Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Archive for April 2014

When Will They Ever Learn?

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Yesterday morning, Jeremy Hobson of the NPR Program Here and Now was interviewing Cardiff Garcia of the Financial Times.  The conversation was about drug company Pfizer trying to again acquire drug company AstraZeneca.

At the end of the interview, no doubt because Mr. Hobson was running out of time, he asked Mr. Garcia for a one word answer as to whether recent mergers in the drug industry represented a healthy or unhealthy environment for the companies.

Mr. Garcia gave Mr. Hobson exactly 78 words.

By telling an interviewee to answer a question in a single word, phrase or sentence, professional interviewers like to think they have total control over interviews and interviewees.  But professional interviewees know how to play this game too.  And often, they will talk just as long as they want until they themselves hear the cue music loud in their headphones, indicating that the host is experiencing a panic attack, trying to end the interview on time.

This tactic represents a kind of insincerity in the interviewing profession.  Maybe interviewers assume they won’t get a one word answer.  Maybe it’s a”wink wink, nod nod” kind of thing between the two.  When I say one word, it means you need to wrap it up.  We all know issues can be complicated and sometimes to protect their own credibility, a guest can’t or won’t try to boil down a request to answer an impossibly complex question into a one word answer.

But sometimes, when interviewers say, “one word”, interviewees do respond with “one word”.  So, there is a consistency problem that might not completely set with some listeners.  Interviewers probably sense somewhere that it is, to some extent, unfair to expect an nterviewee to boil something down to a single word.  If an interviewee can do it, then they should.  If an interviewer is asking them for a one word answer, it’s because they are out of time but want to put a bow on the point of the conversation.  Or maybe it’s because they know the interviewee can be long winded and they don’t want to find themselves out of time.  Besides, it certainly makes it more likely that an interviewee will be invited on other programs if they can show that they can summarize in a crunch.

But the interviewer can’t cram every second of the interview with questions and then leave the interviewee no time to answer the final question “lightning round” style.

It reminds me of a sign I used to see inside a lot of office cubes; “A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part”.  That applies to interviewing too. Each side should to be aware of and sensitive to the needs and limitations of the other.

Written by Interviewer

April 30, 2014 at 23:42

Playin’ Games

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A report in the West Coast version of CBS This Morning spoke succinctly on LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling.  Mr. Sterling is accused of making racist comments to his girlfriend, which she allegedly then released to the media.  The content of that conversation isn’t the focus of this blogpost.  The way the report shared a surprise to this viewer, is.

In the report, video from a paparazzo and his cameraman were shown tracking Mr. Sterling down to a restaurant and caught he and his fellow diner as they were leaving.  His fellow diner, according to the report, was his wife.

It was such a quick and passing reference in the CBS This Morning story that you could’ve easily missed it.  But faries don’t conceive, schedule, shoot, voice and edit news stories.  Nothing gets in by accident.

And I’m sure it is well known that Mr. Sterling is married.  But news reports over the last few days have heavily emphasized Mr. Sterling and his girlfriend in audio clips and photographs of them seated side by side at LA Clipper basketball games.

Perhaps it was just in the course of good journalism for CBS to reference another media source trying to get a quote from Mr. Sterling.  Reporters do it all the time.  But to show video of Mr. Sterling and his wife, in the wake of the last paragraph, telegraphs an entirely different message.

I’ve said before how media can be a dark art.  Often, the work it does can be accused of being dual use, like a pharmaceutical plant that can also make chemical weapons. What can innocently seem like one can actually and deliberately be the other.  To parahprase the old Clarol commercials, “Only the reporter knows for sure”.

It’s an example of how a news story and the reporters and outlets that do them can be as innocent as the driven snow, and at the same time, be true wizards of the dark side.

Written by Interviewer

April 29, 2014 at 21:34

Posted in Scratchpad

Painful

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Just so you know, that’s what a live forum can be if you don’t have the time to properly prepare.  I am still wincing a little.  Tonight was the first of three candidate forums with legislative, executive branch and  congressional candidates in advance of Oregon’s primary election on May 20th.

Eight legislative candidates came.  The board op was great.  The timer was great.  The news director was great.  But at a community radio staton, there is no overabundance of support staff.  So a lot that gets done has to be done by the person who has the original idea.  In this case, that would be me.

That is fine, unless, as my old relatives used to say, “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach”.  In other words, if you’re trying to do more than you’re able.  And in my case, it was trying to do everything perfectly and forgetting to write an intro script for myself.

The simplest thing in the world.  Just a couple of sentences to set the whole thing up and get out the first question.  But running into the studio, with a whole bunch of little snafus leading up to the red light going on left me with not even a couple minutes to scribble out anything but the briefiest of notes to me.

Which is fine, but people who’ve been in journalism their whole life rely partly on ad-libbing and partly on the written word.  And sometimes, if the written word isn’t there (scribbling doesn’t always count), the ad-libbing isn’t either.  Sometimes, under duress, you can’t read your own writing.

So my first minutes of the live forum was me thrashing around for my thoughts because I didn’t have time to give me a good opening.  I eventually hooked onto my focus, like some wildly swinging grappling hook that finds a piece of chain link fence.  After that, I can admit the rest of the forum went pretty well.  But of course, that’s not enough.

I will listen to the forum because it’ll remind me to never let such a flub happen again.  Thing is though, in my past, other stuff just as unsatisfying has happened, and more than once.  It’s called experience.   My peers would say, let it go. They’re right. I can laugh about it later.  Newsrooms pass around DVDs of bloopers that the public never sees of some of the most embarrassing shit ever.  So, I’m in good company.   I’ll chalk it up too.  But for now, ow.

It was a reminder to be better.

It was a booster shot.

Written by Interviewer

April 29, 2014 at 11:48

When a Laugh is not a Laugh

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This is a quickie.

I’ve talked before about how an interviewer has to be careful sometimes in sharing a laugh with an interviewee.  Laughing can make people seem connected to an idea more so than many other ways people interact.  Sometimes, an interviewer can’t afford to have an audience think they have a particular bent.

But this is about the interviewee’s laugh and not in a good way.  Of course laughter can be natural, fun, disarming.  It is one of the primary ways we connect.  But sometimes, a laugh is an anthropological proxy for something very different.  In some cases, a laugh says that the interviewee is nervous and they are trying to draw the interviewer into the interviewee’s artificial mood so that they can feel more in control of the situation.

Sometimes, a laugh is intended to dismiss, as when an interviewer asks a question and before the question is out, the interviewee is laughing in a way that clearly says, “That’s a ridiculous question”, followed up by something that isn’t a direct affront but sounds passive aggressive or patronizing.

And sometimes, the laugh is a disguise for aggression.  We’ve all seen it.  The conversation that is held behind gritted teeth because to scowl or grimace or bear teeth without the upturned corners of the mouth might jeopardize what the laugher is trying to achieve.  It might be working their way out of an uncomfortable situtation for which they have much embarassment and no appreciation.  Or it could be dealing with someone they dislike or fear but dare not be obvious about it.  Or it could be interacting with someone for whom they have no respect.

There are a lot of interpersonal dynamics in play during an interview.  The interviewer’s job is to keep his in check and not be drawn in by any play on the his ego by the interviewee’s ego.  This includes the seemingly harmless but potentially crippling use of laughter.  I’ve said it before, but it’s important for the interviewer to be nothing but a mirror to the interviewee.  In that way, they lose any ability to manipulate and are left to just answer the question.

Written by Interviewer

April 28, 2014 at 14:23

Measure Twice, Cut Once

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This is a quickie.

Listening to an interview with an interviewee that speaks nervously requires a drilling down on that interviewee with increasing focus to be able to edit the speech of that interviewee and accurately convey the message they are trying to share.  When you’re listening to an interviewee talk, you should listen first, in a general way.  What is the flow of how and what they are saying?

Then, start listening to exactly what they are saying and asking yourself, it is contextual?  Is it logical?  In other words, does it make sense?  Is the answer answering the question?

Then pay attention to things like tone, pitch, volume and frequency.  When you edit, you want to match these things if possible.  You can’t attach a word ending with a high pitch to a word beginning with a low pitch.  Or a word spoken quickly to a word spoken slowly.  This can be jarring and unnatural.

And finally, listen for personal quirks of speech, such as stuttering or run on sentences for example.  These are part of the person’s character.  You want them to sound good, because a poor speaker can be distracting.  But, you don’t want to sacrifice who they are because of a desire to sanitize their speech patterns.  It’s a balance.   One other thing about that.

Sometimes, it is hard to find a place to cut.  What you’re looking for is a complete thought; what’s called a natural break.  They may talk for five minutes about something, but they make the point in the first :45 seconds.  The problem is because they may ramble, it’s hard to find that natural break.  That breath where, in a conversation, someone listening might think, “OK, new thought.”  So, you may have to go forward a little ways past where you want to stop or backwards a little ways before you wanted to stop to find that natural break.  Just make sure you’re keeping all of the other elements in mind so that when you make the cut, it sounds like you hit the natural break exactly.

When it’s time to start editing, keep all of those elements in your mind like a juggler keeps balls in the air.  They are acoustical differences that can make it physically difficult to cut or move words, syllables or phones.  Challenges to retrieving a complete thought in the editing process while trying to not let an edit sound like an edit, can be like drawing a picture in the dark.  It takes patience, attention to detail and an appreciation of language and the human voice that might be likened to that of a music critic.

Written by Interviewer

April 28, 2014 at 13:46

New Track: Jim Thompson Interview

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A new track on SoundCloud “Jim Thompson Interview”:

Jim Thompson is an Oregon Republican who is running for House District 23. He talked with Don Merrill about why he thinks his district is ready for a Repubican, why he is not a proponent for marijuana and why, as a strong constitutional republican, he believes opponents to gay marriage have lost the fight and need to move on to other issues. *These interviews are part of a project to invite all 2014 candidates to share their views. A transcript of this interview will be posted shortly.

Written by Interviewer

April 26, 2014 at 10:49

Posted in Scratchpad

The Stutter Step

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This is a quickie.

Kai Ryssdal is the host of Marketplace on American Public Media.  He is interviewing Jack Lew, the Secretary of the Treasury and clearly channeling the American consumer, taxpayer & citizen.  Mr. Lew is bullish on the economy.  Kai Ryssdal is pushing him as to why it seems the economy is still dragging.  Mr. Lew says people don’t forget quickly when they lose significant pieces of their lives like houses and jobs.  Fair enough.

But Kai also challenged Mr. Lew when he said businesses are waiting to reinvest in the economy.  Kai said we’ve been hearing for years that businesses need to reinvest but they aren’t.  What’s it going to take?

And finally, he called Mr. Lew on how, whether or not the US gets “upset”, applies sanctions and finds the things Russia, China, Syria, North Korea, et al, does unacceptable – does it mean anything and does it help or hurt US credibility in the world when it seems to US actions seem to not matter. FYI, Mr. Ryssdal can be a clown sometimes, but he can also quickly turn to a viper.

Anyway, in response to those last two, I heard it.  From Mr. Lew, the stutter.  When an interviewee is unsettled by the answer or the question, they do tend to stutter.  It may not mean they doubt what they’re saying.  But it doesn’t imply a strong reply.  And the culture tends to equate stuttering with lying.  Remember “Stutter” from the R&B singer, Joe?  Coincidentally, in the song, the girlfriend stutters even though it was her twin having the affair.

Stuttering is not necessarily a sign of lack of confidence either. Stuttering is sometimes popularly seen as a symptom of anxiety, but there is actually no direct correlation in that direction (though the inverse can be true, as social anxiety may actually develop in individuals as a result of their stuttering, manifesting at its peak if one has just stuttered in a situation or manner the stutterer believes especially unfortunate; as the spike in anxiety can be near-instantaneous, often becoming apparent in mid-syllable, a casual observer will tend to mistake the effect for the cause).

And Mr. Lew, maybe Russia isn’t bothered by US and European sanctions much because they are grabbing the territories and treasuries of former neighbors as a way to offset those sanctions.  But, as Kai likes to say, … I digress.

Bottom line: Just because someone stutters in an interview or a conversation doesn’t necessarily mean they are hiding something.

Good job staying on Mr. Lew for some good answers, Mr. Ryssdal.

Written by Interviewer

April 26, 2014 at 08:50