April 26th, 2007

The Journalist Interview Process Needs To Change, Except When It Doesn’t

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So here’s my perspective on the Calacanis/Winer/Jarvis v. Vogelstein/Wired debate on how journalist interviews should be conducted — both sides are right and also wrong.

Blogging is conversation, yeah, blah, blah, but what’s so unsatisfying about these “conversations” is that too often they turn into linked monologues. Nobody actually TALKS to each other. Everyone just takes sides and helps their side dig the trench. You rarely if ever see anyone changing their mind or conceding a point. So here I am with this unhelpful view that both sides have a point.

On The One Hand

Some journalist do misquote or manipulate quotes, ergo, some journalists are bad journalists.

A very small percentage of people who journalists interview have the ability to independently publish a transcript of an interview, if there is one.

It’s now possible for those people to protect themselves from bad journalists by insisting on such a transcript, ergo, IF those people have suffered at the hand of bad journalists, it’s understandable why they might want to insist on a transcript.

As the number of people with independent publishing platforms increases, there will be pressure on journalists to “open source” their interviews — since the web is so dynamic, some interesting new models could indeed emerge.

Allowing interviewees to control their words makes sense, in principle, ASSUMING those interviewees have nothing to hide, no reason to manipulate the story themselves and/or artificially control their images.

On The Other Hand

Not all journalists are bad journalists.

Refusing to do a live interview with a journalist implies that the journalist doing the interview is likely a bad journalist, which in turn implies that the publication employing that journalist makes a practice of employing bad journalists.

Just as some journalists are bad, some interviewees are also bad, e.g. politicians trying to manufacture and control their images, elected officials trying to manipulate how the public views the actions of the government, business executives trying to control the images of companies that act irresponsibly, etc.

i.e. it’s a DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD folks!

If you throw out live interviews, you also throw out live human interactions (remember those?) — as Steve Baker and Heather Green so eloquently put it (and owning their own words, of course):

Every once in a while, I have a luminous interview. It’s usually a face to face discussion. I learn during the course of it, and it produces new ideas and new connections in my head. If it’s a really good interview, the other person feels the same way. Those are the interviews I treasure, and I’d never want to give them up for an email exchange. I’ve used e-mail “interviews” through the years for the routine gathering of facts or quotes. Not one of them has been memorable. I figure that the people who insist on this don’t want to talk to me, for one reason or another. That’s ok. If they’re feeling that way, we probably wouldn’t have a very good conversation anyway. That happens. (Steve)

But here’s the thing about a conversation. Since I don’t know what these people know, a conversation allows me to do follow up questions. The way someone says something, the emphasis they give, these little cues and nuances prompt me to dig deeper into certain areas. We’re human, we practice this ability to listen to cues all the time. It’s an amazing thing.

But here’s the other thing about conversations. Often they lead to stories that aren’t exactly what the person wanted. Is that bad? If the story is accurate, no. And here’s the thing about email interviews or allowing people to review a quote before it’s printed. People want to polish their images, they want to control their images. Again, we’re human, we want people to think well of us or we want to be powerful or we want to make money and often the way to do that is through the control of images and information. Of course, this isn’t true for everyone. But it’s something that explains why a phone or face to face interview might be better in some cases. (Heather)

It’s so easy to say the old model is ENTIRELY broken and therefore we need to throw the WHOLE thing out. If only life were that simple — everything is so much easier in black and white. But the reality is that the old model is only partially broken, so we only need to throw out part of it — and throwing out the bathwater without throwing out the baby is going to take a lot of very hard work.

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