Sunday, September 13, 2009

Dishonest Smiles, Duplicitous Nods, Iniquitous Twinkles

An interviewImage via Wikipedia

The topic of the first essay in my journalistic ethics class is the "ethics of interviewing," which I put in quotes not simply because it's a title but also because one sometimes uses quote marks to indicate that which is quoted is not to be considered in the common way, that it may be ironic or equivocal.

What is equivocal about interviewing is its hiddenness. What happens in interviewing stays in interviewing, even when interviews are videotaped since questions are often edited out. But for print reporters for whom jotted notes are the only record of what went on -- why borrow trouble by even suggesting you have questions about how you question?

I like to say that the reporter's task is to pump the interviewee dry -- the implication being that broad ethical latitude should be given as to methods --but that the real ethical heavy lifting comes when you decide what to do with what you've pumped out. I suppose my operative principle is that you, as interviewer, need to know everything but that your reader -- and indeed your editor, that cold-hearted bastard -- need not know what you know. Some things are meant to stay in your notebook.

You might say this is more of a feature writer's approach and that a news reporter would, of course, empty the notebook onto the page without compunction. I think not. I think every good reporter gets information about which he/she does not feel the benefit of publication outweighs potential damage to the source of the information, even if the only damage comes from identifying the source.

But returning to the techniques of interviewing, one profits (I think) from questioning how you question. Naturally, as a teacher of ethics, I would feel that way. That's the point of the course. Prethink. Rethink. And *then* having said *that*, I warn against analysis paralysis. If the only lesson the kids take is to be timid deferential interviewers, didn't we spend the Bush years relearning how ill democracy is served by timid deferential *ethically fastidious* interviewing?

La ronde, or do I mean thesis/antithesis/synthesis? Mulling is such a good word. In ethics class we spend a good deal of time mulling.

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