Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

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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.

Bread versus Wheat

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Bread v Wheat

Sometimes, reporters want wheat.  For example, they might want to see where something comes from; the raw version – the data – before other people have had the chance to put their interpretation on it.  Other times, reporters want bread, meaning they want to hear the interpretation and compare it against the raw information.  When a reporter asks for bread and gets wheat, it’s useless.  And when a reporter asks for wheat and gets bread, again, it’s useless.

Another bread versus wheat example is when a radio reporter in particular asks a source for information via the medium of audio and they get text.  If they specifically ask for an audio interview and get text, it’s not really helping.  Why?  Because one of the things that makes reporting credible is being able to attribute comments to a source.  Yes, text can be quoted, but it’s a layer removed from the source.  Sources know this, which is why sometimes, some of them refuse to respond with their voice to a question for comment.  Or, during an interview, they will ask a reporter to turn off their recorder but allow written notes.

As a reporter, this has always struck me as a little cheesy, like the source is saying, “OK, you can have proof, but not very good proof”.  If a source promises something and they don’t deliver, and then rationalizes it later, it can be frustrating.  But it certainly tells you something about that source.

Written by Interviewer

September 11, 2014 at 04:17