Friday, July 20, 2012

Covering the Tragedies: Batman and Colorado

If you're like me, you woke up to news this morning about the shooting spree in the Colorado movie theater at the showing of the latest Batman movie.

But you might be surprised at my first thought. Rightly so, many other people would think, "How tragic, how awful, how senseless ...."

My first thought?

"Thank goodness I wasn't the reporter who got the midnight call to get out of bed and cover that story."

I will never miss covering those tragedies.

Unfortunately, I was usually the first one tapped for them. I had one summer in Philadelphia as an AP reporter where we had four different house fires in which children died. For a few months after that, I had repeated nightmares about those fire scenes. Those stories always affected me on a very deep and visceral level, and regardless of whether it was a house fire, a murder scene .... and in one case, a shooting spree like this one, only at Penn State University .... I cursed under my breath when I was tasked to cover it.

"But Heidi, I send you because you always come back with gold," one of my silver-tongued editors said when I once tried to protest.

I got to thinking about it, and I realized she was right, but it wasn't because I went into those stories gleefully. In fact, it probably was because I related so well to the victims and their families that I did hit the jackpot on quotes and details no other reporter unearthed.

Here are a few things I did:

I saw the victims as real people. I never viewed them as a "story," or as my ticket to a byline on the front pages across America. They were people who had experienced a tragedy, and it was my job to give others a window into it. My only motive was that in doing so, it might raise awareness about how things like this could be avoided in the future.

I come from a community of conservative Christianity, and I can tell you that my decision to become a journalist rattled a lot of friends. They disagreed with it because from their point of view, telling stories like this exploited others. I've never seen it that way. If I've had to cover a child abuse story, for example, I see it as shining a light on the actions of perpetrators and raising awareness of the plight of the innocents. If these things are not discussed and flayed for scrutiny, what hope is there of change?

I apologized to the victims for being there. The last person they wanted to see was a reporter. The first words out of my mouth at every scene were, "I'm sorry that I have to ask you this, and I know you probably don't want to talk to me. But I wonder if you would take a few minutes to answer my questions about what happened here."

Only one person ever said no.

And when she did, I walked away, waited at the end of the street for the police to come by and begged them for details. They gave me every single detail that no one else had because I'd treated the victim with respect. No other reporter had done that, they said.

And no, I wasn't manipulating people with my questions. I gave them the option of turning me away, and if things got to be too much for them, I often didn't use the material. The editors never knew that, but the stories were still golden and crystallized beautifully.

I put myself in the victims' shoes. I never covered a tragedy where I didn't imagine myself going through what the victim had just experienced. And then I just let them talk. I just looked into their eyes and said, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." And I was. And it was heart felt. And they knew it.

Often when the interviews were over, we'd hug and cry. I never apologized for that and still don't.

When you've been assigned something like this, stop thinking about your ego and your name in lights.

Be a human being.

And give people the space they need to tell you the story they need to tell.

I promise, you'll leave each experience enriched and changed for the better.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Armchair Quarterbacking Piers Morgan with Robert Blake

A good friend of mine has been preparing to cover her first big event as a reporter -- Comic-Con in San Diego. I've been coaching her on interview tactics ... dealing with nonplussed interviewees, extracting difficult information, deftly stepping around landmine questions .... you get the idea.

And then all of a sudden, we have Piers Morgan dealing with Robert Blake. It's as if the heavens opened, because let me tell you, friends ... if you want to see a pro at work, watch this guy. I myself have interviewed some shady characters, including the Grand Dragon of the KKK in northern Maryland when I was at the tender age of 26. But I have to say that my jaw was agape in admiration at how Mr. Morgan handled this one. I immediately sent the link to my friend, now in the throes of interviewing super heroes (poor her), as an example of how to keep your cool in the face of blatant aggression. 

(I sincerely doubt she'll get any of that at Comic-Con, but one never knows when the real Hulk will come crashing through. But I digress.) 

We rarely get a chance to armchair quarterback another journalist, but just for fun, let's play this tape and dissect Piers' performance:

Problem #1: The interviewee tries to take control of the interview, by asking the interviewer to answer a question. In this case, Robert Blake says, "You wanna get to the truth if you can. Does that mean I'm lyin' to ya?"

Solution: Answer the question with a question. In this case, "I don't know. Are you?" Morgan seizes the arena by answering that he doesn't know, and immediately asks, "Are you (lying)?" Never give your opinion to someone you're interviewing. Never. To give your own viewpoint allows them to run amok and continue to dodge your question. By saying, "I don't know," Morgan also deflects the defensiveness ... which unfortunately is rising, but that can't be helped with an irrational person.

Problem #2: The interviewee persists. Blake isn't going to let this drop. He pauses and says again, "What do you think?" In this instance, you have someone who is on the ropes but fighting back hard. His refusal to answer the question in fact points to an obvious answer in our minds, but he's going to make this as uncomfortable for Morgan as possible. Morgan responds again with, "I don't know. I think we're going to get to some questions where ..." and Blake immediately interrupts with, "Well tell me where I'm lyin', 'cause if you don't know I'm tellin' you the truth, then you must have a little scratch in the back of your head about where I'm lyin'. Tell me where I'm lyin'."

Solution: Point out the logical rationale for withholding your opinion. Then demonstrate with follow-up statements or questions why your question was necessary. Morgan rightly says, "I'm saying I've met you for what? Twenty minutes?" In other words, how would I know you're lying when I don't know you? This still keeps the question front and center in the interviewee's lap. The interviewee may continue to get angry about this, but your readers or viewers plainly see who isn't being rational here.

Blake, in fact, continues to thrash. Morgan keeps his head and asks, "Why are you being so defensive?" Brilliant. By asking this, it underscores Blake's combativeness and continues to keep the question burning brightly.

Problem #3: The interviewee accuses the interviewer of unprofessional behavior. Has this ever happened to you? It's happened to me countless times when people have tried to evade questions. In this case, Blake answers, "Because you just insulted me." Again, he's trying to knock Morgan off balance by turning around any question of blame onto the questioner, when he in fact will not answer a question of blame before him.

As he continues, he tries to play the victim. He holds up his hand in a pleading manner and says, "My skin is a little bit thin, which is why I stay away from people mostly." Here, he's trying to gain the viewers' sympathy. He continues, "I've never allowed anybody to ask me the questions that you're asking. I allowed you to do that, because I trust you."

I have to hand it to Blake. He's what I call a skilled manipulator. The most difficult state senator I ever interviewed was someone who also played the victim with me when I asked a pointed question, knowing the whole time that both he and I knew he was at fault. I've seen more than one person play what I will now coin, "The Blake Sympathy Card."

He drops his supreme trump card next: "And I woulda assumed that you and that guy in your ear would trust me. And if you don't, then we better start talking about 'The Little Rascals.'"

Solution: Give him rope to hang himself. At this point, you just have to let the person keep talking. I mean, look at that quote! It's priceless! And by not answering the question, Blake has answered the question. 

Morgan also maintains cool composure, which is essential in these interactions. The only thing that gives away his stress level? He taps the fingers of his right hand nervously on the desk. But unless you've looked at this recording more than once like I have, you'd miss it.

I'll tell you what always gave my stress level away: I blush. I can't control it, either! I feel my face get hot, and by that time, the interviewee gets this horrible smile, knowing that I'm squirming inside.

But there's good news to all of this ... if you've made it this far with a combative person, you've won. You have their words. You have their persona. You have their defensiveness. You might even have a physical threat or two (yes, I've had those anonymous notes placed on my car windshield).

But most importantly, you have the story. Tell it straight and let the readers or viewers make their own deductions.

And in the end, those deductions are all that really matter.