Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Editing

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An unflattering video. Suspicious editing. People’s character under attack.

This isn’t about the current controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood. ICYMI, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards defended herself before a congressional committee yesterday. The issue was a secretly recorded video that seemed to show planned parenthood employees talking about the organization making money from the sale of aborted fetal tissue. The video has prompted congressional Republicans to try to eliminate all federal funding to Planned Parenthood.

No, this is about former Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sharrod. Ms. Sharrod, a black woman, was attacked for allegedly making racist comments during a public meeting in 2010. The meeting was videotaped and edited by conservative activist Andrew Breitbart and widely distributed to politicians and news outlets.

The NAACP subsequently attacked Ms. Sharrod and she was pressured to resign from her federal appointment as Georgia State Director of USDA Rural Development. It was later discovered that Ms. Sharrod had not made racist comments and had been unjustly portrayed by Mr. Breitbart as well as unjustly vilified by the NAACP and Obama administration. In a turn around, then Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack offered Ms. Sharrod a high level appointment which she turned down before quietly retiring from Federal service.

These stories share not just questionably edited video but that despite the fact that both videos were known to be heavily doctored by individuals with a strong ideological bent, policy makers considered them legitimate and thus, a basis for attack.

That people will fight to protect their own view of the world is a given. However, no math on Earth argues that 1+1=3. Likewise, an audio or video track is a tangible, electronic footpath of things actually said or actually seen. And when pieces are removed, what’s left might be called “interpretation” by some but a lie by others. That is an issue law enforcement is beginning to face as the public demands to see unedited footage of violent interactions between citizens and the police. It is also why many reporters are now posting unedited audio or video along with their finished interviews.

It is often said, “Truth is the first casualty of war”. In the war of words between battling ideologies, one has to marvel at the extent some will go to reshape reality as much as the extent to which others will go to believe it.

Because the fact is, in the world of politics, facts only matter until they don’t.

The Comma, the Period, the Horror

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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.

It Happens

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This is a quickie.

The days that reporters edit with a grease pencil, editing tape, a razor blade and an editing block are long gone (though I hear NPR still has them around and asks some of its reporters to occasionally use them to keep them connected to old school production techniques).

Back then, it was just as likely to have the same piece of audio appear twice in a story as it is now but for different reasons.  Back then, you might do several takes of something, but miss cutting out the extra ones when doing the final listen.  When you listen to something over and over, just like when you read something over and over, you tend to see and hear what you think you’re seeing and hearing rather than what’s really there.

Today, extra takes can appear not only because Adobe Edition and Audacity makes it so very easy to copy audio and paste it elsewhere because, you decide, it sounds better at point A than at point B.  In the final listen, your brain can miss the fact that the same audio is at both points A and B.  But it can also happen in exactly the same way as in days of yore; you voice several takes and just plain miss one.

In both cases, you’ll hear exactly what I heard this morning on OPB’s Think Out Loud.  Host Dave Miller was doing the lead in to a pre-recorded interview he conducted with representatives of Multnomah County’s Wapato Jail about what should be done with the facility when all the bond money that was used to build it is paid back.

A piece of that intro was repeated twice.

This happens all the time, but especially in radio and particularly with pre-recorded programs.  Not so much in TV because TV has the road map of pictures that the audio tends to follow.  If audio doesn’t match the pictures, the editor realizes it pretty quick.  But in radio, in “the theater of the mind”, editors can sometimes lose their place.

And you can bet when the reporter hears it, they grit their teeth.  It’s already out there and even if nobody else heard it, they did.  And that’s why it happens so infrequently, because no professional journalist likes to make that kind of public and rookie mistake.

By the evening rebroadcast, the duplicate will probably be cut.  But for sure, the reporter will be thinking, “How did I miss this the first time?”

God knows I’ve asked myself that of some of my own RECENT work.  Ugh.

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May 1, 2014 at 02:32

Measure Twice, Cut Once

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This is a quickie.

Listening to an interview with an interviewee that speaks nervously requires a drilling down on that interviewee with increasing focus to be able to edit the speech of that interviewee and accurately convey the message they are trying to share.  When you’re listening to an interviewee talk, you should listen first, in a general way.  What is the flow of how and what they are saying?

Then, start listening to exactly what they are saying and asking yourself, it is contextual?  Is it logical?  In other words, does it make sense?  Is the answer answering the question?

Then pay attention to things like tone, pitch, volume and frequency.  When you edit, you want to match these things if possible.  You can’t attach a word ending with a high pitch to a word beginning with a low pitch.  Or a word spoken quickly to a word spoken slowly.  This can be jarring and unnatural.

And finally, listen for personal quirks of speech, such as stuttering or run on sentences for example.  These are part of the person’s character.  You want them to sound good, because a poor speaker can be distracting.  But, you don’t want to sacrifice who they are because of a desire to sanitize their speech patterns.  It’s a balance.   One other thing about that.

Sometimes, it is hard to find a place to cut.  What you’re looking for is a complete thought; what’s called a natural break.  They may talk for five minutes about something, but they make the point in the first :45 seconds.  The problem is because they may ramble, it’s hard to find that natural break.  That breath where, in a conversation, someone listening might think, “OK, new thought.”  So, you may have to go forward a little ways past where you want to stop or backwards a little ways before you wanted to stop to find that natural break.  Just make sure you’re keeping all of the other elements in mind so that when you make the cut, it sounds like you hit the natural break exactly.

When it’s time to start editing, keep all of those elements in your mind like a juggler keeps balls in the air.  They are acoustical differences that can make it physically difficult to cut or move words, syllables or phones.  Challenges to retrieving a complete thought in the editing process while trying to not let an edit sound like an edit, can be like drawing a picture in the dark.  It takes patience, attention to detail and an appreciation of language and the human voice that might be likened to that of a music critic.

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April 28, 2014 at 13:46

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, is 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.

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April 11, 2014 at 06:12

Keep Talking

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I want to mention that formatting some of my most recent posts has been kind of hinky.  I don’t know what WordPress is doing but I’m sure there is often somebody making tweeks that don’t work and then, those tweeks get undone and things go back to working seamlessly.  I’m hoping it soon moves back to the seamless part.

Anyway, this is another quickie.  It has to do with the interviewer’s mistakes during an interview.  Specifically, the concept of fixing as you go.  If you’re live, then your fixes are awkward because everybody hears them.  You have a brain fart, you stutter, you recall wrong information, whatever.  If this doesn’t happen too often, you are probably endeared to your listeners as being an authority, but not TOO much of an authority because, you can make mistakes just like them.  I’ll be talking about perfect host speech in a later post.

But if you’re recording the conversation for later editing and broadcasting/posting, your guest probably doesn’t care if you fix as you go.  In fact, they may be fascinated by the process because they too may not realize mistakes are made that the audience never hears.  When I, as a young reporter, learned that fix as you go was an essential tool for narration, it changed my world.  Because until then, you tend to want to be perfect.  Learning the mechanics of articulation can be a blessing and a curse.  Your speech improves by orders of magnitude once you learn how it should sound, about proper pronunciation and placement of tongue on teeth for words, letters and syllables.  But conversely, once you start noticing your own mistakes, you never want to make any.  And that means a young producer or reporter might spend way too much time starting over from the beginning ever time they make the slightest grammatical mistake.  That old joke of someone doing ten, twenty, thirty or more re-takes … sometimes it’s not a joke.

So the fix it as you go method is, you’re reading your text.  You make a mistake.  Do you go back to the very beginning of the document?  No.  Do you go back to the beginning of the paragraph?  No.  At most, you go back to the beginning of the sentence, taking care to remember your volume, pitch, cadence and mood so that when you edit out the mistake, it sounds seamless.  At the very least, you pick up at the word you messed up so you’re cutting a single word instead of a sentence worth of them.

Here’s what it might look like:

The case was returned to Grand Jury for … the Grand Jury after the Attorney General …

The mistake was in the first half of the sentence.  The reader forgot to say “the”.  This happens a lot because the brain is always ahead of the mouth.  Often you hear people skip words or juxtapose letters or syllables when they talk.  In the edit, all you have to do is cut out the first “Grand Jury for” and you’re good to go.  Plus, the fewer times you repeat words you’ve already spoken, the less of a chance you’ll misspeak them again, which also saves time and can prevent those annoying re-takes.

That might not sound like a big concession, to not repeat the whole sentence in favor of just a word or two.  But if you are OCD, like so many producers and reporters are, you realize that immediately continuing on from the point you messed up will save you scores of minutes of editing.  And if you’re under deadline, one second too late is still one second too late.

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April 11, 2014 at 03:00

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One element of an interview is the ability of the interviewee to speak. I don’t mean any of the elements of speech per se, like articulation, pitch or volume. I’m talking more about their ability to call upon the words they want from the thoughts they’re thinking in response to the questions they hear. Some people do this so smoothly and effortlessly that as an interviewer, I sometimes feel the only way I can sound as good as them is to have my questions written down. There is a knack to being able to respond cogently, quickly and logically to a question.

Stress and lack of practice can get in the way. Both can make an interviewee stumble, meaning, they can’t find the words they want. You can see it as they talk, editing as they are speaking, changing words that are already on the way out of their mouths because they realize another word would say it better. But not realizing you can’t pull misspoken words back and that mixing it up can make them sound less rather than more confident.

Speaking styles develop over a lifetime, and whether an interviewee’s words flow like butter or sound like a cold lawnmower, listeners are more likely to forgive them if they sound passionate and sincere. There is a sort of persistence of vision for listening that people employ when they are really trying to hear the message of a speaker, regardless of how its being delivered. It’s true that this age has trained us to not have much patience for things without high production values, like music, commercials or interviews. But seasoned listeners can drill down through problems a speaker may be having to why they are saying what they are saying rather than how they are saying it.

A good interviewer can help the audience and a struggling interviewee. The interviewer, first, has to get the essence of what the guest is trying to say because they don’t want to change the message. And, they don’t want to put words the guest doesn’t intend in their mouths. But if they listen closely to the response, they can delicately and respectfully, guide the guest toward the answer they’re trying to get to. They can ask short follow up questions. They can paraphrase tentative answers to help the guest feel calm and confident. It might be comparable to someone holding up a bicycle while the rider focuses on pedaling.

Some schools of thought disagree with this. They say an interviewee is completely responsible for what they say and how they say it and by the interviewer interjecting themselves into the interviewee’s message, even if they’re intending to help it stay on point, they are changing it and should butt out. But the purpose of a conversation that is shared with an audience is for the audience to come away richer somehow, not frustrated. And although they they may have compassion for a rambling and halting speaker, compassion isn’t understanding. An interviewer helping a guest be understood is one of the tasks a good interviewer performs in the service to the message and the listener.

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December 6, 2013 at 00:21

Tone, Volume, Pace = Mood

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Don Williams

There isn’t any alchemy going on when I’m editing an interview, whether it’s one I did from start to finish or not. A good example of that is one I’m working on right now. Country music star Don Williams was in town, and I had been bugging his manager for months to let me interview him. Each time, he politely but firmly declined. But I really wanted to talk with Mr. Williams and I tried one more time. Graciously, his manager sent me a CD of an interview Mr. Williams had done with documentarian Bill Cody. He also sent me Mr. Williams’ latest CD and a transcript of the interview, with Qs and As. And, he gave me permission to edit out Mr. Cody’s questions and insert my own.

I had never heard of this particular practice before, but I can only assume it is becoming common practice. Radio Media Tours are expensive and they tie up an artist for an entire day or more doing short interviews with different interviewers from all over the country. This way, they can do one and just distribute it and leave it up to the producer how they want to try to make it unique.  It also insures the management company has complete control over the answers, and the questions, because even if you don’t use the questions the artist has already answered, you must ask something that will get the same answer even if you reformulate it somehow.  People in TV or radio news have known something like this for years.  The press pool, where a bunch of reporters plug into one common audio or video feed from the podium, gives everybody the same information but limits the amount of interaction.

And, although I’m sure this doesn’t even need to be said, an editor would be wise to leave the answers relatively unedited, but if they’re going to edit them, make sure they reflect the context of the question.  Or, if you group pieces of different answers, make sure they’re on the same subject.  Otherwise, overly creative editing will get you a lawsuit a poundin’ on your door.

And that’s where I get to this title of this post. I’m editing the Don Williams interview, and trying to formulate questions that aren’t the same as Mr. Cody’s but make Mr. Williams’ answers sound complementary and natural. And it reminds me again of the basics of production and diction. When speaking, you have to match the speaker’s voice volume as well as their tone of voice and the speed that they’re talking. All of this equals their mood. If you can match their mood, you and the interviewee can be in this dance of a conversation. What this interview when done will prove, is that you don’t have to be in a conversation with somebody to make it sound like you are.

In a way though, I’m hurting the whole idea of live, one on one conversations, by proving this is possible. And getting back to how this isn’t magic or anything, I put a disclaimer at the beginning of the interview that says Mr. Cody originally did the interview and the Don Williams organization allowed the edits.  I wanted an interview with Don Williams and I got it, sort of. Just out of curiosity, what do you think of this? As a listener, do you care about these kind of ethics and specifics as long as it entertains you and sounds good?

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May 5, 2013 at 01:41

Not Light on Depth

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In the middle of editing this most recent interview, I had to stop to write this post.  I’ve done a few dozen interviews now, and I’m starting to notice a pattern. Many of the people I talk to, whether they’re famous or up and coming, are surprised that I actually know something about who they are or what they do.  And that surprises me.  And for the people reading this post or listening to my interviews, it should surprise you.  Why?  Because if you’re interested in what I have to say, or what they have to say, it means. you expect me to be able to tell you something, and something not pat or cliche’ish, but something unusual, valuable, useful or unique.  And that’s stuff I can only get from taking the time to do the research.  It’s what gives the conversation credibility to convey.  And apparently, a lot of frustrated interviewees are interviewed by a lot of interviewers that don’t do that.

Russell Hitchcock of Air Supply said his partner Graham Russell has gotten up in the middle of lazy interviews and left because the interviewer started out with a question like, “So, what kind of music do you guy perform?”  Haitian V said essentially the same thing.  He told me he expected to be pissed off at me  because he expected that I was like other interviews he’d done where the interviewer hadn’t taken the time to learn anything about him, his life or his work.

I just wonder where else this happens in society and culture.  I remember that scene in “Armageddon” where the Jason Issacs character is trying to discredit a bad opinion from another presidential advisor on how to save the Earth from the asteroid collision, and says, “As the presidents’ chief scientific advisor, we were at MIT together.  And, in a situation like this, you – you really don’t wanna take the advice from a man who got a C minus in astrophysics.”

Just makes me wonder sometimes how may other C minus students are there out there running things.  I can certainly think of a few.  But my interviews will never be light on depth.

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.

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March 2, 2013 at 04:55

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