Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Archive for October 2015

Cecil the Lion and OR-7

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wolf in scope

What do lions and wolves have in common?  Canus lupus and panthera leo aren’t exactly close relatives.  But yesterday, biologists with Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife recommended removing wolves from Oregon’s endangered species list.  The new rules to be voted on, will let the state kill more of the predators based on conservation targets in the state Wolf Management Plan.  It also lets farmers kill wolves that are chasing livestock.  And the announcement reminded me of something.

Up until two years ago, wolves were the darling endangered predator.  State residents heard wall to wall coverage on the movement of OR-7, a radio tagged wolf that wildlife officials labeled as the key to helping the recovery of Oregon’s discimated wolf population.  But recent news reports speak of the existence of other wolves thought dead who have sired more wolf pups in heretofore unknown packs as well as those by OR-7 and other wolf breeding pairs.

It is interesting to see how the narrative shifts as circumstances change.  Of course, life is a fluid situation.  But stories that sound initially mythic can plant the idea in people’s minds that once something is, like a hero’s journey, (even if that hero is a wolf), that story never can or should change.  Removing those same wolves from the endangered species list and making them subject to be shot by hunters and farmers crashes hard into what we were hearing in 2013 about how OR-7 was practically the last of his kind struggling to survive.  And as we heard more stories of how he was suceeding, the fairy tale of the heroic and anthropomorthized wolf grew.

If any of Oregon’s radio tagged wolves, and especially OR-7 is killed, will we experience our own Cecil the Lion moment?  How will journalists tell the new story and how will the audience reconcile it with the old one?

It’s an example how life continues even in fairy tales after “The End”.

UPDATE: OR-23, a female from the Shamrock Pack was shot by a farmer in mid-November 2017, while nearly half-a-dozen other wolves have died under suspicious circumstances since 2015.  Some were admittedly shot by farmers or “de-predated” by Oregon Fish and Wildlife as part of a Wolf Conservation and Management plan –

Written by Interviewer

October 30, 2015 at 23:26

She’s More than That

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Card Tricks

Stephen Colbert, the new host of the Late Show, recently interviewed Malalla Yousafzai.

I’ve seen her in other interviews, most notably with Jon Stewart.  I remembered the story about how her brothers needed to mind her because she was a world famous activist and how they aggravated her because they ignored her.  I remebered the story of her being shot by the Taliban when she was 15 and how she had been advocating for girl’s and women’s rights since she was 11.  And although Ms. Yousafzai is supremely impressive in her work, I had a sinking feeling that Mr. Colbert’s interview would be a loose retreading of Mr. Stewart’s conversation.

As an interviewer, it can be a struggle to not ask the questions everybody asks.  When interviewing authors, for instance, promoters often send a list of questions.  I think that’s pitiful and ridiculous.  If an interviewer is interviewing an author but is too lazy to do the research to create some decent questions, they shouldn’t be wasting the guest’s time.

At the very least, it shows a lack of imagination.

But then, out of the blue, Stephen Colbert asked Ms. Yousafzai if she knew any card tricks and pulled out two decks of cards.  Apparently, she likes magic and knows how to do card tricks.  The Late Show did its due diligence and discovered that jewel in advance.  And he didn’t have to do much coaxing.  She picked up the cards, he made her laugh and she responded by doing a card trick that completely changed the  interaction between her and me, the viewer.

Suddenly, I didn’t see her as the world famous, UN addressing, Nobel Prize winning, Malalla Fund inspiring icon.  Suddenly, I saw her as a 17 young woman year old who could relax enough to have some fun and put one over on Stephen Colbert.

I have to thank Stephen Colbert for that.  He reminded me that the job of a good interviewer is to reveal a part of a guest that a listener or a viewer might not expect to see; a part of the guest the audience might not even know is there.  We can get so used to seeing people a certain way; a hero, a villain, a victim, a geek, an entrepreneur, we can forget they have layers. They have senses of humor and fears and joys and mischevious sides.

There are at least 141 references to that card trick online.  With so much at stake surrounding every little thing she does, how often does someone like Malalla Yousafzai get a chance to goof on somebody else?   So when a good interviewer lets them be a little less of what they’re known for and a little more of who they are, its great for all of us.

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October 20, 2015 at 14:52

TV Logistics of Interviewing the President

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Rose Garden

The interview between President Obama and Steve Croft of CBS News highlights some of the logistical issues when doing an interview with a high profile interviewee.

The interview was presented in at least two segments.  One segment was the portion that took place inside the White House.  In that interview, there are occasions when Mr. Croft’s face is predominant in the shot, times when Mr. Obama’s face is predominant and times when both men are in the shot.  Here, there is the luxury of at least two and maybe more cameras.  These cameras are on tripods and the room has excellent lighting and sound.  This arrangement gives the viewer a full, high quality view of the interchange between both people together and individually.

It also is the best situation for the editor who must later reduce the entire conversation to something that fits into the available broadcast time slot.  The reporter knows to re-ask questions if necessary, to ask the interviewee to repeat answers if needed or to get reaction shots (a look that implies the listener is concentrating on what the speaker is saying).  This is good for the editor because reaction shots not only help move the conversation forward in the natural back and forth way people expect, but they give the editor a chance to butt portions of the conversation together that might not have been together in the original talk.  This can help truncate the conversation or cover a mistakes.  In an indoor setting with those kind of resources, do overs are less of a big deal.

But the other segment of the interview took place along the walkway bordering the Rose Garden that leads to the President’s office.  Here, there was only one camera.  It was shoulder-mounted, or possibly on a body-pod.  The lighting and sound is not as good as it is inside.  The shot may not be as steady.  So the reporter and camera-operator need to use different techniques outside.

One of them is the classic walk and stop.  The President and Mr. Croft are chatting as they walk down the sidewalk toward the camera while the camera is also moving backwards.  At some point, Mr. Croft stops.  Mr. Obama then also stops and the camera-operator gets the chance to better frame the two of them while they continue to talk.  This is a technique reporters often use to take subtle control of the conversation.  You’ll see them use this slightly dramatic device a lot at the start of their stories as part of their lead in.

But one camera greatly limits how this portion of the interview can be edited later because there isn’t the flexibility that comes with video provided by other cameras.  And if you have an interviewee like the President who is being closely managed by a communications manager or other staff who probably want to get him inside, there may not be time to get the best shots that make the editing easy and seamless later.

This was clear during the outside portion.  You see the President and Mr. Croft standing together.  The shot was framed so that Mr. Obama’s right profile was facing the camera while Mr. Croft was to his left and almost centered.  In the next shot, the two men are at 45 degrees to each other and centered in the camera – a two shot.  In TV parlance, the abrupt scene change is called a jump-cut.  Since there was no second camera, there was no reaction shot, so the abrupt change couldn’t be hidden.  And its likely that the decision was made that the President would not be asked to repeat answers so the camera operator couldn’t get a shot that would make the editing easier and less jarring later.

I’ve spent many years behind a video camera, both in the studio and in the field, and as just as many in an edit bay.  When you’re shooting and you know you can’t get the shot you need, you’re not looking forward to the editing because you know it’s not going to look the way you want.  But sometimes, it just can’t be helped.

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

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October 12, 2015 at 22:59

Shutters and President Obama

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President Obama has just finished speaking about our nation’s most recent mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon.  As of this writing, the Associated Press is reporting 13 people have been killed by an as of yet unidentified shooter at Umpqua Community College in Douglas County.  It was by far Mr. Obama’s most passionate, most animated and most comprehensive speech about gun laws, gun rights and gun violence in the United States.

Amelia Templeton of Oregon Public Broadcasting said he sounded “weary” to be making what the President himself reluctanly called another “routine” speech about another school shooting.

What I noticed was the frequency of camera shutter clicks as he spoke.  At the start of the press conference, the throng of photographers were clicking furiously.  It sounded like there were at least a dozen or more photographers in the room.  But as he spoke and the intensity in his voice rose, the clicking diminished, until by the very end of the speech, there were hardly any clicks at all.

Photographers are trained to pick up fine changes in facial expressions to capture the emotion in their pictures.  Perhaps all of the angles they were looking for were found in the first few minutes of the conference.  But I wonder if they were caught off guard by the fury in Mr. Obama’s voice and for a few minutes, forgot to press their shutters.  It’s possible.  I know I stopped and turned toward the radio, surprised by the frustration in his voice.  News people can be temporarily suspended like everybody else.

May God bless the victims and their families in the wake of this needless tragedy.

UPDATE: As of 5 p.m. PST, Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin has confirmed 10 causalities and three critically wounded.

Written by Interviewer

October 2, 2015 at 05:50

Posted in Scratchpad