Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

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Answers about Questions

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iur

This is a quickie.

As I labor through a project I’m currently working on, the question of questions came to mind.  Specifically, the questions a reporter should be asking in interviews while doing their reporting.  I am thinking of two types of questions to ask and two types of questions to not ask;

To Ask:
Questions you think the audience would ask if they could
Questions that compel the interviewee to reveal something you or they didn’t expect

To Not Ask
Questions that sound like you’re reading them
Questions that you think make you sound smart

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Written by Interviewer

December 21, 2015 at 12:19

TV Logistics of Interviewing the President

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Rose Garden

The interview between President Obama and Steve Croft of CBS News highlights some of the logistical issues when doing an interview with a high profile interviewee.

The interview was presented in at least two segments.  One segment was the portion that took place inside the White House.  In that interview, there are occasions when Mr. Croft’s face is predominant in the shot, times when Mr. Obama’s face is predominant and times when both men are in the shot.  Here, there is the luxury of at least two and maybe more cameras.  These cameras are on tripods and the room has excellent lighting and sound.  This arrangement gives the viewer a full, high quality view of the interchange between both people together and individually.

It also is the best situation for the editor who must later reduce the entire conversation to something that fits into the available broadcast time slot.  The reporter knows to re-ask questions if necessary, to ask the interviewee to repeat answers if needed or to get reaction shots (a look that implies the listener is concentrating on what the speaker is saying).  This is good for the editor because reaction shots not only help move the conversation forward in the natural back and forth way people expect, but they give the editor a chance to butt portions of the conversation together that might not have been together in the original talk.  This can help truncate the conversation or cover a mistakes.  In an indoor setting with those kind of resources, do overs are less of a big deal.

But the other segment of the interview took place along the walkway bordering the Rose Garden that leads to the President’s office.  Here, there was only one camera.  It was shoulder-mounted, or possibly on a body-pod.  The lighting and sound is not as good as it is inside.  The shot may not be as steady.  So the reporter and camera-operator need to use different techniques outside.

One of them is the classic walk and stop.  The President and Mr. Croft are chatting as they walk down the sidewalk toward the camera while the camera is also moving backwards.  At some point, Mr. Croft stops.  Mr. Obama then also stops and the camera-operator gets the chance to better frame the two of them while they continue to talk.  This is a technique reporters often use to take subtle control of the conversation.  You’ll see them use this slightly dramatic device a lot at the start of their stories as part of their lead in.

But one camera greatly limits how this portion of the interview can be edited later because there isn’t the flexibility that comes with video provided by other cameras.  And if you have an interviewee like the President who is being closely managed by a communications manager or other staff who probably want to get him inside, there may not be time to get the best shots that make the editing easy and seamless later.

This was clear during the outside portion.  You see the President and Mr. Croft standing together.  The shot was framed so that Mr. Obama’s right profile was facing the camera while Mr. Croft was to his left and almost centered.  In the next shot, the two men are at 45 degrees to each other and centered in the camera – a two shot.  In TV parlance, the abrupt scene change is called a jump-cut.  Since there was no second camera, there was no reaction shot, so the abrupt change couldn’t be hidden.  And its likely that the decision was made that the President would not be asked to repeat answers so the camera operator couldn’t get a shot that would make the editing easier and less jarring later.

I’ve spent many years behind a video camera, both in the studio and in the field, and as just as many in an edit bay.  When you’re shooting and you know you can’t get the shot you need, you’re not looking forward to the editing because you know it’s not going to look the way you want.  But sometimes, it just can’t be helped.

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Written by Interviewer

October 12, 2015 at 22:59

Ad Perpetuam Memoriam

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Microphone and Ribbon

Two journalists from WDBJ TV in Roanoke, Virginia, reporter Allison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward, were killed by a former station employee while they conducted a live TV interview.  According to NPR’s Sandy Housman, the image of Vester Lee Flanigan, who worked as a reporter under the name of Bryce Williams, was captured by videographer Adam Ward’s camera.  Flanigan apparently also videotaped himself carrying out the shooting and later, posted it on social media.  The BBC reported that as someone who understood the power of TV and video, Mr. Flanigan stalked and ambushed both journalists.  Virginia police reported Flanagan suffered a self-inflicted, life threatening gunshot wound and has been transported to a local hospital.  He has since died from those wounds.

I cried when I heard of the shootings.  I’ve worked in a TV newsroom.  I’ve worked the early morning shift with people who shuffle in at two and three in the morning and scrounge for stories to have ready by a 6 or 7 a.m. newscast.  I’ve joked with cameramen as they grabbed their gear and warmed up a truck.  I’ve watched reporters scoop up notebooks and tape recorders as they hurry out the door into the dark to get ready for some live shot who-knows-where.

An American journalist hasn’t been murdered in America since 2007.  According to Wikipedia, Chauncy Bailey of the Oakland Post was the most recent reporter killed by the target of an investigative report he was working on.  The Committee to Protect Journalists says 1141 journalists have been killed around the world since 1992.  But many American journalists have been killed on American soil.  Wikipedia lists 48 journalists killed in the United States since 1837.

I have never been in a reporting situation where I thought my life was in danger.  But, this simple and routine interview these two professionals went to cover; one of a thousand they’ve done before, almost certainly seemed ordinary and harmless to them as well.

Allison Parker – WDBJ-TV Reporter
Adam Ward – WDBJ-TV Cameraman

Written by Interviewer

August 26, 2015 at 23:13

Real News

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Thigh Cream

This is a quickie.

The National Zoo in Washington DC helped its panda, Mei Xiang, give birth to two panda cubs overnight.  CBS This Morning has spent a lot of time covering that story, repeating it each hour and dedicating several minutes each time from it’s reporter Jan Crawford, who is covering the story.  Guest anchor Anthony Mason, after one commercial break, began by saying something like, “In our ongoing panda coverage …”.

Anyone who has spent anytime in TV might wonder if what he’s really saying is, “Is this real news?”

This is a perennial conversation in newsrooms.  I remember back in the early 90s, when I worked at WKRC, Channel 12 in Cincinnati, there was a story about thigh cream.  The manufacturer claimed that using this cream would reduce wrinkles and fat on a woman’s thigh.  At the time, reporters were furious that a business product was being elevated to a news story.  And afterwards, it became shorthand for a ridiculous story that masquaraded as real news.  Some people might have accused CBS of doing the same thing a few years ago when “This Morning” featured the new Dyson bathroom hand dryer.

How does this happen?  Sometimes, the news cycle is thin and assignment editors and news directors are looking for anything to fill time.  Sometimes, the more strategic intention is to try to appeal to an important demographic.  And sometimes, (although no one will admit it) the sales department drops a bug in a news director’s ear because a business has just purchased a lot of commercial air time.

Ms. Crawford’s story, however, was likely in none of those categories.  When CBS went to her, she responded to Mr. Mason in her intro by saying the panda story was indeed important because these were the first babies born in captivity in many years.  And she said that because such panda cubs rarely survive, the zoo was essentially in a life or death struggle to keep them alive in their first few hours.

Was it breaking news?  No.  Was it thigh cream?  No.  But this story and many others like it are fuel for the ongoing argument on both sides of the screen.

What is news, exactly?

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.

Gannett No Good for Portland

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TV Tower

This was the title of a press release issued by three union locals representing professional broadcasting; the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Screen Actor’s Guild – American  Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA). I called IATSE spokesperson Dave Twedell to learn more.

Essentially, these unions are worried by changes media corporation Gannett wants them to agree to, primary of which is allow “amateurs” or people not represented by the union to do union jobs.  This means, according to Mr. Twedell, bloggers, podcasters and possibly independent videographers would begin doing the work of professional writers, producers and field camera operators under what’s called a “Non-exclusive jurisdictional contract”.   And this is feared to lead to other changes, including:

(1) The firing of local television engineers at Channel 8 and turn local engineering responsibilities over to Gannett’s automated Master Control facility in Jacksonville, Florida,

(2) The possible elimination of Ch. 8 news altogether because Gannett may sell away the station’s bandwidth (including part or all of Ch. 8’s frequency) at the next FCC auction.

Mr. Twedell said the purpose of a planned rally at Pioneer Courthouse Square on Saturday is to distribute information on the proposed changes by Gannett and give the public a chance to make their concerns known to Gannett.

I asked Mr. Twedell if he expected any of the “talent” (any of the Channel 8 anchors or reporters) would show up.  He said he can’t speak for the SAG-AFTRA part of the coalition, since this event focuses more on the photographers and video editors side of TV operations.  But he said several SAG-AFTRA members are “active participants in our campaign” and we’ll see what we’ll see.

The release was issued on April 20th.  Let me know if you’ve heard anything about it on any news broadcast.

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Here is the full text of the release:

“Ever since Gannett took over KGW in late 2013, things have progressively gone downhill, including cost-cutting by bringing in amateurs and outsourcing work to machines located thousands of miles away.  That isn’t right”.

“KGW is a vibrant part of the community.  Because KGW is licensed to broadcast in the public interest, the public has a right to know what the new corporate owner, Gannett, wants to do with KGW”.

“The city goverment relies on Channel 8 to provide reliable real time information during emergencies.  The station’s advertisers rely on it to provide a large audience and the large audience is made up of stakeholders who can and we believe should speak up about the Gannett business model”.

“On Saturday, April 25, join us for a rally and celebration of KGW in Portland’s iconic Pioneer Courthouse Square.  Help us protect quality broadcasting and family-wage jobs, and stand up to corporate media.  KGW must maintain its standards and identity.  This is OUR air”.

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The rally takes place Saturday, April 25th at Pioneer Courthouse Square from Noon until 2 p.m.

Oh No

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Theater people know the brief look that was exchanged between new, Face the Nation host John Dickerson and reporter/anchor Nora O’Donnell on CBS This Morning.  Dickerson was talking about Hillary Clinton’s just announced campaign and Ms. O’Donnell was asking him a question.  Suddenly, there it was.  Dickerson and O’Donnell were locked in this momentary glance that can be called the “Oh No” look.

When you’re onstage and you and another actor are sharing a similar thought, it can be a knowing look.  It can also be a shared joke that can cause both people to start laughing.  Or, maybe the laughing starts for absolutely no reason at all.  But if you can’t break eye contact, then you have to pour cold water on the look, which can be really hard to do.  SNL and news blooper tapes are full of examples of what happens when the look takes over; actors and anchors start laughing which in turn, feeds more laughing that becomes uncontrollable.  Episodes of the Carol Burnett Show showing this breakup breakdown between comedians Tim Conway and Harvey Korman are legendary.

In American film, theater and TV, this is called “breaking character“.  On the British stage, it’s called corpsing and actors receive pretty substantial training on how to keep it from happening.  Some actors focus on clenching their fists or biting their tongues.  Others are told by their directors that “they themselves” are not what is funny happening in a scene.  Still other actors say that after they work the scene enough times, they just focus on the work and the lose the urge to laugh.

I knew the Oh No look was in play because the director switched from Ms. O’Donnell’s face to Mr. Dickerson’s, and both were frozen in that sort of bulging eye horror of knowing they were each about to lose control if somebody didn’t do something fast.  The director, Randi Lennon, has probably seen this a lot and quickly went to and held the camera on Charlie Rose long enough for both Mr. Dickerson and Ms. O’Donnell to regain their composure.

I’ve mentioned something like this before, namely the bad marrying of a funny story to a terrible, follow-up story that can twist the anchor up sometimes.  What happened this morning is a reminder to TV people of something theater people know well – the Oh No look is a trap and one of the many hazards on a news set in the handoff between reporter and anchor.

Written by Interviewer

April 13, 2015 at 22:58