Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘conversation

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

This was Q

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Jian

Among the logistical sciences is inventory movement and control.  So with the recent firing of Q host Jian Ghomeshi, I began to wonder what will happen to the thousands of interviews he has recorded over the years for the popular Canadian Broadcasting Company program?  Ghomeshi began hosting the program in April 2007.  Since then, with at least three interviews per 90 minute program (2 hours on Friday), a conservative guess is that he has logged more than 5000 interviews in seven years.  And they’ve included cultural icons ranging from Joni Mitchell to Kermit the Frog to Bjork.  Many of stars he has talked with have died and thus, they are immortalized in the Q archive.

Q and the CBC own those interviews, but how will they replay them?  Will it be a circumstance similar to the BBC, which for six years banned the voice of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams?  Or will a time come when Mr. Ghomeshi’s voice can be heard by listeners, but in doses?  Or will the CBC begin the arduous process of re-editing those precious conversations with a different hosting voice?  Right now, by all indications, he has been thoroughly scrubbed from CBC’s websites.  But I bet those conversations of what to do with those priceless interviews are in process.

As I look at recent interview airings by Q since Mr. Ghomeshi’s October 26th firing, they are selecting conversations he has not conducted.  But I’m guessing the ratio of guest host interviews to Ghomeshi’s interviews is tiny.  That well may run dry relatively soon. “Encore”, “archived” and “evergreen” programs give a variety show like “Q” breathing room.  Without a cushion of pre-recorded stuff, pressure is on to create it.

This is the double edged sword of a successful concern, no matter what it is.  If it is mission based, people flock to it mostly for what it does.  However, if it is personality based, people flock to it for who does it.  Mission based is much more durable but much less sexy.  And when the cult figure tilts and falls, what to do with that legacy, whether emotional or digital?

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November 1, 2014 at 05:05

The Comma, the Period, the Horror

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Punctuation

Post means post-production, or the phase of an interview when its time to fix any problems that may have come up during the interview and turn the conversation into something concise and coherent.  Many times, if you’re lucky, this isn’t necessary.  Most interviewees stay on point and can compartmentalize thoughts within their answers, so their argument is both logical and chronological.  This means the discussion tracks an order of importance path; from introducing the listener to the interviewee, to the meat of the discussion, to a more light-hearted conclusion.  It’s a standard interview arc and one listeners have come to expect, mostly because it works.

But when an interviewee rarely uses punctuation, editing the conversation into a listenable final product can be a nightmare.  There are people who can talk for long minutes at a time and never take a breath.  Sometimes, talking without a break is less malicious than psychological.  Some people are never asked to give their opinion or are never allowed to finish once they start.  So they are delighted to talk and because it may be rare to have someone actually listening, they may not know the cues of polite society that should tell them it’s time to pause and allow dialogue.

I suspect though that some interviewees have learned to do this purposely and as a strategy (1) to prevent the interviewer from immediately challenging the interviewee’s suppositions, (2) in an attempt to shift power in the conversation to the interviewee, or (3) to purposely make editing difficult.

When an interviewee talks without letting the interviewer ask follow up questions, they are trying to push an agenda.  They are forcing out talking points that represent an ideology which has no tolerance for examination.  Or they are trying to plant something in the listener’s mind with such force that they hope an interviewer’s questions won’t uproot it.  That’s hard to deal with but not impossible.  The best way, if you’re not up against the clock, is to simply say you have X number of questions and you want to get them all asked before you finish.  You’ve put the interviewee on notice that no matter how long they talk, they know every question is going to get asked no matter how long they try to delay you asking them.  If you are up against the clock, you either take control of the interview or end it.

And this can lead to shifting power which can be a tougher problem, because then, it’s not about the content of the conversation as much as it’s about the dynamic between the interviewer and the interviewee.  But an aggressive interviewee can be dealt with in a couple ways.  An interviewer can butt heads with them once as a way to show them they are not going to dominate the conversation but then choose not to escalate confrontation beyond that.  If the interviewee chooses to escalate, the interviewer lets them while remaining calm, knowing it is they who will come off looking like an ass.  Otherwise, an interviewer may try to reign in a confrontational interviewee with a long pause after a tirade, or they may come back with a dispassionately asked follow up question devoid of any emotional energy.  Using the interviewee’s name is also another method of bringing the discussion back to a balanced interaction.  The key is for the interviewer to not let themselves be drawn into the interviewee’s own unique form of crazy.

But no matter why run-on answers happen, they can cause real technical problems.  Namely, someone who isn’t using punctuation doesn’t have natural breaks in their speech, or if they do, they may not always line up with logical breaks.  Natural breaks are places where people take a breath or where their inflection falls such that editing that point to another point where it later rises makes for an almost unnoticeable transition.  Logical breaks are where someone carries a complete thought to its conclusion. The thing is they don’t always happen at the same time and are a lot less likely to happen without punctuation.

Ideally, editing is where a natural break coincides with a logical break.  But now imagine two lanes of traffic, both moving in the same direction but at different speeds.  Trying to shoot an arrow across both lanes without hitting something is almost impossible and that’s what editing an interview with someone speaking in run-on sentences is like.  It can make for a jerky sounding interview and no producer or audience wants to listen to that.  From an aesthetic point of view, unfortunately, smooth sounding bullshit sounds a lot better than choppy sounding truth.

But no self respecting editor will give a message they believe is being manipulated a pass.  They will use every tool in the effects tab to smooth, to separate, to equalize and to make each word of a circular breather stand on its own, not lean on those around it like a phalanx of bullies trying to bums rush the listener.

Crosstalk

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Image

Alan Mulally, the President of Ford Motor Company, was on CBS This Morning with Charlie Rose and Nora O’Donnell.  Mr. Mulally is about to leave the leadership of Ford, and he was talking with Mr. Rose about Ford and his transition.  By watching Mr. Mulally’s body language, you could tell this was someone who is either naturally comfortable and confident, or someone who has an excellent public relations staff.  He leaned forward on the newsdesk toward Mr. Rose with his fingers interlocked.  His expression was calm, his manner was casual.  He was in full control of himself.

Sometimes though, an interviewee like this can be a challenge to an interviewer because of that confidence.  And at one point during the conversation, Mr. Rose and Mr. Mulally were both talking, and they proceeded to do so for at least 5-10 seconds.  People are careful to avoid this in day-to-day conversation in the real world.  And if it starts to happen, it certainly doesn’t last 5-10 seconds.   Usually, when one person realizes they are interrupting another person and are being “rude”, one of them will stop to let the other person continue.  But in interviewing, it is often the case that interviewer and interviewee will try to talk over each other.

Why this happens can vary.  Sometimes, if it’s the interviewee, it may simply be a case of them not realizing the other person is talking because they are so focused on what is in their own mind.  A variant of that is someone who has such a large ego that they aren’t really interested in dialouging with the other person and instead, see them only as a facilitator for their own thoughts.  In another, someone may feel they have been mischaracterized or that their point has been misunderstood and they are trying to take control of the direction of the conversation.

If it’s the interviewer, perhaps they know the interviewee has a reputation of treating interviewers in a subordinate manner and so they come ready to stand toe-to-toe, conversationally speaking.  Or maybe they understand that the interviewee is a high energy person who speaks out of enthusiasm and passion but tends to get on a roll.  For the purposes of time, the interviewer may know they need to govenor the pace to keep the talk on track.  Jian Ghomeshi of the CBC radio program, “Q” also does this.  Ghomeshi, when his pace is ramped up either for time, to match the rythmn of his guest or out of his own sheer excitement, has a staccato way of questioning which when at a fever pitch can sound like swordfighting.

This is similar to when an interviewer is slow-walking a question and, in essence, beating a guest to death with a rubber mallet.  Crosstalk can be both invigorating and frustrating to listeners. Invigorating because it shows that interviews aren’t always the cool and professional conversations most people envision them to be.  Frustrating because when everybody is talking, it can sound like an episode of “Modern Family” – you know something is going on, but you just can’t figure out what.

Credibility Traps

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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

Joining the Conversation

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bait and switch

Public radio stations have adopted online message and comment boards as forums. They use them strategically, 1) To mine them for particularly relevant comments related to whatever story they want to highlight, 2) To find people who might be good candidates for future stories, and 3) To let people feel like they are being heard by the station. But conversation isn’t always the intention or the outcome and it is questionable as to whether this medium hurts or helps journalism and public engagement.

Often, general interest programs take callers. But callers can be volatile in different ways. They can of course, be abrasive. That’s why almost all stations have kill switches that let hosts or engineers cut off rude callers. They are able to do this because the program you are hearing is being delivered to you anywhere between 7 and 20 seconds behind the actual program at the station. When a caller becomes inappropriate, they are cut off in some cases before you ever hear them.

Another way callers can be volatile is by forcefully continuing to talk as the host is running out of time. Radio programs run on tight schedules, especially if they are part of a network that must let affiliates down the line jump in and out of network programming to meet their own local needs. Missing times can upset affiliates and consequently, their advertisers. So hitting time cues is critical. A caller that won’t stop talking can cause big problems for stations because hosts don’t want to seem rude but sometimes must be abrupt to keep to the clock.

For these and other reasons, many general interest programs have stopped taking as many callers and have moved to comments posted on social networks. This way, they can get the same public engagement by cherry picking the best comments without the fear of being surprised by rudeness or droning. But these programs often receive so many commenters that they don’t even have time to include most of the condensed responses they get on social networks. And since many of them rebroadcast their daytime programs in the evening, those programs have been encouraging people to “join the conversation.”

But this can sometimes sound like “pass the buck” on the obligation to actually give people an opportunity and a voice to engage the subject of the story about a particular issue. What people want is to ask the expert, which is why the program invited them on it in the first place. Instead, what these programs are doing is giving participants who use comment boards the less than ideal substitute of engaging each other. This can have benefits in terms of allowing people to see that listeners of the same program can differ widely about its message. But sometimes, relying on comment boards leads to disastrous results for the commenters and the entity.

Online comments aren’t free from volatility. Some publications with similar online comment boards like the Huffington Post, have ended anonymous comments and now force users to use their real names. They and others make this choice to insure people who post vicious comments are out in the open with the thinking apparently being that sunlight kills germs. Mainstays like Wired Magaazine and Popular Science have ended comment boards altogether. The latter choosing so because research has shown that even a small number of people who post wrong information can skew the perception of the entire group. As a publication dedicated to science and research, suffering the ignorant minority at the expense of the innocent majority was something PS could not stomach.

Some see the solution to better comment boards as being heavier moderation while others are pinning their hopes on software that looks for offensive keywords or polices syntax to remove phrases that have antisocial intentions. But some reporters and journalists say comment boards are true forums for public discussion and the poisons injected by trolls and flamers is the price we pay for free speech in a free country.

Still, when a station or a program invites me to “join the conversation”, it feels cheap. They are trying to convince me that they are listening and that I matter and I’ll be part of a vibrant, thoughtful and intelligent community discussion on the issue of the day. I suspect that what is actually happening, as it has happened all too often, is that I am joining nothing and conversing with no one.

It’s About the Story, not the Calendar

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Heart

I just heard Robin Young of the PRI program Here and Now interview Ann and Nancy Wilson of the band, Heart.  She interviewed them in October 2012 and replayed the interview because of their recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  This again, speaks to the necessity of a good interviewer knowing how to conduct a good interview.  Ms. Young was able to remind listeners of why Heart made it into the Hall of Fame with a six-month old interview because her questions were essentially timeless.

She asked Ann and Nancy about their relationship as sisters and got them to talk about the strong roots of their military family.  She asked them about the timeless notoriousness of the record industry and they talked about their hit, “Barracuda.”  And she asked them about trials outside of the band that orbited the band, like their fiasco with Annie Lebowitz, and about other work, like decades of film scoring.

That’s why a good interview has no expiration date, because it’s not about events as much as it’s about people.  And even if the people change between when you last talked to them and when you next talk to them, they’ll probably be glad to update you on the changes, which only makes the conversation more true to what it means to be human, which is why people listen to interviews anyway.

Good job, Ms. Young.

Written by Interviewer

April 24, 2013 at 00:17