Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Archive for December 2014

New Track: Thanks to my Twitter folllowers

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A new track on SoundCloud “Thanks to my Twitter folllowers”:

Before New Year 2014, I mention all of my Twitter followers as in this audio file as a way to say thank you for following me.

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December 28, 2014 at 02:06

Posted in Scratchpad

The Nuclear Option

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Nuclear Explosion

In what I believe what may have been one of the few treatments of the CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi situation since late October, Q host Wab Kinew interviewed cultural observers Justin Worland and Tyler Coates about how recent allegations of sexual predation against a spate of stars by victimized women has tainted their public persona.  For most of the interview, Mr. Kinew seemed to be talking around the CBC’s own nightmare.  But at the end, he asked the question I asked in my November 1st blogpost; What will the CBC do with the thousands of hours of conversations recorded by Ghomeshi in his six years as host of the CBC’s flagship arts and entertainment program?  And if they air, would the CBC in some way be condoning Ghomeshi’s alleged behavior?

The CBC, according to Mr. Kinew, has decided to not only not replay any of the interviews Mr. Ghomeshi conducted, but it is apparently in the process of removing all of those interviews from its archive.  By starting fresh and essentially saying those interviews never happened, the CBC has chosen the nuclear option. The discussion was mostly good yesterday memories v bad today news stories; not my focus here.  Besides, both guests had different opinions over how they see the current situation and how they recall questionable behavior from Roman Polanski through Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Ray Rice to Jian Ghomeshi.  It’s a split I suspect divides listeners as well.  Loyalists for these famous men will probably continue to give them the benefit of the doubt.  And in a democratic society, that is their right.

As of this post, only two people had commented on today’s conversation.  And both of them were against deleting the archives.  They feel people should have the choice to listen or not.  That only two people commented on a story that, a month and a half ago, split Q’s massive audience down the middle does seem to say that people, in large part, have moved on.

It is interesting that both men seem to praise  the writers and producers of the Cosby Show and the good work they did even if Bill Cosby’s name is the prominent one.  They are kind to the show and say it has much to give future generations in terms of its messages of positive family life.  I feel the same way about many of Qs hard working producers who sweated bullets to get some of the best interviews of their careers only to know they have essentially been erased from history.

My focus is the cultural loss that was balanced against the moral outrage.  The fact that CBC is going to essentially burn thousands of hours of interviews from legendary luminaries whose voices, many of which will never be heard again, says they don’t have much of an appetite for ambiguity.

Fire and forget.

Written by Interviewer

December 16, 2014 at 11:31

Is There One …

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Interviewers are no different than anybody else.  They sometimes like shortcuts.  Like those “Top Ten” lists that the Late Show with David Letterman helped make famous, these lists are crib notes for what is the hottest, most talked about and supposedly, most important things on people’s minds at the moment.  So when an interviewer asks someone to give them the top five, or three or one “thing” as it refers to a person or a situation, guests as a way of showing how on top of things they are, are quick to oblige.  I have never heard one not accommodate the question.

Until today.

Marco Werman of PRI’s “The World” was talking with Kenny Irby of the Poynter Institute, a journalistic school in St. Petersburg, Florida.  They were both talking about three-time Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Michel du Cille, who died of a heart attack this week in Liberia while on assignment for the Washington Post.  Mr. du Cille was chronicling Ebola patients when he passed away.  And in an earlier interview with his Post colleagues, Mr. du Cille said he was excited to go to Liberia because he felt he had “a responsibility to tell the story and we have a responsibility to tell the story in a poignant and respectful and dignified way”.

During the course of the conversation, Mr. Werman and Mr. Irby talked about the various other human tragedies Mr. du Cille covered and how he treated all of the people he photographed with dignity and respect.  At the end of the interview, Mr. Werman went to the interviewer’s default; “Is there one of his photographs that will always define who Michel du Cille was as a photographer?”  And Mr. Irby answered honestly and refreshingly.

“No, there are numerous photo galleries of Michel’s work in my mental photo album and I think it would be unfair to try to identify one single frame out of an individual whose life has been committed to documenting the experiences, both horiffic and the harmonious experiences.  It’s interesting that you see his body of work and he was able to show hope in hard times and in dark places as well as the tragedy.”

I sometimes wonder what is the intent of smashing something so big into a space so little.

A life uncompressed for a change.

I like it.

Clap Clap Clap

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Baby Clapping

You know that thing adults do with babies, when they clap with a clapping baby and the baby gets excited so it claps too?  You can hear something like that happen sometimes in interviews.  A guest is explaining something of significance to them and their voice jumps in excitement or it becomes animated in some way.  That’s a good thing.  You want your guest to be excited about whatever it is they’re talking about.  What’s not so good is when the interviewer responds in a way that can sound contrived.  You’ve heard it.  Person A is describing something they care about and person B, not wanting to seem unenthusiastic, mirrors their excitement when it’s clear they’re aren’t excited at all.

I wish interviewers wouldn’t do this.  And I don’t doubt that they probably wish they hadn’t done it the moment they do it.  But it’s understandable why they do it.  Reflecting the tone of voice and body language of the person you’re talking to are techniques not just of interviews but of good communication in general.  Humans are basic in that we want to feel an affinity with whom we’re sharing space and feelings.  So in a lot of ways, when we’re telling our own story, we’re not much different than that happy baby.  We just want to see a smiling face smiling back at us, affirming us.  But to the listener, it can sound like the investment isn’t so deep.

To me, this can be one of those dangers of interviewing, like a scratchy microphone or a hum that won’t go away.  Because as I’ve said before, the interview is a three way between you, the guest and the audience.  And even if the guest doesn’t hear the flatness in an interviewer’s effort to sound up, the audience certainly will.  And if it keeps happening, the audience will start to question the interviewer’s sincerity.

So if it’s happening, what can an interviewer do to fix it?  If they know they do it, they can maybe ask themselves is it just this guest, or have they hit a rut in their interviewing style?  If it’s the guest, maybe they can look for something the guest does that truly excites them.  Asking about that thing during the course of the conversation might help recharge the interviewer so that their questions and enthusiasm sound sincere.  But if it’s something they find themselves doing in all of their interviews, maybe they’ve hit a wall.  Maybe they’ve gotten a little bored.

A way they can try to fix it is to use a trick proofreaders are told catch mistakes; read the text backwards, starting at the period.  This turns the idea of reading on its head and causes one to pay a lot more attention.  Likewise, interviewers who are sounding tired can ask other interviewers to interview them for a change.  It’s a way to rediscover their own excitement for what they do as well as be the one doing the sharing.  Who knows, maybe they might be surprised to find some of it is even enthusiastic.

Written by Interviewer

December 9, 2014 at 10:30

The Thin Black Line

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Thin Black Line

Today, I did a story about protestors marching on a library at Portland State University.  They were representing the “Don’t Shoot” PDX movement (PDX is the nickname Portlanders use for themselves in many cases.  PDX is the designation the FAA gives Portland’s international airport).  While capturing natural sound of the protestors, now inside the library, talking about why they were part of the march, one young white student named Ryan Miller said he is marching because he is afraid that eventually, the police will treat him in the same way as some say they have already unjustly treated people of color.

It was one of those moments of pure honesty that people say they seek, yet are still hard to hear.  As a journalist, for me it was pure gold.  And as a storyteller, I assembled the story and sent it off for airing.  But for a moment, I almost slipped into what I consider to be a bad place journalistically.

Listening to Ryan talk about his fears of being targeted by the police, it was clear to me that he was afraid that the privileged status of being white might one day not be enough to protect even him from police abuse.  And that reminded me of the poem, “First They Came” by 20th century pastor Martin Niemoller.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

According to Wikipedia, “Niemöller was an anti-communist and supported Adolf Hitler’s rise to power at first. But when Hitler insisted on the supremacy of the state over religion, Niemöller became disillusioned. His poem, is well-known, frequently quoted, and is a popular model for describing the dangers of political apathy.”  The labels may be different as they apply to Niemoller’s day, but the context seems sadly timeless.

Listening to Ryan, I had the brilliant idea of using Niemoller’s poem in the story.  And I did.  But it suddenly hit me that the poem would be equating the Portland Police to Nazis.  And although there may be many people who feel that way, I realized it is not my job to editorialize.  So I undid what I did and then I sent it for air.

The police often talk about how they represent a thin blue line that officers say is the barrier between ordered society and chaos.  I think it’s also the line cops try to not cross, lest they become the thing they say they are fighting against.  I think in journalism, there is a thin black line, which might symbolically represent the ink.  This side is as credible and balanced as is humanly possible according to the highest and best ethical standards.  And that side is soapboxing, muck-racking, yellow journalism and all of the worst aspects of the quill.  Sometimes, as we’ve seen in the change of fortunes from Dan Rather to Peter Jennings, the self-serving slide from one side to the other can be almost imperceptible.

I don’t like what’s been happening across the country for my own reasons.  But I don’t think it’s my job to turn my stories into weapons.  By contrast, the listeners will hear them, judge me, my story, the events I describe and make their own decisions.  That is how it should be.

Police Talk

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police lights

Watching an interview with NY Police Commissioner Bill Bratton on CBS This Morning, I was reminded of how important it is for authorities to frame a discussion.

Mr. Bratton’s main and consistent response to the questions by Gail, Nora and Charlie about demonstrations in Ferguson was that unrest was caused by “professional agitators”.  The assumption he seems to be making is that legitimate demonstrations would never originate with local, grass roots frustration over perceived police injustice.  Apparently, according to the police chief, law abiding residents of a community don’t confront their own law enforcement for any legitimate reason and unrest in the streets is always the fault of outsiders.  Disturbance (as he told an NPR interviewer) of any kind doesn’t seem to be tolerable.  But isn’t even peaceful civil unrest a disturbance?  This basic disconnection between how police see the world and how people who feel victimized by the police seems to be one of the obvious and intractable problems between police and those who disagree with police policy.

By professional, I wonder if Mr. Bratton means people who are paid, or people who are considered experts such as, perhaps, Human Rights Watch?  And by agitators, does he mean people who are advising others on techniques for protest, not unlike (as he told the same NPR interviewer) the police NY sent to Missouri to advise and seek advice on how to deal with protestors?  Of course outsiders have axes to grind, leaders to taint and riots to incite.  Community leaders must scrupulously police their own ranks to insure protests are legitimate and effective.  But infiltrating protests is not just a technique for illegitimate demonstrator use.  Law enforcement agencies also have a history of using “professional agitators” for their own purposes.

BTW, Mr. Bratton never used the words “protestors” or “demonstrators” to describe anyone in any community who might be legitimately standing up against what they feel as unfair treatment by the police.  It is evidence that police departments, especially in high profile cities, are feeling under siege and their use of language is one of the tools they use to manage their own siege mentality.  It is the responsibility of media to compel them to precisely define their intentions and make clear their strategic use of tactical language.