The Future of the Interview

By | June 5, 2007

There’s been a lot of talk about whether interviewees should insist on email interviews with journalists, to avoid their being misquoted, quoted out of context, ambushed with a question they were not ready for or whether an interview took place at all. In short, the likes of Jeff Jarvis of Buzzmachine believe that journalists have exerted power too long by conducting voice interviews and that interviewees are clawing back some control by insisting on email interviews.

This is what I think. I agree the game is too heavily tilted in favor of journalists, many of whom seem to think they have a God-given right to interview anyone they like when they like and on whatever they like. Interviewees decline interviews, they don’t refuse them.

But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Interviews aren’t just a series of questions. They are

  • an interaction between two or more people, where interviewees can be interrupted, asked to repeat things that are complicated, and where hand gestures and napkin-based demonstrations are part of the menu.
  • an exploration on the part of the journalist of the subject, the person, and anything else that may come up
  • a chance to not only understand but to capture the excitement, character and tone of the interviewee. Great quotes are not just about a fancy expression, but ones that capture the ideas of the story being expressed in the vernacular — short, pithy, eyecatching phrases that stand in beautiful contrast to the prose around it. These quotes, I find, often come outside the usual run of the interview, when the food arrives and the interview shifts to a more informal discussion, or when someone gets up to visit the bathroom. Unpredictable and unguarded, yes, but a good journalist will ensure the quote reflects the more thoroughly articulated points the interviewee has made.

So we should separate up what both sides want to keep and what they should give up. Interviewees fear being misquoted. Fair enough, and there’s no real excuse for this. But as I’ve blathered on about before, there’s being misquoted and being misquoted. Everyone thinks they’ve been misquoted, even if you show them the instant messaging text chat record. When people say they’ve been misquoted more often than not they mean the main idea they wanted to convey wasn’t what the journalist focused on or chose from the interview. That’s tough, but it’s not wrong. And it’s not misquoting.

This is where perhaps the problem lies. When the interviewee talks about control, are they talking about ensuring their words are not distorted, or are they talking about wanting the journalist to take a particular angle. If so, then they have to let go. Everyone has an agenda, and the piece is the journalist’s agenda (or, more likely, their editor’s.) I sometimes have no idea what my agenda/angle is until I’ve started writing, but don’t tell my editors that; they would assume the story is pretty much cut and dried from the get-go (this is what proposals are for.)

This is where interviewees, I think, want to have their cake and eat it. If they want an email interview, they will have just eschewed the opportunity of persuading the journalist of taking the story in another direction, since a journalist is much less likely to be persuaded by the written word than by a face to face interview. So demanding both an email interview and a chance to influence the journalist away from their preconceptions is asking for the impossible. You can’t have both.

What interviewees fear, above all, is the unpredictabilty of the interview. They want to rid themselves of the uncertainty and danger of talking to someone who will consider anything they say fair game. True. It’s unnerving, and I’ve had a taste of it myself in a mild dosage. But that brings me to what I think should happen: Recording.

Take this example from Lawrence Lessig’s blog:

After my debate last week at CISAC (at Google Video here), The Register published a piece (archived) about the event. I’ve received a bunch of angry email about what was reported in that piece. The relevant quotes offered in the Register’s article, however, are not correct.

First, The Register writes that I said: “I have two lives,” he said. “One is in Creative Commons…the other is in litigation against authors.”

In fact, I said: “I have two lives in this. One is leading Creative Commons. And the other [is leading] litigation which is , I’m sure, in conflict with the views of many people about copyright.” Listen to the clip here: mp3, ogg.

I don’t know whether The Register has a retraction to make here, or an apology, or a broadside. I can’t find anything on The Register to indicate they’re considering a response. But I do know Lessig’s version of things, and more importantly, I can listen to a recording of it.

This is what I think interviewees need to do: record their interviews. It’s simple enough, and I am surprised that someone as tech savvy as Jarvis doesn’t do it as a matter of course. It’s not just about defending yourself; sometimes your best ideas come out of a conversation — even one with a journalist.

2 thoughts on “The Future of the Interview

  1. Hamish

    Interesting post, and a good partial defence of ‘live’ interviews — but I don’t think you go far enough. Email interviews are harbingers of spin and dull copy. I’ve blogged about this, partly in response to your post.


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