Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Hard Telling

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I’ve got plenty of stuff to do. I’m working on three interviews right now. I’m working on some long term projects with an organization dedicated to helping changes some of the negative messages targeted at black youth. There is the finding of new interviews, maintaining and updating my website, building transcripts for interviews, etc. And of course, I’ve got a dozen other projects that have nothing to do with interviews.

So why would I take on a monster of a task of trying to tell the story of a worthwhile non-profit that is rent from within, and wailing like a shot animal? And why would I do it with no clear audience or market?

I’ve been thinking about that question a lot. And when I find me being dragged towards a story, the first thing that compels me to tell it is I’m interested in it because I’m somehow invested in it. I care about it, or I care about the people associated with it. Or I care about the people innocently affected by it.  In other words, I have a connection.

The next step is seeing the turmoil it is suffering but not understanding the turmoil that this place I care about is going through. I mean, if the people it serves can see it is in turmoil, and the people within it doing the work admit it is in turmoil, and the organizations that oversee it see it is in turmoil, and the organizations that work with it as peer organizations see it in turmoil, it’s in turmoil. So saying it is in turmoil is a safe assumption.

The next question to ask is is this a story that needs to be told for the sake of helping to end the turmoil or clear up the confusion associated with the turmoil? That’s not to say the people involved can’t tell their own story, but like I said, because I’m invested, and because the turmoil seems to be ongoing and is hurting it, maybe there is something I can do to help bring it to a quicker end by way of my attempt to explain it.

The next thing to ask is what do I really know? Not what I’ve heard, not what other people have told me or any over reliance on any snap judgments I might have formed. No, what have I learned or can I learn from primary sources; decision makers, legal documents, statistics, etc. And can secondary sources verify or corroborate other secondary sources? Do or have media reports documented actions or behaviors that are somehow connected to the primary information? I need to collect as much information as possible for as far back as I need to go.

Then, how do I organize it? First, I need to create a timeline, because everything follows the timeline. Once I can start associating events and people to the timeline, I can start connecting the people and the events, meaning, I start building a relationship map. How are people connected to events and each other? Are they connected by emotion? By self interest? By history? And once that’s on the way, the story starts to tell itself in a logical flow, from beginning to end and right through the middle.

Finally, the telling. And that assumes at least half of the people will agree with my telling of the story and move to do something about it. Of course, that also assumes they care as much or more about the place as I do. But it also assumes that the other half will vehemently disagree with me, call me part of the problem and attack me as an outsider, a bomb thrower, an ignorant third part with no understanding of the “true” nature of the place or the problem, or someone too loyal to one side or the other to be considered a fair arbiter.

That, though, is to be expected and not to be taken all that personally. People believe what they believe for a reason. Maybe the old way something works may not be the best way, but it’s all they know and any threat of change makes it a bad one. Maybe some people are getting what they’ve always gotten and talking about a change in the status quo or remembering stuff other people have forgotten is a direct threat to their influence. Maybe they think everything is fine and if it’s just left alone, it’ll fix itself the way it’s always fixed itself. Or maybe they really want to see a change because they can see that thing they care about circling the drain, but they just can’t stand up to the pressure of a dominant clique or group.

It’s that old American virtue and vice; things will always be better tomorrow. Fifty percent of the time, it’s a virtue, and fifty percent of the time, it’s a vice. Problem is, you never know which fifty percent goes with which circumstance. That’s why it’s always so sad when people wake up and find that thing they love, gone, destroyed, taken away by the authorities. Sort of like people who believe it could never happen because we just won’t let it, or we’ve never had tornadoes here. And then an F3 rips the roof off.

This kind of storytelling takes time and digging. It’s takes looking at my own assumptions and not being any easier on them just because they’re mine. It means being willing to go where the facts take me, even if it’s a dead end. And it means looking at everyone, those I care about and those I don’t necessarily care about, the same way. And finally, it means being willing to suffer the loss of the first group for a bigger purpose. That’s the part that sucks. Because sometimes, you discover you don’t give a damn about the bigger purpose out there. In the course of the work, you’re pointed into a direction that you kind of have no choice but to follow because the real bigger purpose isn’t outside you, but inside you.


Written by Interviewer

May 14, 2013 at 13:24

Posted in Scratchpad

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