Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘empathy

Is There One …

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Interviewers are no different than anybody else.  They sometimes like shortcuts.  Like those “Top Ten” lists that the Late Show with David Letterman helped make famous, these lists are crib notes for what is the hottest, most talked about and supposedly, most important things on people’s minds at the moment.  So when an interviewer asks someone to give them the top five, or three or one “thing” as it refers to a person or a situation, guests as a way of showing how on top of things they are, are quick to oblige.  I have never heard one not accommodate the question.

Until today.

Marco Werman of PRI’s “The World” was talking with Kenny Irby of the Poynter Institute, a journalistic school in St. Petersburg, Florida.  They were both talking about three-time Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Michel du Cille, who died of a heart attack this week in Liberia while on assignment for the Washington Post.  Mr. du Cille was chronicling Ebola patients when he passed away.  And in an earlier interview with his Post colleagues, Mr. du Cille said he was excited to go to Liberia because he felt he had “a responsibility to tell the story and we have a responsibility to tell the story in a poignant and respectful and dignified way”.

During the course of the conversation, Mr. Werman and Mr. Irby talked about the various other human tragedies Mr. du Cille covered and how he treated all of the people he photographed with dignity and respect.  At the end of the interview, Mr. Werman went to the interviewer’s default; “Is there one of his photographs that will always define who Michel du Cille was as a photographer?”  And Mr. Irby answered honestly and refreshingly.

“No, there are numerous photo galleries of Michel’s work in my mental photo album and I think it would be unfair to try to identify one single frame out of an individual whose life has been committed to documenting the experiences, both horiffic and the harmonious experiences.  It’s interesting that you see his body of work and he was able to show hope in hard times and in dark places as well as the tragedy.”

I sometimes wonder what is the intent of smashing something so big into a space so little.

A life uncompressed for a change.

I like it.

Interview School in a Box

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That’s what a friend recently called this blog. She wants to start doing interviews and knew I was blogging about interviewing. So she visited and read a few posts, and hit me with that description the next time I saw her. I thought it was pretty clever.

When I listen to an interviewer interviewing, I think about all of the people they talk to, want to talk to, have talked to. I think about all of the subjects they have broached. And I wonder, are they expanded by those conversations? I used to think the same thing when I worked in news. A reporter, like an interviewer, talks to many people much more deeply about a much wider variety of subjects than other people. That, in part, is what gives them currency to the people who want to listen to them. They have something to say or tell that the average person doesn’t know but might want to know. And I have said before that an interviewer is merely a conduit from the person being interviewed to the person listening to the interview.

But talking about the person in the middle now, the interviewer, are they in any way changed by their conversation with Gandhi, or the Dalai Lama, or Hillary Clinton or George Winston, or Dr. Jonas Salk? I mean, the interview is a kind of anomaly to the story arc we’ve all grown up with. You know that arc; a situation contains a protagonist, an antagonist, a series of crises, revelations, surmounts, rewards … in other words, The Hero’s Journey. We expect all of the people in the story to be changed, which is supposed to make us ask ourselves if we’ve changed somehow. An interviewer is only supposed to help the person telling the story tell how they’ve changed though. And the listener is supposed to consider how their story changed them. We only tend to think about how two of the three people in that dynamic have changed.  The interviewer is crucial and at the same time, invisible and disposable.

But when the microphones are off and the studio is dark, and the interviewer is thinking about being an interviewer, are they thinking about what it means to be a human in conversation with a Gandhi or a Dalai Lama or a Hillary Clinton or a George Winston or a Dr. Jonas Salk, and “My God, their stories have filled my head and made me a better person!” Are they telling themselves “I will think more about philosophy or the environment or politics or the judicial system or childhood development or famine or elder abuse because I just talked to a philosopher or an activist or a senator or a judge or a pediatrician or a nutritionist or geriatrician.” Or are they thinking more pedestrian stuff like, will interviewee will show up on time? Or how they can’t really think deeply about what the guest is saying because they’re thinking instead about how the facility has just changed how staff people can now book studio time, or an upcoming doctor’s appointment or relationship problems? Or maybe they’re simply thinking, “This isn’t where my head is right now.”

It is such a gift to be able to talk to such accomplished people who, under normal circumstances, one would never, ever have the chance to meet, let alone talk to. But I wonder if interviewers, like professional photographers, are kind of doomed to never get the chance to experience the people they are with because they are professionally driven instead to make sure they present them well to their audience. Seeing or hearing people through viewfinders or headphones is not experiencing those people.  But I wonder if that’s the trade off.

Written by Interviewer

June 13, 2013 at 01:23