Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘credibility

Pronounciation Guides

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Pronounciation Guide

When I was a reporter for the American Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS), pronounciation guides were a necessity. AFRTS facilities were scattered around the world.  Local military broadcasters presented the news to military and their families serving at those bases and posts.  And the last thing commanders wanted was for one of their people to embarass the command by mispronouncing the name of a host nation dignatary.

A pronounciation guide is a list of hard to pronounce words that occur in the major stories of the day.  It’s purpose is to help news readers say the word as correctly as possible.  Sometimes, that means as a company or country or group decides they want it said.  Remember the problem the media was having with ISIS versus ISIL versus DASH?

Sometimes, pronouncing a word correctly means as a community had decided it will be said no matter what “proper” pronounciation says it should be.  For instance, In Cincinnati, there is a main thoroughfare called Reading Road.  Most people might pronounce it as “Read” with “ing” at the end.  But Cincinnatians say it like “Red-ing”.  A pronounciation guide would be very helpful there.  A new hire at a hometown station that says “REED-ING” instead of “RED-ING” is instantly pegged as not a local.

By contrast, sometimes a name is just a nightmare to pronounce.  But anchors and hosts have to speak with authority and if they continually stumble over words, they start to lose their credibility.   Besides, it’s distracting for the listener because they start paying less attention to the story and more attention to the next time the anchor stumbles.  And that stumbling can take a few forms.  As a reader, you see the word coming in the copy with the horrible realization that you have no idea how to say it.  So you crash into it, trying not to break your pace as you butcher way through it and hoping no one will notice.   Or, you start to pronounce it, realize you are pronouncing it wrong and try again, and again, and again.  Somewhere in there, a part of your brain realizes another part of your brain just isn’t getting it.  So you slam another word in place and jerk yourself to another part of the sentence.

U.N. Secretaries General are especially hard.  There was Dag Hammarskjöld.  There was U Thant.  There was Boutros Boutros Ghali.  Without a pronounciation guide, how many anchors fell into those phonetic pits.

Sometimes you think a pronounciation guide is necessary when it really isn’t.  For example, in the U.S., the word “aluminum” (AHH-LOO-MIN-NUM) is pronounced much differently than how the British pronounce it, which is AYL-YOU-MIN-E-UM.  This is sort of similar to the Cincinnati example except it’s really the difference between homophones (words sounding the same but with different meanings) versus homographs (words spelled the same but sounding differently).

I miss pronounciation guides, and it seems some broadcast outlets are missing them too.  For instance, I recently heard a local commentator call the Oregon community of YOU-MA-TILLA, UH-MA-TILLA.  But this isn’t just something small outlets do.  Earlier this week, a reporter on CBS called the Oregon based sportsware manufacturer N-EYE-K, rather than N-EYE-KEE.

But pronounciation guides can be a pain too.  When you’re writing and producing stories, you’re constantly up against the clock.  When airtime is looming, scanning through a pronounciation guide is a luxury and the last thing you have time for.  So many of us in the business assume we know how to say something.

ASS-U-ME

Colombo

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Colombo

As Jon Stewart prepares to leave The Daily Show, actor Mark Ruffalo tonight performed a three minute roast of Stewart’s notoriously poor attention to the movies and books of his guests.  From Patrick Stewart to Maggie Gyllenhaal, the segment showed how Stewart not only showed he rarely if ever read the books or watched the movies of his guests, but how he often didn’t even know the roles they played or the major characters they created.  I blogged about this in what I thought was a excellent flaying of him by for this kind of neglect by Jennifer Lawrence.

Interviewers should spend a lot of time preparing to talk to the people who agree to talk to them because they don’t want to look or sound like idiots.  But only one thing seems to be more important in the eyes of the audience than preparation, and that is personality.

A lot of interviewers think and have been trained to believe that seriousness equals credibility.  We think any emotions we show makes people not take us seriously.  We think, like in the fields of politics, science and the law, a dispassionate demeanor is much more believable than a passionate one.

But Jon Stewart found the balls to the wall balance between New Jersey punk and New York attorney.  Since 1999, he’s gotten away with saying shit that is literally peppered with the word “shit” and the audience loves him for it.  So if he doesn’t know all of the scenes in a movie or all of the plotlines in a book, so the hell what?  He has charmed his way through so many blank spots with so many “A listers” that they’ve probably come to not expect anything different.  It’s who he is.

But he also made up for those flubs when Donald Rumsfeld, Bill O’Reilly, Pervez Musharraf and Tony Blair among other sacrifices came onto his show.  Stewart showed he understood the complex policy issues well enough to eviserate many of them for their unpopular or untenable positions.

It was fun to watch clip after clip of him mush mouthing his way through his artistic cluelessness.  At the end, in a turnabout, Ruffalo pretended to not know anything about Stewart’s 2014 cinematic effort, “Rosewater” and spoke about it in platitudes.  It was cutting, fitting and funny.

But Jon Stewart can be like the old Peter Falk character, “Columbo”; you think he’s bumbling until he suddenly rips your throat out.  All of us behind the mic should be so bumbling.

Boy, am I going to miss him.

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.

The Look of News

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Network Logos

I’m dating myself, but I remember when there were just three channels on TV.  Well, not really just three.  There were the PBS channels and everything else that lived above Channel 13 on UHF.  But in most places, viewers watched network programs through their network affiliates that existed somewhere between Channels 2 and 12.  For the most part, they still do.

I am thinking about how much the local channels try to look like their network parents and what that really means.  If you are a connoisseur of the look of TV, you might get what I’m saying.  With the years I’ve spent behind studio cameras, in master controls and at home, the feel a station wants to convey with its look is very recognizable and distinctive to me.  And I am convinced that they each have had decades long recipes for how their picture looks to the world and what they’re saying about themselves with those pictures.

CBS, it seems to me, has colors that have higher than average black levels.  Black level is one of the components of a TV signal that becomes your TV picture.  High but not too high black levels make the pictures rich in their clarity and sharpness but not overly bright or overly colorful.  The feeling I get from a CBS image is credibility, authority and power.  So with that in mind, it’s probably no coincidence that the old nickname for CBS headquarters is “Black Rock”.  Anyway, their picture is what you might see with your own eyes if somebody else was controlling them on the assumption that you wanted to see the most real reality* possible.  That may sound a little woo-woo, but I think that’s how CBS has always tried to present the world to its viewers; in a digitally sharp, not a lot of frills, down to business, just the facts ma’am manner.  Local CBS affiliates mirror the network look and feel as much as they can.  If CBS’s look was a setting, it would be an office.

NBC, by comparison has a film-ish look.  Not grainy exactly, not soft focus exactly.  But when I watch NBC, I think of history in the making.  Also, for many people, film is to images like vinyl is to sound.  There is just something about the earlier mediums that feel original and thus, more true.  Film makes the things we’re seeing more authentic and believable in part because film is what we all grew up with.  That’s why almost all of the movies we see don’t look like a TV news story and instead, look like, well … life.  Even movies that are shot digitally are made to look like film.  You can bet the engineers, producers and executives at NBC, as well of all of its affiliates know that’s how people see them and that is a perception they want to protect.  If NBC’s look was a setting, it would be a library.

ABC has always struck me as the most immediate network.  I think that mostly because of the colors.  Colors always seem most intense and lighting always seems brightest to me in ABC programming.  I see this especially on ABC news programs although I also noticed it on the old After School Specials and see it in many current prime time shows.  Of the three networks, the action on ABC programs seems to move fastest, with quicker edits and effects, more in-your-face use of sound and overall pacing.  The feel I get from watching something on ABC is it’s a wind in your hair kind of experience.  To me, ABC creates a mood of immediacy and energy with the way it presents itself.  And again, local ABC stations seem to follow suit.  If ABC’s look was a setting, it would be a party.

What I’m talking about here is how television engineers light for the camera to create a world that exists on a continuum from stark reality to dreamtime and everything in between.  Each of these networks has settled on a recipe for a picture of the world that mirrors how they see it, and they attract people who see it the same way.  They and their affiliates, present that world but we each have a preference for how we want to see it which is why many of us choose one network over another.  Of course, if a better show is on a different network, that’s where the viewer goes.  But networks are brands and they have brand loyalty based in large part on how people have come to expect they will look and feel to them.  There are distinct differences which is no accident.

*BTW, Aaron Schachter of PRI’s “The World” also used the superlative “real reality” in an April 7th radio story but I hadn’t heard it yet.

Host Flip Flops

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Flip Flop Fish

Sometimes, an interviewer has a bias and they conduct their interview that way.  They have a slant, a tilt, an opinion that they think the guest they are interviewing shares.  But then, in the course of the conversation, the guest says something that disputes that bias and the direction the interviewer is going.  It shouldn’t happen since interviewers usually research their guests, know their views in advance and build the conversation around legitimate pro and con aspects.

But when it does happen, the interviewer has three choices; to drop down into neutral (which is probably where they should’ve been all along), or switch up, drop references to their bias and agree with the guest’s view or confront the guest, either by directly disagreeing or continuing to hold the view by periodically questioning the guest’s views.

This is never a good situation.  There is no point in an interviewer asking a guest onto a program to then discount the expert opinion the were invited to provide … except when the point of the interview is to generate contention and entertainment, not necessarily an informative discussion.  I’ve talked before about how an interviewer might not personally like an interviewee or even morally agree with some position they hold.  But I think neutrality of the interviewer is necessary to let the audience decide how they feel about the issue, not for the interviewer to inject themselves into the balance.  That is not the interviewer’s job.

If an interviewer does this, switching up, too many times, they can start to look and sound wishy washy, i.e., lose credibility.  That’s certain death for someone who wants what they do taken seriously.

Written by Interviewer

March 21, 2015 at 01:01

Journalistic Defaults

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Default

In the course of reading, watching or listening to stories, you will come across these phrases.  Although they may sometimes sound similar and other times, sound like gibberish, they have specific legal meanings that journalists must be careful to follow.

Regarding Requesting Comment:
Did not respond to a request for comment
Did not make anyone available for comment
Did not get back to us

Declined to respond to requests for comment.
Did not immediately respond to a request for comment*
Did not respond by airtime/deadline*

*They possibly did respond later

Regarding Official Statements from Entities or Officials:
In a prepared statement (Source decided to prepare statement for mass dissemination, or respond specifically to one point/reporter. Either way, they chose to not provide the voice of a spokesperson)
Could not comment because has not received official notice/paperwork/indictment, etc.*
Could not comment because of the ongoing investigation/lawsuit, etc.*
Could not comment because of no comment policy regarding specific individuals, records or situations*
Could not comment because the terms of the settlement are confidential*
Did not comment because they have taken steps to correct the problem and choose to move forward

Did not discuss details.

*An organization may use all of these to shield itself from the need to say anything at every point in the story.

Regarding the Credibility of Source’s Statements:
Ms. X said – directly attributable (highest credibility)
A spokesperson said – reportable but no direct attribution (somewhat credible)
An unnamed source said – reportable but no attribution (lowest credibility)

Regarding What Is and Isn’t Reportable:
On the Record – attributable and reportable
On Background –  main aspects can be reported but no direct quotes
On Deep Background –  information that is not reported but confirmed by other sources to enhance reporter’s understanding of story
Off the Record – not reportable or attributable*

*A reporter may request that, rather than being off the record, a source allows information to be on background or on deep background

Regarding the Assignment of Culpability (see Credibility)
X Source (court papers, etc) accuse Mr. Y of doing or saying Z
Mr. Y allegedly (he is accused by experts, bystanders, arresting officers, etc) did or said Z
We observed Mr. Y (first person observation) doing or saying Z

Written by Interviewer

March 19, 2015 at 02:38

Iconography

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Spock 3

“The traditional or conventional symbols associated with a subject and especially a religious or legendary subject”.

Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary

Sometimes, reporters and hosts get iconography wrong, which, when you hear it isn’t something you expect since we expect them to be on the cutting edge of culture.  They are who we go to to learn about culture.  They are, arguably, the most well informed about it and most equipped to interpret it.

So imagine my surprise when me, a trekkie, heard a host of a popular radio newsmagazine begin a discussion about the late Leonary Nimoy by referring to him as “Dr. Spock.”  And, then ending that discussion by misquoting his culturally embedded catchphrase as “Be Well and Prosper” rather than “Live Long and Prosper”.  I mean, he ended his Twitter tweets with as “LLAP”. C’mon.

I recently watched the movie “The Devil Wears Prada”.  Anne Hathaway is an assistant to Meryl Streep, who plays the boss at the fictitious magazine “Runway”.  It was rumoured, when the movie came out, that it was actually a movie about Anna Wintour, the equally notorious Editor-in-Chief at Vogue magazine.

Anyway, Hathaway starts the job as a frump, not knowing or caring about fashion.  But in a :30 scene, Streep deconstructs a bargain basement sweater Hathaway is wearing by giving a history of its creation, including its color, weave, style, design and distribution which originated on a runway years before.  In that moment, Hathaway realizes she really needs to care about the role she’s in by accepting the responsibility of being in it.

People who are spokespeople for society need to know the society they are speaking for.  Otherwise, amongst some of corners of that society, they lose credibility, even if in teeny tiny ways.  When a reporter is reporting on a story, facts need to be correct.  I’ve talked about that before.  Because culture moves fast, cultural references may not always be timely but they should be accurate.

And they certainly shouldn’t be flat out wrong.