Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Are You There?

leave a comment »

Image

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.

Advertisements

Written by Interviewer

June 30, 2014 at 01:24

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: