Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Archive for February 2015


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Spock 3

“The traditional or conventional symbols associated with a subject and especially a religious or legendary subject”.

Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary

Sometimes, reporters and hosts get iconography wrong, which, when you hear it isn’t something you expect since we expect them to be on the cutting edge of culture.  They are who we go to to learn about culture.  They are, arguably, the most well informed about it and most equipped to interpret it.

So imagine my surprise when me, a trekkie, heard a host of a popular radio newsmagazine begin a discussion about the late Leonary Nimoy by referring to him as “Dr. Spock.”  And, then ending that discussion by misquoting his culturally embedded catchphrase as “Be Well and Prosper” rather than “Live Long and Prosper”.  I mean, he ended his Twitter tweets with as “LLAP”. C’mon.

I recently watched the movie “The Devil Wears Prada”.  Anne Hathaway is an assistant to Meryl Streep, who plays the boss at the fictitious magazine “Runway”.  It was rumoured, when the movie came out, that it was actually a movie about Anna Wintour, the equally notorious Editor-in-Chief at Vogue magazine.

Anyway, Hathaway starts the job as a frump, not knowing or caring about fashion.  But in a :30 scene, Streep deconstructs a bargain basement sweater Hathaway is wearing by giving a history of its creation, including its color, weave, style, design and distribution which originated on a runway years before.  In that moment, Hathaway realizes she really needs to care about the role she’s in by accepting the responsibility of being in it.

People who are spokespeople for society need to know the society they are speaking for.  Otherwise, amongst some of corners of that society, they lose credibility, even if in teeny tiny ways.  When a reporter is reporting on a story, facts need to be correct.  I’ve talked about that before.  Because culture moves fast, cultural references may not always be timely but they should be accurate.

And they certainly shouldn’t be flat out wrong.

The Power of the Can

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OPB’s Kristian Foden-Vencil (love his name) did a story last month for OPB about how the community of Gold Beach on Oregon’s Pacific Coast was building a hospital.  That wouldn’t normally be news except that Gold Beach and practically every other community along the upper West Coast of the United States is tsunami ground zero from the next Ocean based earthquake.

The US Geological Survey says there is a 37% chance that a 9.0 magnitude level earthquake will strike the West coast within the next 50 years.  His story focused on what seemed to the locals to be a reasonable balance between what was necessary for safety, what was needed for the community and what they could afford.

But Mr. Foden-Vencil’s story just, this minute, finished airing on NPR’s All Things Considered.

In journalism parlence, his story was “evergreen”, meaning, some stories hold their age well and can be told now or later because there isn’t anything that locks them to a specific date.  And evergreen stories tend to end up “in the can”, another colloquialism of journalism that means a place where we keep evergreen stories to run them when we need them.

A station needs a cache of such stories.  Sometimes it’s a slow news day.  Or, sometimes, you’re short staffed.  Or sometimes, the editorial calender keeps pushing your story out of the way for more timely stories.  And I’ve talked about the necessity of a can full of such stories before.  The point is, you dear listener, may hear a story that sounds hauntingly familiar.

To coin a term from the last century, you are not being gas lighted.

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February 27, 2015 at 09:31


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The nomination window for many radio journalism awards has closed for this year.  But Daniel Estrin, a reporter for The World, a newsmagazine for Public Radio International, should be at the top of the list to be nominated next year.

Mr. Estrin reported on a film circulating amongst the Orthodox Jewish community in Israel that encourages men and boys to refrain from masturbating.  This post isn’t so much about the film.  I mean, how much conceptualizing does one need to do?  It’s more about the thinking outside the box.

When was the last time you heard a story about masturbation?  Terrorism, daily.  Police violence, frequently.  Plane crashes, ocassionally.  Sex between the elderly, rarely.

But masturbation?

The editorial staff at The World definitely get credit for this.  I consider it a ballsy decision.  I mean, I can imaging Mr. Estrin heard of the film and approached his news director.  Or, I can imagine his news director heard of the film and approached Mr. Estrin.  Either way, I’ll bet whoever got the news that a story about, um, … spilling “sacred sperm” was being considered, got a little bug eyed for a second.  Finally, somebody probably said, “Oh, why not?”

Like I said, this isn’t so much about the content as about the decision to tell the story.  But, I did have a few questions.  Like, the story didn’t mention women at all.  So I’m guessing that even a taboo subject like masturbation among men and boys has its own taboo aspects that are absolutely unthinkable among Orthodox Jews.  Tackle that next, in a few years.

Still, it was a shocker.  I was cheering at the radio almost the whole time.  He went there.  And although at that moment, I wasn’t letting the story raise the curtain on my “Theater of the Mind”, I was reassured that radio can tell any story if it is … handled properly.

Radio tells a lot of stories that many consider questionable.  Unfortunately, most either reinforce our own immutable views or continue to numb us with their violent or inane ubiquity.  Every now and then, one comes along that is neither too vile or too predictable but some magical combination of both that manages to give a little slap.

And to top it off, Mr. Estrin ended his story by calling the whole thing, “A touchy subject”.  Wowzers!

Well done.

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February 27, 2015 at 08:02


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Journalism has competing tenants.  One says, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them and tell them what you told them”.  The point of doing that, of repeating key aspects of a story throughout the story, is to reinforce the message since a long story can give people so much information they can get lost in it.

But the other one is that a lot of journalism tends to speak to people at about a 7th grade level.  There, the point is keeping things simple helps people follow the message.

Where these collide is the redundant review.  I often hear an interviewer ask a guest a question, the guest gives a perfectly cogent answer, and the interviewer, for some reason, restates that answer, and maybe even puts a slightly different spin on it than the guest intends.

I wonder why this happens.  Maybe the interviewer is trying to stay loyal to tenant number one.  Or maybe, they’re trying to stay true to tenant number two.  Sometimes, I wonder if there is a number three, namely, the interviewer is working the answer out in their own mind to make sure they understand what the guest is actually saying.

I have a third tenant that makes this tendency by some interviewers understandable.  The interviewer should be a surrogate for the listener.  And if there is ever  any question in the interviewer’s mind that a listener might not understand what a guest is saying, the interviewer should speak up.  My year of interviews with Oregon political office seekers proved this to be necessary over and over.

I’ve talked about interviewers adding spin, or restating or talking down to their audience.  Each of those is definitely annoying.  But not everybody who listens has the same capacity to understand and for that reason, journalism has to give those listeners the benefit of the doubt.  For those with capacity plus, they should see that as a win-win for us all.

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February 24, 2015 at 02:02


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Sometimes, you hear it in the voice of the interviewer.  Fake laughing, fake surprise, fake incredulity, fake interest, fake sincerity.  And you know it’s fake because it sounds like stink smells and there’s never any question about stink.

You rarely hear fake in the voice of the interviewee, since it’s the interviewer’s job, in part, to keep the interviewee off balance and thus, by keeping them off balance, that can help keep them honest.  Usually, when an interviewee is answering a question, they are speaking off the cuff about something they should know well and that tends to lead to honesty.  That, along with the fact that a good interviewer has probably fact checked the hell out of them before they got there and will challenge them on untruths.

But also, with interviewees, you may hear a lie, but not them being fake, since interviewees who are not being truthful probably believe the untruths they’re telling more than they realize.

Interviewers though, silver tongued devils that they are, use a number of verbal gadgets to move the conversation along.  I’ve talked about some of them in this blog.  I’m sure a lot of people consider a forced laugh or a breathy “really!” pretty harmless if it breaks down social barriers.  But when I hear that too often from someone who wears the mantel of journalistic credibility when in fact, they are essentially sleepwalking through the conversation, I don’t see how they can expect openness or revelation from the interviewee or respect from the audience.

At the same time, questions can’t sound like they’re being asked by IBM’s Watson.  There should be energy and enthusiasm in the questions because there is energy and enthusiasm in the questioner.

It’s a hard line to walk, especially since it has been proven that occasionally mimicking a guest’s facial expression, tone of voice or body language makes them feel more comfortable and thus, more willing open up.  Its a truth about human nature we have to first learn, then have to learn to not overuse to the point of creepy or insincere.

A lot of the techniques interviewers use are legitimate and sometimes, necessary.  But fake shouldn’t be one of them.

When I hear fake, I think, “How do you still have a job?”

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February 21, 2015 at 06:28

Add it Up

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I just heard a story on American Public Media’s “Marketplace” about a group of hackers that stole almost a billion dollars from some of the world’s largest banks.  The story didn’t identify the banks because, … oh who knows why.  I’ll get to that in a minute.  However, the reporter noted that the hackers were careful as to steal only 10 million dollars per bank before moving onto the next bank.  The assumption seems to be that a bank won’t notice a theft of 10 million dollars being slowly stolen over a long period of time.

But, if you divide 10 million into 1 billion, that means hackers hacked about 100 banks this way.  And if you assume that they probably focused on the top 100 banks in the world, and you know what that list is, then you can probably make an educated guess as to which banks got hacked.

Sometimes, when reporters tell a story, they can’t always just say what they want to say.  Sometimes, they don’t know.  Or sometimes, there are political consequences.  Or sometimes, they know in their gut but can’t say something definitively and categorically.  So they have to bury those fine points in a story and assume; and hope the listener is really listening and smart enough to connect the dots.

I talked about something like this in a post last year.  Then as now, I’m talking about how the real story depends on a relationship between the listener and the reporter that goes beyond the actual words coming out of their mouths and into the spaces between the lines.

BTW, here’s a list of the top 100 banks in the world.

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February 17, 2015 at 14:51

Fund Drive Blues

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Pie Chart

I volunteered this weekend at Oregon Public Broadcasting.  I was one of the people you would talk to if you called to make a pledge for radio.  I also volunteer at KBOO in Portland, a community radio station that isn’t public radio, but is listener funded like public radio.

I just learned that KBOO ended its drive but did not hit its fund drive goal of $85,000.  The drive began on or about February 2 and was scheduled to go for two weeks. When I checked drive progress last night, KBOO was at about $47,000.  KBOO has had problems in the past hitting its goal and it has led to ocassional speculation that the station has financial problems.

But OPB’s fund drive began on February 5.  I volunteered for the current drive three separate times; on the first day, somewhere in the middle and at the scheduled end of the drive, which was supposed to be Saturday, February 14h.  OPB’s goal was around $600,000 but as of 5 p.m. Saturday, it had only raised about 2/3s of that amount.

Both stations are careful however about how they express that shortfall.  OPB stock phrase is “We’re not quite done yet”, while on KBOO’s site, there is a banner that reads, “We came up a bit short of our goal, so please donate online if you can”.  And if you listen closely, you can hear them blaming themselves even though the fact that people didn’t give enough money isn’t their fault.

People take the programming even though they hate fund drives.  And although stations emphasize all of the people that like them, love them or want more of them, these numbers say people either don’t have the money, or for some reason, don’t want to part with it.  And it certainly isn’t because they don’t know the goals or the deadlines or the phone numbers.  What that tells me is that the fund drive model isn’t working and we need to be doing something different.  Even if the intent is to support excellent programming, pitchers often say they don’t like holding programs hostage and listeners don’t like being extorted.

From what I understand, fund drive goals are set through a combination of what the stations need and what they were able to get at the last fund drive.  Although, as I said earlier, KBOO ended its drive, OPB will grind on until it hits its goal, if it hits its goal.  But neither case is cause for celebration because as pitchers often say, the money stations ask for during a particular hour pays the cost the station pays the producer of that particular program.  And if they don’t come up with enough money, they can’t pay for the program next time, which often means programming changes listeners don’t like.  For both outlets, KBOO and OPB to be so far off from such a carefully calculated goal speaks volumes to the alchemy of both misses.

And it affects every operation, including news which is where my interest most lies.  Less money can mean less reporting, less conversations, less exposure of what needs to be seen and heard.  Although a boon for the shady, it’s frustrating for staff and listeners.

It’s a lousy system all around.  It’s got to go.  But the problem is what to replace it with?

*UPDATE: OPB ended its drive at 6 p.m. on February 17th.  It was $33,000 short.  It probably could’ve hit that goal if the drive had lasted one more day since it seemed to be raising about $40K per day.  But because Governor Kitzhaber resigns tomorrow, I am guessing they probably didn’t want to risk fundraising competing with such an important and historical news event.

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February 17, 2015 at 02:20

“Russia Today” Give and Take

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Just watched an excellent interview between Oksana Boyko and Jean-Marie Guehenno, President of the Internatonal Crisis Group.  Ms. Boyko is Russian journalist who was asking Mr. Guehenno questions on the Russian news program Russia Today.  I came in late to the conversation, but I first heard Ms. Boyko ask about the concept of sovereignty and whether that system of how nations declare and enforce their independence is any better than other possible systems.  The discussion drew on World War Two and Vietnam era lessons learned from Roosevelt to Kissenger.

Then, she moved onto the problems with how countries agree on decision making processes between them considering the differences in worldview and the problems as they relate to Realpolitik.  She made a simple but effective example of how geopolitics isn’t much different than politics between neighbors and is balance of power the only way they can interact and coexist?  Mr. Guehenno responded that a balance of power relationship, although it has helped the world avoid major conflicts, it tends to be unstable over the long term and systems of cooperative agreements are much better.

Then, after clearly associating herself as a Russian journalist, she posed a very blunt question to Mr. Guehenno about why the U.S. and the west’s propogation of democracy is better than the Russian or Chinese systems.  To this, Mr. Guehenno spoke to the idea that although no political system is perfect, the west focuses on the rights of the individual and thus, alluded to the possibility that Russia and China may not be so focused.

Ms. Boyko responded that imposed systems of governmence have led to more wars, not fewer wars to which Mr. Guehenno agreed but he also said that although imposed systems don’t tend to work, democracy does because of its focus on individuals.  But it, like any system can’t be imposed.  Instead, he said, it must be a grass roots effort from the inside.

Finally, Mr. Guehenno and Ms. Boyko discussed and compared current conflicts in Syria versus Ukraine.  Although Mr. Guehenno accused Russia of being the primary irritant in Ukraine, in Syria, he was much more willing to spread the blame to all of the players, including the United States.  Near the end, there was some cross-talk when Ms. Boyko contested some of Mr. Guehenno’s assertions about where that blame lies.  But she was able to wrap it up with a smile.

Russia Today is Moscow’s answer to the fast paced news and production values of CNN and Fox News.  It is tight, well put together and offers a view of the world Westerners don’t often see.

The discussion, which appeared on an RT program called “Worlds Apart” was a complex, in-depth and perfectly coherent one.  It was enjoyable and informative through eyes not our own, which sometimes, can be a pretty healthy perspective to try out.

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February 16, 2015 at 03:24

The Bottom Line

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Rain Stick

“Nattering Nabobs of Negativity”.

I was a kid when Spiro Agnew spoke those words as he resigned from the Office of the Vice President in 1973.  Mr. Agnew had been accused of corruption and allowing his office to be influnced by outside monied interests. Specifically, according to Wikipedia, Agnew was investigated by the United States Attorney’s office for the District of Maryland, and charged with having accepted bribes totaling more than $100,000 while holding office as Baltimore County Executive, Governor of Maryland, and Vice President.

But instead of speaking to that responsibly, he did in his press conference what a surprising number of the high profile accused (and convicted) for mostly any crime tend to do.  He talked about what he felt had been done to him by the media.  Agnew implied that the news media had used their role to turn public opinion against him.

The news media is a lot like a rain stick.  Kids who’ve been to camp know its a hollow tube, taped at both ends and filled with rice or gravel.  When you shake it, its supposed to sound like rain.  Two things about a rain stick.  First, it doesn’t shake itself.  And second, no matter how much noise it makes, the noisemakers stays inside the tube.

People accuse the news media of causing problems by amplifying the small into the ginormous.  But that’s not how news works.  The public have to believe there is something there to wonder about in the first place. They have to care.  And although  the news is very, very good at finding those little things to be examined, if people aren’t really interested, reporters don’t follow up and the story eventually fizzles.  In other words, people have to want the stick shaken.

Don’t believe me?  Look back at all of the times reporters have been kidnapped.  If there is ever a instance when the media would push a story to drive a story, it’s then.  And even then, it was hard to keep the public interested in media’s efforts to get one of it’s own released.  By contrast, when a journalist is accused of unethical behavior, that captures everyone’s attention because people are thinking, “That journalist has been in my house making suggestions to me and my family about what we should do or how we should live.  They’re always supposed to be right, ethical, above board”.

That can feel like a betrayal which is much more personal.  And curiously, even some of those journalists, if they find themselves muttering Agnew’s defense, know its public interest, not necessarily their colleagues, driving the story.  Yes, the media does eat, chew and spit out a lot, but its a diet largely dictated by the public.  If that wasn’t true, newsrooms everywhere wouldn’t be filled with image consultants, social media accounts and rapidly spinning revolving doors.

So when Governor Kitzhaber said in his statement of resignation yesterday that “it is deeply troubling to me to realize that we have come to a place in the history of this great state of ours where a person can be charged, tried, convicted and sentenced by the media with no due process and no independent verification of the allegations involved”, he is, in some ways, repeating the sentiments of those who don’t see that although the news media isn’t necessary the light of day, it can be the magnifying glass.

But it isn’t holding itself.

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber

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I interviewed former Oregon legislator Dennis Richardson in April 2014.  At that time, Mr. Richardson was running against Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber as the Republican nominee.  And during that conversation, he hinted that the governor’s office should uphold high standards of behavior.  Specifically, he told me:

“As far as being governor’s concerned, what I want to do that will set an example is be a governor who truly is mindful of the people. I feel the higher up your position the greater your responsibility for a larger number of people to represent them and to be accountable to them. To have a governor who is accessible, who’s transparent, who’s open, who’s honest, who’s willing to accept advice from the right sources and then use that to make the judgment that he feels is best and then explain that to the people to truly represent the people of the state and not merely have this title of being governor”.

Did Mr. Richardson know something that he preferred to not say?  In light of all that is happening with Mr. Kitzhaber right now, those comments now seem prescient.

Hear the entire interview with Mr. Richardson here.

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February 13, 2015 at 07:44