Archive for June 24th, 2008

“I don’t think I have ever been quoted as well by a reporter before.”

I like to think that I’m immune to compliments but this comment from someone I interviewed earlier this week got through my defenses. I interpret it as saying that I reported what the person said accurately.

Or, to be exact, my reworking of what the person said was a close reflection of their thoughts. Because, of course, no journalist quotes an interview subject word for word – unless, that is, they want to portray the subject as a incoherent half-wit. If you have transcribed as many interviews as I have, you’ll know that even the most fluent speaker can be made to look rambling and dull by quoting every little pause, space-filler, and change of direction in thought. To make the story read better, all journalists routinely edit quotations to help the continuity of their stories. If they are also ethical journalists, they do while making sure that they preserve the sense of what the subject said.

At any rate, the comment pleased me, because accurately reflecting what someone has to say is a skill on which I pride myself. When I pitch a story to my editors, I rarely have a fixed opinion on the subject, except when I’m writing a commentary. Instead, I want to write the story because I’m interested in learning more about the subject. My opinion emerges from the as I research the story and talk to different people; on those occasions when I do have an opinion on a subject, I frequently alter it as I develop the story.

This habit does little to soothe the nerves of potential interviewees who ask what my perspective on the subject we’ll discuss happens to be, or ask in advance for the questions I want answered. If I were being completely honest, I’d have to explain that, in most cases, I don’t have the least idea what the perspective will be in the story. Similarly, while I jot down topics I want to cover, I rarely prepare specific questions. When I do, the resulting article is never an example of my best work. Instead, I develop my questions while listening to the interviewee. But these explanations, I suspect, would not be believed by the suspicious. They’d be sure I had a hidden agenda. The more I explained, the more paranoid they would become.

All the same, they’re the truth. While I taught in an English Department when post-colonialism was the prevailing critical theory, I’ve never been a believer in completely subjective truth. At the risk of sounding naive, I believe, if not in objective truth, then in the effort to find it. I’m well aware that my bias creeps in to everything I writer, regardless of my intentions, but I don’t believe that my perspective is endlessly interesting, so I try to vary it with the opinions of those whom I talk to.

That’s not to say that I don’t have a define viewpoint by the time I finish an article – although I do try to subdue the expression of it, because I happen to think that a gently-delivered truth that guides readers to the conclusions I want to give them is more effective than a thundering oration. But if I want to persuade people to accept my outlook, I want to make my development of my points as accurate as possible to make them more logically acceptable.

So, yes, I do try to report the gist of what other people say. It is both part of my code of ethics and part of my style of discussion to do so. No doubt I often fail, both ethically and stylistically, but such are my ideals – and I’m warmed by the thought that someone has noticed.

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