Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Archive for June 2014

Are You There?

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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.

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June 30, 2014 at 01:24

Pulling Teeth

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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.

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June 28, 2014 at 14:07

An “Ol G” of News

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In my opinion, PRI’s “The Takeaway” is very near to its perfect form.  But it wasn’t always so.  The Takeway arose from the ashes of the Bryant Park Project, an effort in the early 2000s by National Public Radio to create and present a hip, fast paced morning talk show geared toward a younger audience.  BPP was groundbreaking in the way it tried to present its own avant-garde style of news.  But one person’s innovative is another person’s disjointed.  And NPR responded to BPP’s poor ratings by cancelling the program within a few short years of its debut.

The Takeaway, with co-hosts John Hockenberry and Celeste Headlee quickly filled the void and came on strong with hard hitting, fast paced and topical news and feature programming.  It was a response to what public radio listeners wanted in conjunction with NPR’s flagship news program, “Morning Edition”. The Takeaway didn’t chase people away from their radios after Morning Edition as BPP had done.  But early Takeaway had different problems.

Namely, it rocketed through its segments with such speed listeners often didn’t have a chance to take in what they had just heard before they were hearing something new.  And although the two host format does add variety to the mix, it can also contribute to an already too fast pace by making listeners feel they are trying to follow a ping pong ball.  The news was good, the announcing was good, the format was good.

But now, it’s much better.  Hockenberry has taken over the announcing chair.  And in exchange for speed, the program is now “tight”.  Here’s the difference.  Any program that tries to smash too many stories into too little time or does too much experimenting with how it presents news can leave listeners under-informed and frustrated.  It can sound hurried, rushed and unsatisfying. And within that hurriedness there can be other problems.  Dead air, stories that don’t complete the storytelling arc and a flipness to reporting that can sound almost careless point not just to production problems but conceptual problems.

By contrast, calling a program “tight”, in production parlance, is high praise.  Tight means there is a flow between segments with transitions that make sense.  And it means those transitions are so seamless that you don’t notice them. It means the authority of the narration doesn’t talk down to you.  And it means that the mix of that narration, orchestrated with interviews, soundbytes, music and sound effects is credible.  Plus, The Takeaway’s partnerships with the BBC, the New York Times and WGBH in Boston along with Mr. Hockenberry’s presentation give it a width and depth that is rare even within public radio.

Also, Hockenberry is ballsy.  He eschews labels and rolls up to the assumptions society is all to eager to swallow about itself.  He is pushy, relatively loud (by public radio standards) and, dare I say, sometimes indelicate.  That is what makes him so great.  He is, probably, the coolest old white public radio dude ever.  But, I’ll bet he knows that.

Faith Sailee, the original BPP host, along with Celeste Headlee, Mr. Hockenberry’s original co-host have both moved on.  Ms. Sailee is a fixture on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.  And Ms. Headlee is an alternate host for Michelle Martin’s Tell Me More.  While I’m sure Mr. Hockenberry is not satisfied yet with The Takeaway, as a listener, I can see the program has traveled parsecs from where it started.  I am grateful for everything it went through and everyone who worked on it to get it there.

The term “old school” has become shorthand for the measure twice cut once mindset that typifies high quality work.  But sometimes, for some people, you have to go a little further. Back in the day, you called the best of the best an “Ol G“.  As I listen to The Takeaway, I am convinced Mr. Hockenberry has moved into the ranks of an Ol G.

USA Today and KBOO

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classified ad

I love this country.  With a little money and a little idea, you can reach thousands of people.  So, after about eight months, I decided I wanted to let people know about my site, stateconstitutions.us, through a few ads.  I spent the previous few months using press releases to contact the media, politicians, think tanks, etc.  But I decided I wanted to try the most traditional venue to reach an audience – advertising.  My twitter account for stateconstitutions.us. @stconstitutions, is pretty well traveled.  Google Analytics shows respectable visitation.  I just wanted to see though, how much a classified ad would spike traffic.  So I placed a weekend ad in USA Today and a week of underwriting spots for KBOO.  Let’s see what happens.

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June 20, 2014 at 21:32

TMI?

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TMI2

This is a quickie.

Anna Werner of CBS This Morning did an excellent report on cloned vehicles that drug traffickers use to move drugs across the Mexican border into the U.S.  Apparently, they are copying FedEx trucks, ambulances, police vehicles and WALMART semi-tractor trailers.  It was a great, need to know story.  It reminded me of another great story and a caveat.

In 1993, the Society of Professional Journalism published a guidebook called “Doing Ethics in Journalism”.  Under the chapter “Making Ethical Decisions”,  the authors talk about a Pulitzer Prize winning story called “AIDS in the Heartland” by Pioneer Press reporter Jacqui Banaszynski.  They talk about guiding principles Ms. Banaszynski used when writing her story.  Those were:

Seek Truth and Report it as Fully as Possible
Act Independently
Minimize Harm

About that last one, it is assumed to make sense that minimizing harm, as in not letting the revealing of something actually cause damage or help more of it to happen, should be a goal.  Journalism though, might argue that it isn’t.  And there’s the rub.  In Ms. Werner’s story, it was certainly important for the public to know that drug traffickers were moving drugs in legitimately looking vehicles.  But is it minimizing harm to the public by alerting drug dealers that mispellings on the fake logos of those fake vehicles help police spot them better? The argument could be made that a mispelled logo could also alert the public who could, in turn, alert the police.  But you could make the counter argument that making that piece of information public just helped drug traffickers make better logos.

The problem with the story, as I saw it, was it gave a tiny piece of information that may make finding these fakes harder and makes me question those times when and if news reporting goes too far.  For the public, that detail may have been incidental, but for law enforcement, it might be huge.  Some of that responsibility does lie with the police.  If they didn’t want it shared, they probably shouldn’t have shared it.  Of course, if they did consider it minor and purposely released this tidbit, then all this is moot.  But if it slipped into the reporter’s notebook, then so too did some of the responsibility.

When Pakistani student Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban, I asked this same question.  Although this is about drugs, not crazed religious extremists, the principle is the same.  At what point in a story should reporters just stop talking?  We now know that drug dealers mispell logos and maybe, we laugh at them for their ignorance.

But I’m guessing the police aren’t laughing.

Written by Interviewer

June 12, 2014 at 01:00

Crosstalk

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Alan Mulally, the President of Ford Motor Company, was on CBS This Morning with Charlie Rose and Nora O’Donnell.  Mr. Mulally is about to leave the leadership of Ford, and he was talking with Mr. Rose about Ford and his transition.  By watching Mr. Mulally’s body language, you could tell this was someone who is either naturally comfortable and confident, or someone who has an excellent public relations staff.  He leaned forward on the newsdesk toward Mr. Rose with his fingers interlocked.  His expression was calm, his manner was casual.  He was in full control of himself.

Sometimes though, an interviewee like this can be a challenge to an interviewer because of that confidence.  And at one point during the conversation, Mr. Rose and Mr. Mulally were both talking, and they proceeded to do so for at least 5-10 seconds.  People are careful to avoid this in day-to-day conversation in the real world.  And if it starts to happen, it certainly doesn’t last 5-10 seconds.   Usually, when one person realizes they are interrupting another person and are being “rude”, one of them will stop to let the other person continue.  But in interviewing, it is often the case that interviewer and interviewee will try to talk over each other.

Why this happens can vary.  Sometimes, if it’s the interviewee, it may simply be a case of them not realizing the other person is talking because they are so focused on what is in their own mind.  A variant of that is someone who has such a large ego that they aren’t really interested in dialouging with the other person and instead, see them only as a facilitator for their own thoughts.  In another, someone may feel they have been mischaracterized or that their point has been misunderstood and they are trying to take control of the direction of the conversation.

If it’s the interviewer, perhaps they know the interviewee has a reputation of treating interviewers in a subordinate manner and so they come ready to stand toe-to-toe, conversationally speaking.  Or maybe they understand that the interviewee is a high energy person who speaks out of enthusiasm and passion but tends to get on a roll.  For the purposes of time, the interviewer may know they need to govenor the pace to keep the talk on track.  Jian Ghomeshi of the CBC radio program, “Q” also does this.  Ghomeshi, when his pace is ramped up either for time, to match the rythmn of his guest or out of his own sheer excitement, has a staccato way of questioning which when at a fever pitch can sound like swordfighting.

This is similar to when an interviewer is slow-walking a question and, in essence, beating a guest to death with a rubber mallet.  Crosstalk can be both invigorating and frustrating to listeners. Invigorating because it shows that interviews aren’t always the cool and professional conversations most people envision them to be.  Frustrating because when everybody is talking, it can sound like an episode of “Modern Family” – you know something is going on, but you just can’t figure out what.