Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Russia

Something’s Burning

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Something's Burning

Andrew Jennings is a Scottish investigative reporter who has been following the mismanagement and corruption at the European soccer agency, FIFA, for nearly 15 years. In a recent interview with NPR’s Melissa Block, he said he provided the FBI with internal financial documents in 2009 in an effort to help the Americans prosecute FIFA’s wrongdoing. The FBI, along with Interpol and a number of other law enforcement agencies around the world began arresting FIFA executives on Monday, June 1st, 2014.

Ms. Block asked Mr. Jennings if he felt he had violated his journalist integrity by providing those documents. Mr. Jennings adamantly said no, saying FIFA is a corrupt organization, everyone knew it was corrupt and little was being accomplished in the way of internal reform, which he believed it needed desperately. This again brings up the question of how much should a journalist insert themselves into the story and it reminds me of a story from J-school which is built on much historical precedence.

A photographer is photographing a protestor who is preparing to self-immolate himself. What should the photographer do? Should he keep taking pictures as the person sets themselves on fire in the most desperate act of political protest, or should he drop the camera and save the person from what would certainly be a graphic, horrible and painful death? According to Wikipedia, journalist and photographer Malcolm Brown won the World Press Photo of the Year in 1963 for choosing to take just such a photo. In it, a Vietnamese monk named Thich Quang Duc set himself ablaze in protest against the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government of President Ngo Dinh Diem.

There have been 133 self-immolations for political reasons and 10 for economic reasons since Brown’s photo. Journalism has since weighed in on the journalist’s responsibility to intervene. The Society of Professional Journalists cautions journalists in a release from January 2010: “Report the story; don’t become a part of it,”  Even in a crisis, the SPJ says  journalists must be objective.  Actions the SPJ defines as not objective include advocacy, self-promotion, offering favors for news and interviews, injecting oneself into the story, or creating news events.

But Roy Peter Clark, a Pulitzer Prize winning author who recently wrote for the journalism ethics organization, the Poynter Institute, said “That standard – to observe, cover, but not intervene – is surely not absolute.” He continues, “There are those rare moments when a reporter (or other professional, such as a psychiatrist) realizes that life or public safety is on the line.  That professional may choose to assume a different role, to put on a citizen’s hat rather than a journalist’s”. Journalists have a responsibility to tell the story in a way that insures their credibility by not showing bias. But they also have a responsibility to be human beings.  That can be a tricky wire to walk.

What is the life or public safety issue regarding FIFA?  Some have argued that the thousands of immigrant workers that have died in Qatar’s hellish heat as they prepare the country for a possibly ill-gotten 2022 World Cup tournament might be cause for intervention.  Others like Mr. Jennings, simply see organizations like FIFA stealing what is precious to the people, and believe the people don’t deserve to be lied to or stolen from.

“What would you do”, asks Mr. Clark, “if you saw someone trying to set himself on fire?  I would probably run for my own safety, yell like crazy, and point out the danger to others.  I know Good Samaritans, braver than I, who would try to stop the action.  I doubt I would take out my cell phone and make a video of the self-immolation”.

Mr. Jennings made a similar choice. Under extraordinary circumstances, he heeded the call of the FBI to help them put out a different kind of fire.

Pulling Teeth

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This is a link to a great autopsy of a rough interview –  The interviewer is Stephen Whitty of the Newark Star Ledger.  He is trying to talk with A-list actor Mila Kunis.  She was doing press interviews for her upcoming film, “The Third Person”.  Witty’s review of his talk w/Ms. Kunis is an in-the-trenches up close look at how interviews can go wrong and how you don’t always know why.

The main thing to remember when doing an interview is you don’t know the frame of mind of your interviewee.  You might assume that because you are in a good mood and have done good interviews in the past that your interviewee will be in a good mood and trust that you know what you are doing.  It is the most reasonable kind of magical thinking but it is based on nothing.

The truth is that any interviewee can have a lot on their mind. Besides personal issues though, famous interviewees can add annoyance with studios and agents who make them to do interviews to interviewers who may (as far as the interviewee is concerned) inadvertently ask them the same pedantic questions as the interviewer before.

Whitty is triaging the interview while he is conducting it and Ms. Kunis seems to be shooting down every approach he tries to get her to open up.  He wonders if his opening question triggered her ire over a fresh Marie Claire interview that may have gotten a little too personal.  It only gets bumpier from there.

He wonders if he is being punked (Kunis is engaged to Ashton Kutcher) and he tries to triangulate where she is most comfortable to do the most talking.  He asks her about the movie roles she’s taken and is she trying to branch out from previous ones.  Not especially.  Is she willing to talk about her family’s emigration from Russia?  She considers that question pat.  His question about whether she has any family in the Ukraine, in light of all of the current political turmoil there, gets Whitty a flat “no”.  And Ms. Kunis anticipates his next question, which is whether or not she identifies with what is happening there.  She does not.

Whitty is trying all of the tricks that, in tough interviews, are intended to get an interviewee talking about themselves on an emotional level.  But it’s not working.  He asks Kunis has she always wanted to act and she plays down her own attraction to acting at an early age.  So connecting her childhood ambitions to her adult career is out.  He knows she has been interested in creating her own projects, but she says that although her company is looking at scripts featuring strong, smart women, she herself isn’t interested in doing any directing.

By this point, Whitty has fought his way through some rough interpersonal dynamics to get to where Kunis is starting to warm up.  But unfortunately, his time with her is about done.  When he apologizes for upsetting her with not so great questions, she says that it was in fact, “a good interview”.  And to be fair, it may have been.  Sometimes, we just want to vent.  And if Ms. Kunis beat up on Mr. Whitty for her own reasons and he didn’t give up or roll over, she may have considered him worthy of her time, thus grading him high for his willingness to take punishment.

Or maybe, as Whitty says, she’s just a “truly wonderful actress”.

You can tell the sign of a real pro when they question themselves first rather than blame the interviewee for a rough conversation.  He says, “And to be fair, it could all be me”.  He knows sometimes, interviews are just hard and the interviewer isn’t always as good as they want to be.  But that’s probably why he’ll keep doing great ones like this one no matter how terrible they seem on the surface.

Because in the end, we do learn something important about Ms. Kunis.  We learn that she can be fussy and impatient and short tempered.  In other words, human just like the rest of us.

Written by Interviewer

June 28, 2014 at 14:07

The Stutter Step

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stutter step

This is a quickie.

Kai Ryssdal is the host of Marketplace on American Public Media.  He is interviewing Jack Lew, the Secretary of the Treasury and clearly channeling the American consumer, taxpayer & citizen.  Mr. Lew is bullish on the economy.  Kai Ryssdal is pushing him as to why it seems the economy is still dragging.  Mr. Lew says people don’t forget quickly when they lose significant pieces of their lives like houses and jobs.  Fair enough.

But Kai also challenged Mr. Lew when he said businesses are waiting to reinvest in the economy.  Kai said we’ve been hearing for years that businesses need to reinvest but they aren’t.  What’s it going to take?

And finally, he called Mr. Lew on how, whether or not the US gets “upset”, applies sanctions and finds the things Russia, China, Syria, North Korea, et al, does unacceptable – does it mean anything and does it help or hurt US credibility in the world when it seems to US actions seem to not matter. FYI, Mr. Ryssdal can be a clown sometimes, but he can also quickly turn to a viper.

Anyway, in response to those last two, I heard it.  From Mr. Lew, the stutter.  When an interviewee is unsettled by the answer or the question, they do tend to stutter.  It may not mean they doubt what they’re saying.  But it doesn’t imply a strong reply.  And the culture tends to equate stuttering with lying.  Remember “Stutter” from the R&B singer, Joe?  Coincidentally, in the song, the girlfriend stutters even though it was her twin having the affair.

Stuttering is not necessarily a sign of lack of confidence either. Stuttering is sometimes popularly seen as a symptom of anxiety, but there is actually no direct correlation in that direction (though the inverse can be true, as social anxiety may actually develop in individuals as a result of their stuttering, manifesting at its peak if one has just stuttered in a situation or manner the stutterer believes especially unfortunate; as the spike in anxiety can be near-instantaneous, often becoming apparent in mid-syllable, a casual observer will tend to mistake the effect for the cause).

And Mr. Lew, maybe Russia isn’t bothered by US and European sanctions much because they are grabbing the territories and treasuries of former neighbors as a way to offset those sanctions.  But, as Kai likes to say, … I digress.

Bottom line: Just because someone stutters in an interview or a conversation doesn’t necessarily mean they are hiding something.

Good job staying on Mr. Lew for some good answers, Mr. Ryssdal.

Written by Interviewer

April 26, 2014 at 08:50