Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Archive for June 2016

A Problem with Journalism

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Reporter Notebook

NPR reporters Leila Fadel and Deena Temple-Raston  are reporting on Turkey.  Last night, suspected ISIS sympathizers bombed the Istanbul airport, killing and injuring dozens.

But a bright spot in the investigation is that authorities say taxi drivers who unknowingly transported the terrorists have been a treasure trove of information.  Interviews with previous taxi drivers in the wake of ISIS bombings in Paris and Brussels helped investigators trace attackers back to apartments they used as staging areas, and beyond.

I wonder though, if ISIS will now begin killing taxi drivers after they’ve made their deliveries, adding more innocents to their chains of murder and destruction.

I’ve talked before about the problems with journalism and the law of unintended consequences.  If law enforcement releases information or journalists discover it, who has ultimate responsibility for its ultimate effect?

Do the ends always justify the means?

Written by Interviewer

June 30, 2016 at 06:24

Posted in Scratchpad

Wake up and Smell the Coffee in your NPR Coffee Mug

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NPR coffee mug

Public radio listeners can be an insular bunch.  In some ways, they are opposite to American citizens in general and a contradiction to one of public radio’s main selling points.

American citizens, in general, are interested in what happens in other states even though they themselves live in one state.  Public radio listeners, by contrast, like to think of themselves as citizens of the world, but have little to no idea what is happening elsewhere in the public radio universe.  In part, it’s the fault of the public radio stations themselves.  They have, each and every one of them, set themselves up like little Levittowns.

Every listener need is met.  Every street has a grocery store, a hardware store, a restaurant.  There’s no reason for anyone to leave their own block and that’s the way station’s like it.  If you never feel the need to go anywhere else, then all your time, attention and money stays here.

But that means public radio listeners never hear of the turmoil elsewhere between stations that are fighting over audience, or the white knuckled panic with which affiliates and networks eye each other over the effect of podcasts on funding, or state cutbacks to public radio support and the struggles stations are having over when and for how long to have fund drives that are both, effective and don’t drive listeners away.

Stations have succeeded too well at making things comfy.  And that is where some of the responsibility needs to shifts to listeners.

They could afford to be more engaged with the state of public radio, not just their local station, because of domino effects.  In these times of tight budgets when state A decides to cut or end support to its public radio station, states B, C and D, looking across the border, start wondering where else besides public radio they could put their money.  And while station A in Nebraska misses a fund drive goal, and its board sells its frequency – making it disappear, listeners in Connecticut are blissfully absorbed in the soft tones of Garrison Keillor.

Public radio listeners pride themselves on being advocates for every cause NPR, PRI or APM reporters haul out before them.  But they also need to pay attention to the medium as well as the message because without the medium, there is no message.  Contributing to your local station is fine.  Volunteering for your local station is great.  But your public radio community is a lot bigger than your neighbors your public radio station serves.  It is part of a hemispheric network of wheels and cogs.  All of them, together, make this amazing thing called public radio.  If any of them start to grind, or strip, the whole thing could come to a smoking stop.

I know it might seem unlikely.

But unlikely things are happening everyday.


Written by Interviewer

June 30, 2016 at 03:00

Time to make the Donuts

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The only thing I like better than writing is building databases.  You would think those would be reversed considering writing is thought to be more of an artistic endeavor.  Creating spreadsheets, by contrast, is head down, butt in the seat, grunt work though, as someone who writes, I know writing can be its own kind of torture.

But there is something about the researching; the lining things up, the sorting, the cross-tabulating that I find fascinating such that the days or weeks or months it takes me to compile that data is as much the reward as the surprises the data reveal.  You would think filling rows and columns would be laborious and tedious and mind numbing.

Each piece of data helps build a picture that I anticipate like a kid’s first time visit to Disneyland.  I’ve always been like this.  I know I have to do this digging and shoveling, sifting and stacking.  But I also know that when I hit “Tabulate”, pictures in each cell start to move like pages in a flipbook and that is thrilling to me.

As I work on this book, I am digging as deeply as I have ever dug and I know what I’ve done so far hasn’t gone nearly deep enough.  I can be OCD like that.  But when the researcher is satisfied that he has found every article, report, study, white paper, message board or blogpost, he will hand it all off the the writer who trusts every ladder rung has been stress tested.

The writer will take that roiling vat of information and move to Step 2 of the process; corroboration; turning facts and assumptions into thoughtful and intelligent questions that people in the know can confirm (or refute).  Questions that I hope show the people I’m asking that I have done my homework.  Because nothing annoys professionals more than amateurs who waste their time.  These are busy people and my subject – money and how public radio stations get it – is at the heart of what each of them do everyday.  The writer will then take everything and exhaust pens, pencils and toner cartridges on reams and reams of paper.

My editor will first pat me on the head and tell me it’s clear that I’ve been thinking hard about this, but then fill the other side of the page with notes.  My graphic artist friend will tell me my ideas for artwork are good places to start. My programming friend will make me stare at numbers I’ve already stared at for months and make me make them make more sense.

And I will (for the most part) listen to these people because they are smart.

I hope the interviews I get, supported by the rows and columns I’m filling now, help me create something new and helpful to everyone who cares about public radio, listens to public radio and wants it to be the best it can be.

Time to make the donuts.

Kill Your Darlings

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Hand Holding Knife

A programming genius I know is helping me crunch data that I’ve  been collecting for this book I’m writing about the public radio pledge drive.  The plan is that tranche A, after it’s washed and tumble dried, will be a template for tranche B; using one as a control for the other to find patterns that aren’t obvious.

I know a little about spreadsheets, and that’s how I gave my programmer friend the data I’d gathered.  But they weren’t exactly in love with it.  “You need to reformat this”, they said.  “Otherwise, I need to write a whole language subset (whatever that means) before you can see this data the way you want to see it.”  In other words, they didn’t like my spreadsheet.

I like to think I’m a smart person.  I like to think I’ve been around enough to know a little about a lot, but that little bit I know is really good.  Turns out, spreadsheets are high school level data collection to graduate level people writing programming in languages like Perl.  So, here I am, reformatting my spreadsheet in a way that my programming friend’s program can better search it, parce it, slice and dice it.

And you know, their way is better.

There isn’t as much ambiguity.  There’s much more consistency.  And I’m finding mistakes, not in the original data, but how I notated it.  It’s like when writers are taught to read their copy backwards as a way to catch mistakes because reading it forward makes it too easy to miss them.  Rearranging my twenty columns into their three is a brutal exercise in utility.  But it’s exactly the kind of brute force utilitarianism that a programming language needs to create elegant results.

“Kill your darlings” is what editors tell writers too in love with what they’re written.

I can tell you, programmers are even worse.

Written by Interviewer

June 25, 2016 at 07:34

Speech, Official and Otherwise

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CEO Podium

For a minute, there was a little controversy brewing over the omission of a line in an official White House transcript.  In early June, the Obama White House was accused of omitting a statement from the official transcript about the Iran nuclear deal that was made by Press Secretary Josh Earnest.  But this is not the first time the official version of something has conflicted with the recorded version that was caught by the news media.  It also happened in 2005, when Congressional Quarterly and the Federal News Service said White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said something that McClellan said he didn’t.  In that case too, the recordings didn’t match the White House transcript.  And of course, the White House isn’t wrong, because its transcript is “official”.

These incidents ask a very interesting question; whom and what should be believed?

When an “official” presents an “official” statement, the idea is this is the “official” stance of his or her bosses all the way to the top.  It shouldn’t change since everyone downstream is expected to be in philosophical agreement.  And when that official statement comes from the White House, you’d think it’s golden since there aren’t a lot of people between the President’s press secretary and the President.

So when there is a difference of interpretation between who is saying so, it can throw the whole credibility thing into question.  In fact, just because someone is in an “official” position doesn’t necessarily mean they are telling the truth.  Upon leaving, many high ranking and respected authorities voice very different positions to those they held while they were still employed by those officials.

The most glaring example I can think of was the retirement of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.  He served two presidents of two parties, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.  And when he started talking, from between the pages of his book, about failures of leadership in the execution of the Iraq war, higher ups in the current and former administrations backed away and not, I suspect, because he wasn’t credible.  To his credit, retired Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos, retired Army First Infantry Brigade Commanding General John Batiste and more than 20 other retired officers also openly criticized the policies of the decade long conflict.

But the point isn’t the formers officers speaking out, or that the policy was worthy of being spoken out against or even that the generals were retired and outside the reach of their former bosses.  The point was that those were the people who best knew policy and politics, tactics, strategy, manpower and budget.  And yet, they lost their war because they identified the wrong enemy.  They weren’t disputing that military power must be subordinate to civil power.  But they were disputing civil power’s credibility to define reality.

Officials may haul out reams of numbers and reports to explain to a questioning public that something which seems simple, isn’t or something that was said, wasn’t.  It is, in part, the paternalism that pervades organizations with historically complex missions.  “We are the expert.  Look over here, not over there.  Sit back, be quiet and listen to Daddy.”  But one of the key functions of the best people deep within in those organizations is to take the complex and make it simple for those on the inside, because they like straight lines too.

The people who know an organization best may be the people inside it.  But it may also be the people who are willing to speak truth about it.  And those two aren’t always the same.

More Spreadsheet Love

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Spreadsheet Closeup

The power of a spreadsheet is in its ability to sort, and by sorting, revealing relationships that weren’t obvious.  An almost finished spreadsheet can show you how you didn’t plan as well as you thought you did for when you’re ready to sort.  So when you’ve created a spreadsheet with 970 AM & FM radio stations, you have to deal with little annoyances like hyphens in the wrong place.

AM stations are identified, for example, as WABC-AM, while FM stations are WABC-FM.  That’s how the FCC designates them – callsign and band.  But if you create a column of stations listed like that, you limit what you can do with the list as a whole.  Weirdly, it becomes hard to combine like data in other fields that aren’t related to band if band and callsign are combined somewhere else.

That’s what I did, so I had to create a column with their band (AM and FM are called “bands” – so 1950ish) and I had to delete every “-FM, or -AM” behind each callsign.  That was a pain.

But a slightly bigger pain was realizing I didn’t exactly understand how the “Find and Replace” function in OpenOffice works.  After getting sick of going through rows of stations and deleting the extensions one by one, I had to experiment for about an hour before I figured out how to delete, first just the hyphens, then just the FM or AM, and finally, how to delete everything without making the whole sheet disappear.  That happened a couple of times and it felt like my heart stopped.

The function is not intuitive or friendly, like it is with MS, but I guess that’s what you get for free.  Anyway, finally figured out how to have one column of clean callsigns and an adjoining column with clean band designations.  Sorting Made Not Easy 101 – but a teeny weeny victory in the march toward publication.

Written by Interviewer

June 15, 2016 at 05:28

How a Sickness Takes Hold

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Blank Spreadsheet

I’ve talked before about my love of spreadsheets.  You really can’t trust me around them, because I tell myself I want to do something simple, and before you know it, I’ve collected tens of thousands of data cells.

Case in point:  I decided I needed some information about a few public radio stations for the book I’m working on about the public radio fund drive.  So I made a simple spreadsheet and in a snap, I had gathered what I was looking for about the few stations I was focusing on.

Then, I thought, does this really represent what is going on with a respectable number of them?  “Is this representative?”, I asked.  So, after deciding it wasn’t, I included a few more rows.  But again, the question came back.  And each time I added stations, I wondered, “Is this enough?”

I decided the only way I could be sure it was representative was to include all of them … all 970 public radio stations in the US, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, according to NPR’s most recent, 2013 List of Member Stations .pdf.

Satisfied that I had answered those few questions for all of them, I started wondering, “What if I want to know about this or that too, later?  Shouldn’t I try to answer a few more of my questions now that I have the chance?”  So I added columns – like owner, licensee, silent, website, location, HAAT, funding sources, source percentages, band, repeater, frequency, network affiliation, translator and lots more.

See, a sickness.

What was supposed to be a quick and dirty little data dump turned into an 11-hour a day, butt-in-the-seat, month long, deep dive into each and every one of the public radio stations that flies the NPR flag.  Not exactly what I was expecting (like some of the other small surprises I found).  But once the headache passes, I’ll have something that can be sorted in all kinds of wierd ways.  I won’t have to rely on a sample because I’ll be looking at the entire universe.

I think that’s going to help tell a much more interesting story of public radio pledge drives and the stations that conduct them.

Written by Interviewer

June 13, 2016 at 12:47

Posted in Scratchpad