Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Distance

Across the Room

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Man uses an ear trumpet

This blog talks about many aspects of the interview, from ethics to technique.  Sometimes, it’s about gear and sometimes it’s about science.  This post is about science.

I’ve been noticing more radio reports recently that sound as if the subjects were being recorded from across the room.  This is not something that radio reporters want to do, BTW.  There is a lot of handheld gear out there that reporters covet that can be set to record sound and voice in extremely high quality.  Tascam, Zoom and Olympus recorders come to mind.  All of this stuff lets subjects be recorded in crystal clear formats. And we all know what this sounds like.  A good interview recorded on a good piece of gear, and listened to over a high quality pair of headphones can make the subject sound like they’re right beside you.

But what I’ve been hearing instead are stories with voices almost buried in high signal to noise ratios.  Quickly, S/N is the ratio of sound to background noise.  Background noise is every sound between a subject’s mouth and the recorder’s microphone.  The more distance between the two and the more space around the two, the more background noise, which can sound like hiss.

Besides the background noise itself, sound has a physics problem with distance.  Any sound our ears hear decreases by 50% every time the distance doubles. In other words, if someone is talking to you at conversation level 1 foot away and they move 2 feet away, they get two times harder to hear.  So imagine if a reporter is pointing their recorder at a speaker standing at a podium 20 feet away.  They are 20 times harder to hear than if they are one foot away.  Plus, there’s the hiss and other noise.

I’ve been at plenty of press conferences and public meetings where the option was stay back in the throng and hold your recorder up high or muscle your way to the podium and duct tape it on somebody else’s mic stand.  Whenever I brought back bad audio, bosses weren’t happy.  But after awhile, it’s wasn’t about them anymore.  It became getting as close to the front row as possible.  Then, it’s about sociology, but that’s a different discussion.

I’ve talked about the quality of interviews before over telephones.  Reporters can’t always control the quality of the land lines or the behavior of cell phone networks.  But although in public settings, a voice barely audible is probably better than nothing, it’s the least preferred and achievable option, inverse distance law or not.

Sometimes, you really can’t get closer for reasons that are way beyond your control.  But sometimes, you’ve got to sharpen those elbows and get in there.

Written by Interviewer

January 15, 2015 at 01:00

Tiny Error in Fact

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White Out

As I write this, CBS News and Scott Pelley are breaking into regular network programming with news that a Malaysian airlines jet outbound from the Netherlands has crashed in Ukraine near Donetsk.  The jet was cruising at a normal altitude of 33,000 feet and was carrying 298 souls.  First responders report that body parts have been found scattered as far as 7 miles from the crash site, indicating the aircraft broke apart while still in the air.

In describing the incident, Mr. Pelley noted that the jet was 1/2 of the way through its journey when the incident happened.

I want to stop here and acknowledge that when breaking news events like this happen, it is well documented that a lot of the first information to be released is wrong.  This might be because sources are unreliable, or the full scope of the event isn’t fully known.  These are things that can be uncontrollable despite the due diligence fast moving news bureaus try to conduct before releasing the story for dissemination.

But some mistakes that have nothing to do with any of that are just plain puzzling.  Mr. Pelley and CBS needed to check a globe to see that Kuala Lampur is 6333 miles from the Netherlands, while Donetsk is 1642 miles from the Netherlands.  That means the jet was 1/4, not 1/2 of the way through its flight when it crashed.

Is this a big deal?  No and yes.  No because we get the gist; a plane crashed, innocent people were killed.  And it generates hard questions, like was the crash in any way related to the political unrest in Ukraine or President Obama’s announcement yesterday of sanctions on heavy weapons like the kind that are capable of shooting down airliners?  That’s what’s centrally important.

Yes because things like distance do not change.  Distance is something that can be easily checked.  And if it’s not considered important to verify, then why do we have things like rulers and spell checkers and scales and calipers.  On a societal level, do we really care then about things that tell us distance or capacity or speed if we don’t take them seriously?  And where else does this kind of cavalier treatment happen?  Maybe in our financial institutions?  Maybe behind a 3d printer creating intricate parts?  Maybe in surgery?

As a writer and reporter, I remember every time I realized after doing a story that there was something in it I got wrong.  I want to forget those mistakes but I can’t.  But what I can do is research the hell out of the things that are immutable so I can at least be sure I get them right.

There are lots of things that change in the course of a developing story.  And the flurry of the moment can disadvantage a news organization trying to be the first to give sketchy details of an important story.  But for some things, there are few excuses for getting them wrong.


Written by Interviewer

July 17, 2014 at 23:56