Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Archive for January 2015

What’s in a Name?

leave a comment »

Press

For anyone who watches, reads or listens to news, you know the people who deliver that news to you can go by different titles.  And sometimes, it’s not always easy to understand how the title connects to how they are delivering it.  This is a primer for you.

Anchor or Host – This is usually the person whose voice you hear or whose face you see.  Often, they introduce people, called reporters or correspondents, who have stories to tell although they too tell stories.  The difference is reporters and correspondents have gone somewhere else or are somewhere else and either tell that story from where they are or have come back to share what they’ve learned.  The stories the anchor tells may be from someone else, meaning the anchor probably didn’t author them.  Also, anchors tend to their stories only from the “anchor chair” in front of the microphone or the camera.  This is why sometimes, your anchor will be “on assignment”.  Anchors or hosts sometimes become reporters to help them resharpen their reporting skills or because of their prestige or stature within a station, they are afforded the opportunity to do high profile stories and return to the station to tell them.

Correspondent – A correspondent is a reporter who reports from a location outside of the country which is home to their media organization.  US reporters working as foreign correspondents serve like diplomats.  They may be assigned to a news bureau in a country for a year or more and spend time developing contacts in that country.  They may regularly use foreign language skills and work closely with the US State Department or the US Military.  Because of their connection to media and government, they may also be targets of hostile host nationals who would seek to kidnap and extort or kill them for some political or geo-political purpose.  Many times, when a network correspondent leaves an assignment, they return stateside for a period to “detox” from their foreign service which may have included long stretches in war zones.  Freelance correspondents however may move from one such hot spot to another.  Much has been written about this suspected “addiction to conflict” among some foreign correspondents.

Reporter –  A reporter usually operates close to their media organization “in the field” although they may occasionally report “away” but in the same country.  They tend to float from one story to another depending on where the station needs them to go.  Or they cover certain types of stories all the time; the political reporter, the finance reporter, the crime reporter.  It used to be that reporters traveled with support.  For instance, a newspaper reporter would be accompanied by a photographer.  A TV reporter would be accompanied by a videographer.  Radio reporters, because radio didn’t have a visual component, went alone to stories and had a tape recorder.  Today, because of budget cuts at media organizations and the increase in the use of social media, newspaper, TV and radio reporters may be responsible not only for telling the story verbally or aurally but also visually.  Many reporters may now carry small, high definition cameras for providing content for station run, social media accounts.

Journalist – Ideally, all anchors, correspondents and reporters are journalists.  A journalist is a storyteller who, under the best conditions, investigates stories and tells those stories with a minimum of bias and in such a way that the reader, viewer or listener has enough trustworthy facts to make up their own mind about what the story means to their lives as well as to whom and what they care about.

Written by Interviewer

January 27, 2015 at 04:48

Falling In Love Again

leave a comment »

Peach

As a journalist, when you talk to someone you end up liking, either because of their work or their personality, it can be painful to hear later that they have gotten involved in some kind of personal or organizational scandal.  At that point, you have a choice – you can either try to talk with them again to find out what happened and give them a forum to tell their side of the story, or you can not talk to them because you don’t want to seem like you’re piling on.  A journalist will tend to do the first even though to the subject, it can feel like the second which is why they may not choose to talk to you.  Then, the journalist might feel like, “I like you, but are you hiding something?” which can lead to, “Were you honest with me when we first talked?” which tends to turn on the nose.

This is how skepticism forms and the reason why so many journalists have so much of it.  So each time a journalist interviews someone new, there is this push and pull.  Distance from a subject is a professional necessity of the job.  And although we may not like someone personally, we may admire what they do professionally.  Or we may not like the work they do but think they are peachy-keen.  Of course, we try to keep these feelings to ourselves.  But if we like what they do or who they are and they end up in or near bad stuff, it can be hard to not feel a little disappointed or betrayed.

Each new face, new story, new personality sings to us because we tell stories by listening to stories.  To tell it well, we have to know it well and that can draw us in.  Every time we turn on the mic, we can fall in love again.

Damn it!

Written by Interviewer

January 25, 2015 at 02:09

Shape of a … Triangle!

leave a comment »

CBS This Morning Studio

Film producing icon Harvey Weinstein was a guest this morning on CBS This Morning.  He talked about the kerfuffle around American Sniper, the snub of Selma and the lack of diversity at this year’s Oscar award nominations.

While responding to a comment by George Lucas about how the Oscars are a political exercise in smearing films not your own, Gayle King reminds Mr. Weinstein that it’s well known that no one in Hollywood is better at stirring up shit about competing films as a way of crashing them than him.  At about 8:37 a.m. Pacific Time, as Mr. Weinstein is deflecting Gayle King’s comment, Charlie Rose’s hand goes to his temple.

Sometimes, when a reporter is listening to an answer that doesn’t ring true, he or she winds up for the pitch with a gesture.  It can be setting down a pencil.  It can be tapping a small stack of papers.  It can be removing glasses.  Mr. Rose rubbed the side of his head ever so briefly before positioning himself on Gayle’s right wingtip.

He followed up on her question by essentially repeating it and after that, things got a teeny bit tense.  But the point, and one I make often in this blog, is that reporters have a responsibility to not let a rambling answer be the only answer.

The three (Charlie, Gayle & Nora) tend to sit at the anchor desk at the points of a triangle for a reason.  Besides being nature’s most stable shape, they once again show they have each other’s backs.

Across the Room

leave a comment »

Man uses an ear trumpet

This blog talks about many aspects of the interview, from ethics to technique.  Sometimes, it’s about gear and sometimes it’s about science.  This post is about science.

I’ve been noticing more radio reports recently that sound as if the subjects were being recorded from across the room.  This is not something that radio reporters want to do, BTW.  There is a lot of handheld gear out there that reporters covet that can be set to record sound and voice in extremely high quality.  Tascam, Zoom and Olympus recorders come to mind.  All of this stuff lets subjects be recorded in crystal clear formats. And we all know what this sounds like.  A good interview recorded on a good piece of gear, and listened to over a high quality pair of headphones can make the subject sound like they’re right beside you.

But what I’ve been hearing instead are stories with voices almost buried in high signal to noise ratios.  Quickly, S/N is the ratio of sound to background noise.  Background noise is every sound between a subject’s mouth and the recorder’s microphone.  The more distance between the two and the more space around the two, the more background noise, which can sound like hiss.

Besides the background noise itself, sound has a physics problem with distance.  Any sound our ears hear decreases by 50% every time the distance doubles. In other words, if someone is talking to you at conversation level 1 foot away and they move 2 feet away, they get two times harder to hear.  So imagine if a reporter is pointing their recorder at a speaker standing at a podium 20 feet away.  They are 20 times harder to hear than if they are one foot away.  Plus, there’s the hiss and other noise.

I’ve been at plenty of press conferences and public meetings where the option was stay back in the throng and hold your recorder up high or muscle your way to the podium and duct tape it on somebody else’s mic stand.  Whenever I brought back bad audio, bosses weren’t happy.  But after awhile, it’s wasn’t about them anymore.  It became getting as close to the front row as possible.  Then, it’s about sociology, but that’s a different discussion.

I’ve talked about the quality of interviews before over telephones.  Reporters can’t always control the quality of the land lines or the behavior of cell phone networks.  But although in public settings, a voice barely audible is probably better than nothing, it’s the least preferred and achievable option, inverse distance law or not.

Sometimes, you really can’t get closer for reasons that are way beyond your control.  But sometimes, you’ve got to sharpen those elbows and get in there.

Written by Interviewer

January 15, 2015 at 01:00

CBS correspondent Elizabeth Palmer speaks volumes

with 2 comments

Elizabeth Palmer

Elizabeth Palmer, a correspondent for CBS News gave an excellent report this morning from Paris about how the French snapped up every copy of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo.  The magazine was the target of a terrorist attack last week that killed staff and police.

Over the last few days, there has been a discussion in the media as to whether the media should show the cover of the magazine.  Critics say covers that depict the prophet Mohammed are disrespectful and incite violence.  The attack, claimed by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was precipatated it says by previous covers that also depicted the prophet Mohammed.

The discussion has mostly been around the reaction by print and online publications and should they or shouldn’t they reprint Charlie Hebdo’s controversial images.  The intesting thing about Ms. Palmer’s report was that at the end of it, she calmly held her copy of the magazine up to the camera while doing her lockout.

The thing is, the report showed many French buying, holding and reading the magazine.  And for at least the last two days, the proposed cover has been broadcast around the world in advance of the record setting 3-million print run.  And while journalists are discouraged from editorializing, they can occasionally say something without directly saying it.

Ms. Palmer didn’t have to hold the magazine up in front of the camera as  she was ending her report, but as a journalist, she was also making a statement.  I think she was saying, as were the  French and journalists around the world, “We own this”.  A friend had another interpretation; “F—- You, Al-Qaeda.”

Either way, classily done, Ms. Palmer.

Rubber Hits the Road over Charlie Hebdo

leave a comment »

Rubber Hits

As Charlie Hebdo prepares to print 3-million copies of its monthly magazine that is normally only a 60,000 print run, the news program BBCNewsHour reports that BBC management did not make themselves available to speak about the question of whether it would display an image of the latest Charlie Hebdo cover; a cartoon characterature of the prophet Mohammed holding up a sign that says, “I am Charlie” with a tear in his eye and a caption below saying “All is Forgiven.”

BBCNewsHour subsequently said the image is being displayed, but far down and deep within the BBC’s website.  But since this is a blog about interviewing, I think it is very interesting that management of one of the most respected news organizations on the planet didn’t want to talk about a breaking news and key journalistic issue with one of their own journalists.

This, as I mentioned in my previous post about this, is where the rubber for journalists hits the road.  All of the support for Charlie Hebdo is crashing head-on into fears by management and audiences alike, especially in European countries where Muslim populations are high, of how much will supporting the ethics of free speech incite?

I guess when you don’t share a border with a country who was a former colony and for whom now, emigration is a historical reality, you tend to be a little braver.  And when you’re separated from some of those same countries that may be harboring terrorists by a couple of oceans, maybe you’re a little braver still.

In this country, if an indigenous ethnic minority, affiliated with some similar organization, employed radical, random and guerilla style insurgent tactics of terrorists with the frequency that they do overseas, we would likely be more sympathetic to what Europe is going through.  And some American pundits might not sound so much like Ironman.

I’m not saying they shouldn’t, but there might not be so many of them.

Written by Interviewer

January 14, 2015 at 04:37

Exactly Who Are They Talking To?

leave a comment »

Polyglot

When I hear a political speech in English from a foreign politician or diplomat, I always wonder what is the intention of the message?  Who are they really talking to and what do they really want?  I mean, if the President of the United States intentionally speaks directly to the citizens of a foreign country through an interpreter, he is talking to them, not Americans.  When this happens, it’s usually to rally the people by talking around an oppressive regime or somehow repair a damaged American image.

Likewise, when I hear a foreign leader or representative speaking English when English is not one of their official languages, I conclude they are are not talking to their own people, they’re talking to Americans.  And then I wonder why?  There are plenty of examples of press conferences where someone from country X is talking to the world media, but the language they use is that of their own people.  Their own media doesn’t have to interpret.

But when they speak in English, the message is very different.  It’s directed to American politicans who direct America’s money and military and influence.  Or it’s directed at the American people who can be a soft touch for broad themes they’ve mined from our history like liberty or here recently, collective fear.  “This is not just a threat to us”, they like to say as if to say, “Support us if you know what’s good for you.”

Listeners need to listen close to what foreign leaders are saying or warning when they choose to speak in English.  It’s going to be significant to US foreign policy eventually.  At the same time, the dynamics of political speech aren’t that deep.  It’s just human interaction.  The level may be different but content and context aren’t much different.  Think of office cubicles with nuclear weapons and you’ve pretty much summed up the mundaneness of how people try to coerce each other on the geopolitical stage.

Written by Interviewer

January 13, 2015 at 06:35