Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘context

The “Larger” Problem

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Passing the Buck

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, in talking about what happened to Freddie Gray on CBS This Morning, spoke in a way that I’ve heard a lot of leaders speak in the last few days.  When asked about issues of transparency or police conduct or protester frustration, they don’t talk about the specific incidents of specific individuals but instead, put them in the larger context of a national or cultural or social problem.  They speak of it in a way that implies it is a problem that belongs to all of us.

That is quite a flip.

Back in the day, when authorities faced civil rights issues, there was never an acknowledgement that they were a societal problem.  Back then, nobody wanted to admit that black people were even part of society, let alone an issue society needed to address to be more equitable and cohesive.  But hearing that being mentioned so often as the “real” problem each time questions are asked about the circumstances of specific victims, it starts to sound to me like a get out of jail free card.  It starts to be used as an opportunity to divert talking about the problems in their town since their problem is really part of a “larger” problem.  So, passing it off as something that is so all encompassing that it’s beyond their control sounds reasonable while it also acknowledges the problem – a twofer.

Which is all well and good except that larger problem isn’t being successfully solved either.  Consider that if the larger problem is represented by a collection of similar, smaller problems and many of those problems are also contextualized the same way, it becomes a circular argument.

Reporters need to bring leaders and spokespeople back to the granular and not let them escape into the realm of the systemic.  There is safety in the ambiguity of policy and procedure.  Responsibility gets effectively diffused in the layers of bureaucratic anonymity.

Instead, reporters need to stay focused; policeman X shot person Y.  When will the report be released.  What will the Mayor do now.  What must the community do here?

Local, personal and immediate.

A Mighty Wind

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I’m doing a lot of editing right now.  And when I edit, I hear things I want to talk about as part of the interviewing process.  One of those things is the message.  The interviewer is neither the messenger or the message.  He or she is the conduit only.  But the interviewer is referee, governor, filter, interpreter.  In other words, the interviewer has the responsibility to help the listener not waste their time by making what they hear crystal clear.

This can be a problem when you have a long-winded interviewee.  I’ve talked before about interviewees who may be purposely trying to obfuscate an issue by taking around it or intimidate the interviewer.  But what I’m talking about here is a guest who has a lot of very relevant things to say, but the problem is they have way too many of them.

Specifically, you ask a guest a question.  The guest begins to answer the question.  Then, for perhaps context, the guest decides to tell a personal anecdote.  That personal anecdote might then lead off on a tangent.  Sometimes, if they get too far afield, you have to interrupt to pose the question to them again.  If you’re lucky, the guest returns to the original question and reiterates the question themselves with an answer.  But now, you have a long winded response that, although entertaining and relevant, it a lot more than you have time for, let alone what the listener has patience for.

When editing something like this, it’s very important to get to the point while not taking too many liberties with what they’re saying so that the chain of understanding is not broken.  It’s easy to cut out a block of what might seem like a meaningless story, only to realize you need a connector that the guest used a couple minutes back to have any hope of making a seamless edit that makes sense.  For instance, a guest might say, “Well, to answer you question about gun reform … and then tell a long story about going shooting with her uncle, and then move onto an experience of being stopped by a cop because they saw a gun under their jacket … and then, finally summing up the need for looser gun laws by saying something like … “so, I think people should have the right to carry a gun if they’re properly permitted and have never been convicted of a crime and have no mental illness.”

Uh oh.  First of all, the answer is too short now.  Some questions deserve answers with a little meat. And in the middle of the story, they may have mentioned permitting and not having a record and never having gone to anyone for counseling, but you didn’t notice.  So now, they are at the end of the story and they mention three concepts the listener hasn’t heard except in the middle of all of that other stuff.  So you’ve got to go back into those pieces of the story you just deleted and find those mentions so you can rebuild a more complete and meaningful thought, just with a lot fewer words.

You can’t leave in the whole story because you don’t have the time.  But you can’t connect the beginning to the end without some of the stuff in the middle that ties the two ends together.

Editing is like learning a script for a play.  You have to learn your lines and everybody else’s.  Once you do, you know where things go and how they make sense.  Only then, can you know how to cut them up into smaller but better pieces.

Written by Interviewer

April 11, 2014 at 06:12

The Deep Breath

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This is a quickie.

I’ve noticed that some questions make some people take very deep breaths before they answer. The American Stress Institute says a deep breath is a signal that someone is trying to relieve stress about a situation. When we are frightened or simply stressed, we tend to hold our breath or take rapid, shallow breaths. Our hearts pound and muscles clench as our adrenaline kicks in.

To me, deep breaths seem to almost always be a signal of one of three things:

(1) The guest doesn’t know the subject and are afraid their lack of knowledge will cause them to embarrass themselves, or

(2) They know the subject very well and are afraid their answer might reveal something about themselves they may not want to reveal, or sometimes,

(3) They are relieved that I didn’t ask a question they thought was coming.

Then again, sometimes people just forget to breathe.

You might sometimes hear the same type of response to 1 & 2; evasive, non-specific or rambling. For number 3, the guest might suddenly perk up and their responses get brighter because they are more relaxed.

If you’re interviewing someone and you hear a deep breath, remember the trigger or the context. There is something there somewhere that may spark a reveal later.

Written by Interviewer

April 8, 2014 at 04:00

Choppin’ and Shavin’

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Both of these are about cutting, but how they do it is the difference between using a meat axe and a scalpel.  When editing an interview, at the beginning, the meat axe is OK.  I mean, some things just have to go because they don’t fit with what the overall context is.  That can happen when somebody goes off the subject of the moment without context.  Then, that thing is sort of sitting out there by itself and not really applicable to anything else around it.  It’s got to go.

Another example is when something has to be moved, like when somebody says something that is really a reference to something they said a lot earlier and you realize it would go better there than where it trickled in later.

Or when somebody loses their train of thought.  When they jump the track, everybody listening flies off with them, and that’s where you can lose them, so that’s got to go too.  All of those are examples of gleefully chopping up interviews with abandon.  It’s too easy.  You don’t have to be very delicate.  Swinging a chain saw, like knocking down walls in a home renovation project, can be kinda fun.

But shaving is very different.  Shaving starts to happen when the meat axe blade is just to wide to be beneficial.  Now, you’re talking about breaths and syllables and words and thoughts that need to be nudged closer together or further apart for logic or pacing or time.  And all this while not changing context.  This is where editing is the most miserable and the most fun.  Like using a straight razor to remove cat hair from a balloon, that’s what this kind of editing is like.  I don’t like cat hair, or big, squeaky balloons or very sharp pieces of metal.  But altogether, they’re like ice cold root beer over vanilla bean ice cream on a hot summer day.  Gimme.

Written by Interviewer

March 2, 2013 at 04:55

Posted in Scratchpad

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