Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘bias

Something’s Burning

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Something's Burning

Andrew Jennings is a Scottish investigative reporter who has been following the mismanagement and corruption at the European soccer agency, FIFA, for nearly 15 years. In a recent interview with NPR’s Melissa Block, he said he provided the FBI with internal financial documents in 2009 in an effort to help the Americans prosecute FIFA’s wrongdoing. The FBI, along with Interpol and a number of other law enforcement agencies around the world began arresting FIFA executives on Monday, June 1st, 2014.

Ms. Block asked Mr. Jennings if he felt he had violated his journalist integrity by providing those documents. Mr. Jennings adamantly said no, saying FIFA is a corrupt organization, everyone knew it was corrupt and little was being accomplished in the way of internal reform, which he believed it needed desperately. This again brings up the question of how much should a journalist insert themselves into the story and it reminds me of a story from J-school which is built on much historical precedence.

A photographer is photographing a protestor who is preparing to self-immolate himself. What should the photographer do? Should he keep taking pictures as the person sets themselves on fire in the most desperate act of political protest, or should he drop the camera and save the person from what would certainly be a graphic, horrible and painful death? According to Wikipedia, journalist and photographer Malcolm Brown won the World Press Photo of the Year in 1963 for choosing to take just such a photo. In it, a Vietnamese monk named Thich Quang Duc set himself ablaze in protest against the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government of President Ngo Dinh Diem.

There have been 133 self-immolations for political reasons and 10 for economic reasons since Brown’s photo. Journalism has since weighed in on the journalist’s responsibility to intervene. The Society of Professional Journalists cautions journalists in a release from January 2010: “Report the story; don’t become a part of it,”  Even in a crisis, the SPJ says  journalists must be objective.  Actions the SPJ defines as not objective include advocacy, self-promotion, offering favors for news and interviews, injecting oneself into the story, or creating news events.

But Roy Peter Clark, a Pulitzer Prize winning author who recently wrote for the journalism ethics organization, the Poynter Institute, said “That standard – to observe, cover, but not intervene – is surely not absolute.” He continues, “There are those rare moments when a reporter (or other professional, such as a psychiatrist) realizes that life or public safety is on the line.  That professional may choose to assume a different role, to put on a citizen’s hat rather than a journalist’s”. Journalists have a responsibility to tell the story in a way that insures their credibility by not showing bias. But they also have a responsibility to be human beings.  That can be a tricky wire to walk.

What is the life or public safety issue regarding FIFA?  Some have argued that the thousands of immigrant workers that have died in Qatar’s hellish heat as they prepare the country for a possibly ill-gotten 2022 World Cup tournament might be cause for intervention.  Others like Mr. Jennings, simply see organizations like FIFA stealing what is precious to the people, and believe the people don’t deserve to be lied to or stolen from.

“What would you do”, asks Mr. Clark, “if you saw someone trying to set himself on fire?  I would probably run for my own safety, yell like crazy, and point out the danger to others.  I know Good Samaritans, braver than I, who would try to stop the action.  I doubt I would take out my cell phone and make a video of the self-immolation”.

Mr. Jennings made a similar choice. Under extraordinary circumstances, he heeded the call of the FBI to help them put out a different kind of fire.

What’s in a Name?

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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

Who Knows?

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Fry

This is a quickie.

Sometimes, I don’t understand how I get a particular interview. It’s not that I don’t consider myself a good interviewer. I am. And it’s not that I don’t work very hard to uphold standards of journalistic integrity. I do. But there is also a lot of alchemy involved in who decides to talk to you or not.

For instance, I know that many people I talk to don’t necessarily need to talk to me. I work at a small community radio station that has a reputation amoung some as being too far to the left and amoung others as not being to the left far enough. To that, I bring years of experience with the government and the military; not exactly the most liberal institutions ideologically.  Politically, I kinda sorta end up somewhere around the center.  I said all that to say the gun behind me is respectable but not huge. It’s not like we’re the Nation Station with numbers that dominate market share in the MSA or anything. But some of the people who’ve returned my calls and agreed to talk to me are amazing. Which leads me to the alchemy part. Namely, you don’t know who is talking about you to whom.

So, when somebody calls me back who seemed like a real long shot, I sometimes think, “OK, is this a vote of confidence that was cast for me by someone I’ll never discover, even if I might personally know them”?

And that is some humbling stuff.

As a reporter and a journalist, you want to have a decent name. You want to be seen as fair. What with so many people attacking us for bias at home, while overseas, journalists are attacked much more severely for so much less, you want to hold up the profession as best you can. I sincerely appreciate the callbacks I get and when they are truly amazing, after those first few seconds of surprise, I try to remember to close my mouth so I can get to work.

Sometimes, you never know who is working for … or against you. It’s probably for the best.

Written by Interviewer

September 18, 2014 at 03:41

Credibility Traps

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Image

When an interviewer is talking with an interviewee, its important to establish rapport.  The interviewee has to want to talk, to feel comfortable talking.  And there are a few things interviewers can do to help them.  A lot of them are exactly what someone would do in a conversation with a friend.  One is to repeat a question so the interviewee feels like they are being heard.  Another, if both are in the same room, is to establish eye contact and not be looking at something else while the interviewee is talking.

But there are some things an interviewer has to be careful not to do, or if they do them, to do them judiciously.  One is be careful of the supportive “Uh huh …” When someone is explaining a point it is common for the listener to say “uh huh” as a way of greasing the  social gears.  By doing that, the talker and the listener implicitly agree to be in agreement.  But an interviewer who is trying to not sound biased can’t lend their credibility to an interviewee’s point by seeming to agree.

The other danger is the misplaced laugh.  Humor can be elusive when people are shooting for it.  Likewise, it can erupt sincerely, but unexpectedly.  The thing about a laugh is it can give even more credibility than simply seeming to agree because a shared laugh is even more personal.

Fresh Air’s Terry Gross has a great laugh.  The sound explodes from her throat like a cap pistol.  Sometimes, she even snorts.  And when someone she’s interviewing says something funny, you can expect to hear it.  When something is funny, that’s one thing.  Laughing can be irresistible, therapeutic, infectious; all of the good things laughter is.  But Terry Gross has also been dead silent even if her guest has said something funny, or while they were trying to extract a laugh from her.

Interviews are conversations between humans and humans naturally want to connect.  But interviewers need to be careful to not sound like they are agreeing with an interviewee’s opinion or point of view by giving either too much or too often.

Written by Interviewer

February 12, 2014 at 14:41

Guts

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Maze

There are two ways to write a story.

One is to already know what you want to say and then look for quotes or soundbytes that you can drop into the spaces you’ve carved out ahead of time.  In essence, you know what you want the story to say and where you want it to go and you don’t really care where it could possibly go on its own. Maybe you do it because you’re pressed for time, or you don’t really care, or because you want to look like something you’re not.  Doing a story that way, , you’re kinda sorta censoring.  But for sure, you are a lazy SOB who coasts the low road and God help anyone who swallows your crap thinking you’ve done your due diligence.  God stop them from making an important choice based on the slop you feed them.

The other way is to start out by knowing nothing.  You study the subject, you ask questions from every possible perspective.  You talk to people who know what you don’t know and ask them to ask you questions.  You ask questions against your own biases, against the information you’re given, with the information you’re given and with your own biases.  And once it’s all in one place, on paper, in a hard drive, on a spreadsheet, you start making connections and relationships.  You build matrices, and mind maps and block diagrams.  And when you know as much as you can know in the time that you’ve had, you start to write.  And when you finish writing, you press the button and launch it.

That way of writing a story is harder, slower and full of more dead ends.  But, it’s more sincere because it goes where it is supposed to go.  You may suffer at the hands of its path, not your own but in the end, you and it end up somewhere much much better than you though every you’d be, sometimes to your own greatest surprise.

Written by Interviewer

April 27, 2013 at 10:16