sale of aborted fetal tissue. The video has prompted congressional Republicans to try to eliminate all federal funding to Planned Parenthood.

No, this is about former Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sharrod. Ms. Sharrod, a black woman, was attacked for allegedly making racist comments during a public meeting in 2010. The meeting was videotaped and edited by conservative activist Andrew Breitbart and widely distributed to politicians and news outlets.

The NAACP subsequently attacked Ms. Sharrod and she was pressured to resign from her federal appointment as Georgia State Director of USDA Rural Development. It was later discovered that Ms. Sharrod had not made racist comments and had been unjustly portrayed by Mr. Breitbart as well as unjustly vilified by the NAACP and Obama administration. In a turn around, then Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack offered Ms. Sharrod a high level appointment which she turned down before quietly retiring from Federal service.

These stories share not just questionably edited video but that despite the fact that both videos were known to be heavily doctored by individuals with a strong ideological bent, policy makers considered them legitimate and thus, a basis for attack.

That people will fight to protect their own view of the world is a given. However, no math on Earth argues that 1+1=3. Likewise, an audio or video track is a tangible, electronic footpath of things actually said or actually seen. And when pieces are removed, what’s left might be called “interpretation” by some but a lie by others. That is an issue law enforcement is beginning to face as the public demands to see unedited footage of violent interactions between citizens and the police. It is also why many reporters are now posting unedited audio or video along with their finished interviews.

It is often said, “Truth is the first casualty of war”. In the war of words between battling ideologies, one has to marvel at the extent some will go to reshape reality as much as the extent to which others will go to believe it.

Because the fact is, in the world of politics, facts only matter until they don’t.

Donald Trump Not Knocked Down Again

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I watched with interest Scott Pelley’s 60 Minutes interview with Donald Trump.  What I got out of it was that although Mr. Pelley pounded Mr. Trump with rapid fire questions, Mr. Trump responded with rapid fire answers that were totally coherent.

I remember when former presidential candidates struggled over geo-political, international finance, or immigration issues.  Donald Trump did not struggle.  He admitted his eschewed and outsider status with establishment politicians.  He reiterated his intention to build a wall on the US-Mexico border, retrieve American jobs from Asia and reduce America’s support of certain countries in the Middle East.  He outlined a complicated tax policy. The thing about Donald Trump is although he is extreme, he does seem to own up to the things Republicans wish the traunche of current candidates had the guts to say.

The problem is that the Republicans who support Mr. Trump are not the majority of voters who, according to a century of polls, are what statisticians like to call “Middle America.”  Middle America is generally accepting of the intracacies of the economy, the problems with immigration and the complications of international relations than their more conservative countrymen.  They know the President has to walk a thin line and they don’t want Wall Street gouging them no matter how much the more free market thinkers among us think more money means better everything.

But as I watched the interview, I noticed that between the interview segments, the story reinforced Trump’s growing power, popularity and influence.  It acknowledged him as an egotist but also as a power broker.  And without the yelling that normally orbits a Trump interview, I noticed what seemed to me Mr. Trump extracting quiet respect from Mr. Pelly.

When he challenged Trump on him saying that if the presidency doesn’t work out, he’ll go back to business, I thought to myself, that probably wasn’t the best indictment of someone’s qualifications.  I remembed hearing something very similar regarding George Washington, our first president.  Apparently, Mr. Washington didn’t seek the presidency either.  But he was asked repeatedly by his peers and took the job reluctantly.  And when his term was finished, he returned to his quiet life as a successful businessman.

I haven’t watched the segments of the interview that didn’t make it into the 60 Minutes story,  But Mr. Pelley fired all of his questions and Donald Trump emerged from the inteview standing.  Throughout it all, Mr. Trump displayed an air of confidence if bordering arrogance, of assertion if bordering aggression, of vision if bordering magical thinking.  But he hardly sounded any worse than any in the current Republican presidential field who say everything but what their constituents wish they would.  I can’t tell if they’re worse than Trump because they’re not as honest or better than Trump because they’re more diplomatic.  But either way, he’s got to be their worst nightmare.  He has Reagan’s optimism for America, Chris Christie’s ability to throw a punch, Ted Cruz’s brainpower and he’s not politically correct.

It will be very interesting to see what happens in the weeks and months to come.

Written by Interviewer

September 28, 2015 at 10:28

Posted in Scratchpad

News, Politics and Dead Children

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I just listened to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a follow up report by CBC reporter Nahlah Ayed on the BBC Newshour.  A family in which a father, Abdullah Kurdi, lost both of his boys and his wife as he tried to get them to Europe from Turkey and the grief of the remaining family was featured.  One of his sons has become the subject of worldwide revulsion.  More about that later.

As I listened to the father and his sister crying over the death of the children, and the father’s pledge to put a banana on their graves each day (the children loved bananas), I was thinking about the function of emotional impact on breaking news stories and how politicians gravitate between amplifying and attenuating that impact in their own political self-interest.

When Terry Schiavo was at the center of a life support termination whirlwind in the early 2000s, the conservative elements of the American Congress rallied, along with then President George W. Bush, to try to prevent her husband from disconnecting Ms. Schiavo.  The Congress intervened as the country was embroiled in a debate about what constituted “persistant vegetative state”.  Eventually Mr. Schiavo did disconnect his wife from life support despite what some called the misplaced efforts of Congress.

This refugee crisis issue doesn’t seem much different in that the life of a people and their right to survive is being counterbalanced against public opinion which has again translated into political calculation.  Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing Iraq and Syria, crossing the Mediterranian, and landing in Greece and Turkey as they try to make it to Germany.  Germany has opened it’s doors to them but curiously, those people are being blocked by Hungary and are unable to reach Germany.  David Milliband, former Home Secretary for Great Britian, told Todd Zwllich of The Takeway today that the United States needs to begin taking more refugees to help reduce Europe’s crisis.

The Newshour’s Tim Franks paraphrased the speech by Mr. Harper addressing the crisis by saying that people can expect many more deaths.  Mr. Harper himself said he has visited a refugee camp and said the numbers of people awaiting transit to Europe stretches into the millions.  That clip, though possibly incomplete, seems to suggest that although there will be more deaths, we should not be surprised by them.  And that seems to be an oh-so-gentle way of beginning the distancing of the political responsibility from the humanitarian crisis.  That he has visited a camp apparently buys him little on the way to being able to actually address its existence.

Europe is hamstrung as to what to do about the flow of refugees, even though the spigot was turned on the moment President Assad of Syria began barrell-bombing citizens he called dissidents and turning a blind eye to ISIS operatives in his territory.  That is what began the flow of people west and north away from the Middle East and North Africa.  And it represents a second catastrophic failure of political will by the world in general.

Injured and dead children are no motivation for change.  Phan Thị Kim Phúc, also known as “Napalm Girl” from the famous photo taken in 1972 during the Vietnam War was nine.  The war raged on for three more years.  And if twenty murdered six year olds at Sandy Hook Elementary School by a gunman in 2012 didn’t affect the politics of guns in one of the most powerful and progressive countries on Earth, the ability of other nations to successfully address their own crisis doesn’t look hopeful.  Maybe it’s a defect in human DNA.  But when babies, like 2-year old Alyan Kurdi, the son of the father mentioned above, wash up on beaches as corpses or disappear beneath oceans because elections, public opinion, budgets and soverignty collide with empathy, resolution promises to be a long, slow, grinding process in which many many, many more will die indeed.

As a reporter, I understand how vile and intransigent politics and politicians can sometimes be.  But as a listener hearing a crying father, or as a reader looking at a picture of a toddler in tiny tennis shoes face down in beach sand, I find me sometimes asking journalism, “What am I supposed to do with this horror?”

Photo by Virginia Mayo of Reuters

Katrina Memories

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November 2004 Pictures 661

Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina came ashore in New Orleans. The hurricane didn’t do the worst damage. The breaking levees did. By the time I, as a public affairs specialist for the Department of Interior, arrived as part of an interagency cohort to assist FEMA with disaster communications, a month had passed.

I first went to Little Rock as the PAO for the Katrina field office. Through a snafu between agencies, I was forced to return to my home state in Utah. But after an appeal to higher DOI authorities by a FEMA disaster coordinator also with high authority, I was sent to the FEMA Joint Information Center in Austin. For the next month, I and a team of other FEMA staff and agency PAOs conducted press conferences, disseminated disaster information and helped the JIC coordinate between the state, localities and the feds about everything from abatement checks to bottled water.  And we worked not only in the aftermath of Katrina, but also of Hurricane Rita.

Then, three months later, I was sent to New Orleans as a debris specialist for the Army Corps of Engineers, where I inspected debris haulers to insure their loads were carrying acceptable debris and weren’t violating load requirements as set by FEMA, the Corps and the EPA.

In both cases, the assignments were a month long and each day was 12-hours. By the time I left, I never wanted to see another broken anything again. But there are memories I will never lose.

  • An acres-big field of nothing but water logged refrigerators and freezers, unopened, and full of spoiled food.
  • Miles of dead trees all bent at the same angle
  • The Louisana Superdome with huge blue jean like patches on the roof
  • A rusted barge, visible from the bridges, protruding into a lower ninth ward levee
  • Streets full of real houses that look like stomped on toy houses
  • A steel freeway billboard sign bent parallel to the highway
  • Mardi Gras and ankle deep garbage on Bourbon St.
  • Watching the end of Mardi Gras marked by a line of mounted police pushing drunk revelers ahead of them off Bourbon St.
  • A water line two feet above my head drawn on every building in sight
  • Eating a dinner of black bean and sausage soup in a restaurant with a “B” on a piece of paper taped to the window
  • Every windshield of every car seemed to be cracked
  • The flooded out and destroyed Walmart on Tchoupitoulas St. not far from the Corps field office.
  • Vast and ghostly expanses of empty neighborhoods
  • A stolen, burnt Ferrari discovered right behind my work assignment one morning that wasn’t there the night before

And many, many more.

I hope to go to New Orleans someday. Maybe even Second-Line. But today, I remember the people who suffered, who died and everyone who worked so very hard to try to make it right.

And I remember the sentiment of New Orleanians, as expressed in something I found scrawled on a bathroom wall.

Photo by me.

Written by Interviewer

August 30, 2015 at 08:05

Ad Perpetuam Memoriam

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Microphone and Ribbon

Two journalists from WDBJ TV in Roanoke, Virginia, reporter Allison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward, were killed by a former station employee while they conducted a live TV interview.  According to NPR’s Sandy Housman, the image of Vester Lee Flanigan, who worked as a reporter under the name of Bryce Williams, was captured by videographer Adam Ward’s camera.  Flanigan apparently also videotaped himself carrying out the shooting and later, posted it on social media.  The BBC reported that as someone who understood the power of TV and video, Mr. Flanigan stalked and ambushed both journalists.  Virginia police reported Flanagan suffered a self-inflicted, life threatening gunshot wound and has been transported to a local hospital.  He has since died from those wounds.

I cried when I heard of the shootings.  I’ve worked in a TV newsroom.  I’ve worked the early morning shift with people who shuffle in at two and three in the morning and scrounge for stories to have ready by a 6 or 7 a.m. newscast.  I’ve joked with cameramen as they grabbed their gear and warmed up a truck.  I’ve watched reporters scoop up notebooks and tape recorders as they hurry out the door into the dark to get ready for some live shot who-knows-where.

An American journalist hasn’t been murdered in America since 2007.  According to Wikipedia, Chauncy Bailey of the Oakland Post was the most recent reporter killed by the target of an investigative report he was working on.  The Committee to Protect Journalists says 1141 journalists have been killed around the world since 1992.  But many American journalists have been killed on American soil.  Wikipedia lists 48 journalists killed in the United States since 1837.

I have never been in a reporting situation where I thought my life was in danger.  But, this simple and routine interview these two professionals went to cover; one of a thousand they’ve done before, almost certainly seemed ordinary and harmless to them as well.

Allison Parker – WDBJ-TV Reporter
Adam Ward – WDBJ-TV Cameraman

Written by Interviewer

August 26, 2015 at 23:13


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