Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘interviewer

What Do You Think?

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Flight 370

A common thing radio hosts and interviewers ask their correspondents and reporters to do is speculate.  They’re assumption is that those people, on the ground at the site have as much information about something as they can possibly have at that moment.  And since it is a news program, those reporters should share and summarize their reporting into an opinion.

But as a listener, I am clear that when I hear the reporter speculate as to the what or why of something, I am no longer listening to news, but to conjecture.  And even some reporters don’t seem all that comfortable engaging in it.

On July 30th, Melissa Block of NPR’s All Things Considered was talking with science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel about the discovery of debris that washed up on the French Island of Le Reunion.  Media reports were that the debris was possibly from Malaysian flight 370 that disappeared in March 2014.  Until now, no debris from that crash has been found and the many false reports were frustrating to family members but fodder for less reputable news outfits.

At the end of the report, Ms. Block asked Mr. Brunfiel if he thought the investigation “was much closer now to knowing what happened to the missing plane and solving the mystery behind that?”  To his credit, Mr. Brunfiel said he could not definitively say and would have to wait until French investigators have been able to examine the debris.

Reporters on the ground are the eyes and ears of the listening audience.  They’re job is to synthesize, simplify, boil down complex situations so the public has what they need to help them make decisions in their own daily lives.  And to that end, they can restate facts when asked to sum up what they’ve presented.  But they are not the agencies or professionals they are tasked to report on and can’t know the situations as well, with one exception.

That exception is investigative journalism which is an entirely different animal from spot news.  An indepth investigative journalism piece may take weeks to months to years to develop.  And at the end, those journalists may, in fact, know more about a situation than the agencies and professionals involved.

But otherwise, to ask a correspondent to guess in those kind of complicated, constantly changing situations doesn’t seem feasible to the news mission or fair to the audience.

*Photo by Sam Catherman of State Column.

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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

Redundant?

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Redundant

Journalism has competing tenants.  One says, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them and tell them what you told them”.  The point of doing that, of repeating key aspects of a story throughout the story, is to reinforce the message since a long story can give people so much information they can get lost in it.

But the other one is that a lot of journalism tends to speak to people at about a 7th grade level.  There, the point is keeping things simple helps people follow the message.

Where these collide is the redundant review.  I often hear an interviewer ask a guest a question, the guest gives a perfectly cogent answer, and the interviewer, for some reason, restates that answer, and maybe even puts a slightly different spin on it than the guest intends.

I wonder why this happens.  Maybe the interviewer is trying to stay loyal to tenant number one.  Or maybe, they’re trying to stay true to tenant number two.  Sometimes, I wonder if there is a number three, namely, the interviewer is working the answer out in their own mind to make sure they understand what the guest is actually saying.

I have a third tenant that makes this tendency by some interviewers understandable.  The interviewer should be a surrogate for the listener.  And if there is ever  any question in the interviewer’s mind that a listener might not understand what a guest is saying, the interviewer should speak up.  My year of interviews with Oregon political office seekers proved this to be necessary over and over.

I’ve talked about interviewers adding spin, or restating or talking down to their audience.  Each of those is definitely annoying.  But not everybody who listens has the same capacity to understand and for that reason, journalism has to give those listeners the benefit of the doubt.  For those with capacity plus, they should see that as a win-win for us all.

Written by Interviewer

February 24, 2015 at 02:02

Fake

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Fake

Sometimes, you hear it in the voice of the interviewer.  Fake laughing, fake surprise, fake incredulity, fake interest, fake sincerity.  And you know it’s fake because it sounds like stink smells and there’s never any question about stink.

You rarely hear fake in the voice of the interviewee, since it’s the interviewer’s job, in part, to keep the interviewee off balance and thus, by keeping them off balance, that can help keep them honest.  Usually, when an interviewee is answering a question, they are speaking off the cuff about something they should know well and that tends to lead to honesty.  That, along with the fact that a good interviewer has probably fact checked the hell out of them before they got there and will challenge them on untruths.

But also, with interviewees, you may hear a lie, but not them being fake, since interviewees who are not being truthful probably believe the untruths they’re telling more than they realize.

Interviewers though, silver tongued devils that they are, use a number of verbal gadgets to move the conversation along.  I’ve talked about some of them in this blog.  I’m sure a lot of people consider a forced laugh or a breathy “really!” pretty harmless if it breaks down social barriers.  But when I hear that too often from someone who wears the mantel of journalistic credibility when in fact, they are essentially sleepwalking through the conversation, I don’t see how they can expect openness or revelation from the interviewee or respect from the audience.

At the same time, questions can’t sound like they’re being asked by IBM’s Watson.  There should be energy and enthusiasm in the questions because there is energy and enthusiasm in the questioner.

It’s a hard line to walk, especially since it has been proven that occasionally mimicking a guest’s facial expression, tone of voice or body language makes them feel more comfortable and thus, more willing open up.  Its a truth about human nature we have to first learn, then have to learn to not overuse to the point of creepy or insincere.

A lot of the techniques interviewers use are legitimate and sometimes, necessary.  But fake shouldn’t be one of them.

When I hear fake, I think, “How do you still have a job?”

Written by Interviewer

February 21, 2015 at 06:28

The Comma, the Period, the Horror

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Punctuation

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.

The Answer you Want versus The Answer you Get

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its-not-warming-its-dying-campaign-to-tackle-climate-change-1-640x640-590x590

Jian Ghomeshi recently interviewed Milton Glaser, an ad man who has taken on the task of bringing the warming of the earth into public consciousness with a jarring image that implies the earth is dying.  It shows the green of the earth being overtaken by black.  During the course of the interview, Ghomeshi asks Glaser why he decided to take on this challenge.

As a listener and an interviewer, I hear this question and I automatically assume both a reason for the question and anticipate an answer.  The reason, namely, since Mr. Glaser is 85, might Ghomeshi be asking him if he is taking on the cause because he is of advanced years and wants to do something both big, and something that deeply affects his and all of our lives in an intimate way before the end of his own life?

And the answer I assume is, yes, that is true because … and then Mr. Glaser would talk about the changes he’s seen, or how he himself was never sold on the idea of an earth that’s getting hotter but as he’s grown older, he gradually become aware of a truth he can’t ignore.  Or maybe he’d say something like he’s at an age where he doesn’t really care about how people in general or people in advertising in particular might react to his methods.

Perhaps I wrongly assume the question and the answer, but I still assume them.

And then, he says something completely different.  He says, “Yikes” in a way that implies he hadn’t really thought about why he decided to take on this work.  And as both a listener and an interviewer, I’m disappointed and I think, “How could you not think about what drove you do this?”  Worse, I think “How could you not answer the way I though you would?”

That’s pretty terrible, I know.

The thing about interviews and interviewing is they don’t always line up.  You hear a set of questions that seems to point to an answer like bowling pins to a strike.  But then, you get something completely different and you’re thrown.

But then again, maybe not.  Maybe you are living in the moment and appreciate the answer because you weren’t thinking you were smarter that the person actually answering the question.  Or maybe you had the thought but you pushed it out of your mind as ridiculously pretentious.

When you talk to a lot of people, you hear a lot of answers.  And when you’re coming up with questions, sometimes, you have a bias.  There is a certain thing you want to hear and when you don’t hear it, as an interviewer, sometimes you ask the same question again because you’re thinking, “OK, I’m going to lay this out for you and please say what I’m expecting.”  When it doesn’t happen, as an interviewer it can be frustrating because you might think the answer in your head is better than the answer in your guest’s head.

But it’s not true.  It never is.  And it never will be.

Bad listener/interviewer.  Bad.

The Outrageous Sh*t People Say

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controversy

Interviewers can’t afford to judge the people they’re interviewing for two main reason.  First, if they judge, the interviewee may stop talking.  Usually, the more a person talks, the more comfortable they get.  And if they feel they are being allowed the freedom to get comfortable, they will, over time, be more and more honest with what they are saying, even if those view are repugnant to many listeners.

The fact that those opinions may be repugnant to some is not the point, however.  The point is allowing them to be heard and then, letting the public whether represented by the legal system, the activist community or the woman on the street, to respond.  They may respond with new legislation, an arrest or the kind of public pressure Americans are so good at applying.

It is not the job of the interviewer to judge.  It is the job of the interviewer to honestly provide a direct highway from the interviewee’s mouth to the listener’s ears and let the chips fall where they may with the acknowledgement that sometimes, there is no reaction.  Maybe people are not listening because they’re doing something else.  Or maybe they are listening but they don’t see the subject as rising to a level where it affects them directly enough to respond.  But that too is not the interviewer’s job to worry about.

The other reason why an interviewer can’t judge is because judgement tends to lead to confrontation.  An interviewee with a controversial view has been honed with a prize fighter’s prowess to hit back whenever they feel attacked.  And a judging interviewer may question those views in such a way that the interviewee feels attacked.  This can escalate until you have both trying to outtalk each other.  It is bad for the interviewer because it lessens his credibility but great for the interviewee because he has been able to draw a heretofore impartial interviewer down to the level of shouting.  You’ve heard the expression, “Never wrestle with a pig.  You get covered in mud and the pig likes it”.  That is a saying that should be at the front of every interviewer’s mind whenever they find themselves in conversation with someone with controversial views.

Again, the best and only thing a good interviewer can and should do is make it comfortable for their interviewees to talk and then, let them.

Written by Interviewer

August 12, 2014 at 00:49