Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Forum

Calling the Media’s Hand

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Big Kanuna

Sometimes, as media and journalists, we can get caught in our own rules of fairness.

I don’t have a good handle on why some media outlets focus solely on major party candidates during forums in advance of presidential, general and off year elections. Maybe it’s got to do with polling and how the issues of third party candidates aren’t always the same main issues as they are for the majors. Maybe it’s got to do with the influence of the majors who want the punch bowl all to themselves and more or less convince the media through ad buys that they deserve it. Maybe it’s got to do with the fact that the numbers of the minors don’t come close to those of two party candidates and so, the media – a numbers driven concern – makes an economic decision that the largest audience comes from those who capture the largest numbers. I don’t know.

But I do know the standards of Sigma Delta Chi, which is the organization for the Society of Professional Journalists. And its stated missions are (1) to promote and defend the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of the press; (2) encourage high standards and ethical behavior in the practice of journalism; and (3) promote and support diversity in journalism. So when Third Party candidate Jason Levin crashed a debate between only Democratic Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber and Republican challenger Dennis Richardson at the editorial offices of the Pamplin Media Group on September 23rd, it was kinda what the latter three deserved.

Political forums are not private love-ins. They should be more like racous holiday dinners where the whole family is at the table.  Of course, maybe that’s just me.  I happen to like the idea of the unpredictable and the un-anointed peeing in the sacred pool.  That’s why although I think weather modeling and the Dow Jones Industrial 30-day average are cute, they show us every day that we have no idea what will or should happen next.  I root not for the havoc, but the humbling.

Besides, if Oregon’s Ballot Measure 90 passes, getting a seat at that table may be even more difficult for third party candidates in the future. Congratulations to Mr. Levin for having the kahunas to pull out his own chair and forcing forum hosts to put their journalistic principles above whatever it was that made them initially not.

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Good Stuff

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Last night was the last of three, live candidate forums I moderated.  Two candidates for US Congress showed.  Tuesday night, three gubernatorial candidates came.  And Monday night, eight legislative candidates (four vying for the same district) were there.  This whole process of being immersed in politics was nothing planned.

It started with me annoyed that the federal government was doing so much illegal surveillance of ordinary citizens.  So I built a website to give people more direct access to their state constitutions – http://www.stateconstitutions.us.

Then, I got the idea to interview political candidates in advance of the 2014 state elections.  In many cases, the parties anoint who they want to be the frontrunners and the smaller candidates with no money and no name recognition get no exposure from the media.  I wanted to change that and give them all a voice.  Of the 283 candidates that filed their candidacy on the Secretary of State’s website, I’ve interviewed about 40 of them since December 2013.

Those led to the idea of having debates between candidates running for different branches of government.  And come June, after the Secretary of State opens filing to third party candidates like the Greens or the Constitution Party,  I’ll probably repeat the process over for them who get even less love.

I’ve learned a lot about government, what it aspires to be and what it often is.  And that has made me both discouraged and encouraged.  Most people who want to be judges care because they know the judicial system can be intimidating.  Most people who want to be lawmakers are not greedy, self-centered whores of moneyed interests.  By contrast, they are passionate about serving their neighbors and trying to make a better world.  And most people running for governor are clear thinkers capable of making truly executive decisions that try to balance the reason of courts against the passion of the legislature.

Before this project, I would’ve dismissed politics as an impediment to people trying to conduct their day to day lives.  But now, I see it as a process that is absolutely essential to be at least aware of, if not engaged with. It is your right to not engage.  But I’ve learned that if you have that kind of apathy, other people who don’t have your best interest in mind, will engage in your name for their own benefit.  They will sponge your resources, make your decisions and they will affect your life in ways that you will only accidently discover when you day to day runs into their deaf, ubiquitous and unyielding bureaucracy.

Written by Interviewer

May 2, 2014 at 05:59

Painful

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Just so you know, that’s what a live forum can be if you don’t have the time to properly prepare.  I am still wincing a little.  Tonight was the first of three candidate forums with legislative, executive branch and  congressional candidates in advance of Oregon’s primary election on May 20th.

Eight legislative candidates came.  The board op was great.  The timer was great.  The news director was great.  But at a community radio staton, there is no overabundance of support staff.  So a lot that gets done has to be done by the person who has the original idea.  In this case, that would be me.

That is fine, unless, as my old relatives used to say, “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach”.  In other words, if you’re trying to do more than you’re able.  And in my case, it was trying to do everything perfectly and forgetting to write an intro script for myself.

The simplest thing in the world.  Just a couple of sentences to set the whole thing up and get out the first question.  But running into the studio, with a whole bunch of little snafus leading up to the red light going on left me with not even a couple minutes to scribble out anything but the briefiest of notes to me.

Which is fine, but people who’ve been in journalism their whole life rely partly on ad-libbing and partly on the written word.  And sometimes, if the written word isn’t there (scribbling doesn’t always count), the ad-libbing isn’t either.  Sometimes, under duress, you can’t read your own writing.

So my first minutes of the live forum was me thrashing around for my thoughts because I didn’t have time to give me a good opening.  I eventually hooked onto my focus, like some wildly swinging grappling hook that finds a piece of chain link fence.  After that, I can admit the rest of the forum went pretty well.  But of course, that’s not enough.

I will listen to the forum because it’ll remind me to never let such a flub happen again.  Thing is though, in my past, other stuff just as unsatisfying has happened, and more than once.  It’s called experience.   My peers would say, let it go. They’re right. I can laugh about it later.  Newsrooms pass around DVDs of bloopers that the public never sees of some of the most embarrassing shit ever.  So, I’m in good company.   I’ll chalk it up too.  But for now, ow.

It was a reminder to be better.

It was a booster shot.

Written by Interviewer

April 29, 2014 at 11:48

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.