Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Ukraine

Tiny Error in Fact

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White Out

As I write this, CBS News and Scott Pelley are breaking into regular network programming with news that a Malaysian airlines jet outbound from the Netherlands has crashed in Ukraine near Donetsk.  The jet was cruising at a normal altitude of 33,000 feet and was carrying 298 souls.  First responders report that body parts have been found scattered as far as 7 miles from the crash site, indicating the aircraft broke apart while still in the air.

In describing the incident, Mr. Pelley noted that the jet was 1/2 of the way through its journey when the incident happened.

I want to stop here and acknowledge that when breaking news events like this happen, it is well documented that a lot of the first information to be released is wrong.  This might be because sources are unreliable, or the full scope of the event isn’t fully known.  These are things that can be uncontrollable despite the due diligence fast moving news bureaus try to conduct before releasing the story for dissemination.

But some mistakes that have nothing to do with any of that are just plain puzzling.  Mr. Pelley and CBS needed to check a globe to see that Kuala Lampur is 6333 miles from the Netherlands, while Donetsk is 1642 miles from the Netherlands.  That means the jet was 1/4, not 1/2 of the way through its flight when it crashed.

Is this a big deal?  No and yes.  No because we get the gist; a plane crashed, innocent people were killed.  And it generates hard questions, like was the crash in any way related to the political unrest in Ukraine or President Obama’s announcement yesterday of sanctions on heavy weapons like the kind that are capable of shooting down airliners?  That’s what’s centrally important.

Yes because things like distance do not change.  Distance is something that can be easily checked.  And if it’s not considered important to verify, then why do we have things like rulers and spell checkers and scales and calipers.  On a societal level, do we really care then about things that tell us distance or capacity or speed if we don’t take them seriously?  And where else does this kind of cavalier treatment happen?  Maybe in our financial institutions?  Maybe behind a 3d printer creating intricate parts?  Maybe in surgery?

As a writer and reporter, I remember every time I realized after doing a story that there was something in it I got wrong.  I want to forget those mistakes but I can’t.  But what I can do is research the hell out of the things that are immutable so I can at least be sure I get them right.

There are lots of things that change in the course of a developing story.  And the flurry of the moment can disadvantage a news organization trying to be the first to give sketchy details of an important story.  But for some things, there are few excuses for getting them wrong.


Written by Interviewer

July 17, 2014 at 23:56

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