Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Interview Pitfalls: Lessons Learned from Meg Tilly and The Globe & Mail

It's one of those things you hear from your mother and push aside, because she's your mother:

"You don't realize how powerful you are."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah,"  I quip, rolling my eyes and waving my hand at her as if she's an insect that has just flown too near my coffee cup. I've never been comfortable with that statement, but my mother repeats it a lot. A LOT.

Yet it wasn't until very recently that I had to seriously scrutinize these words. A few Twitter friends were batting around discussion about a blog entry by the actress Meg Tilly, which you can read here:

Meg Tilly: "Still Reeling"

Apparently, Tilly is one of those actresses who is excessively media-shy, and with good reason, as she's been burned in the past. But recently, she let down her guard with The Globe and Mail of Canada. She soulfully opened up to an interviewer and was none too happy with the resulting article, which you can read here:

"Meg Tilly as she is, not as you’d imagine"

Both deserve to be read in order for you as a journalist to get both points of view (after all, that's what we're about, isn't it? Getting both sides of the story?).

I walked away from this with a few thoughts: In my opinion, this was a classic case of miscommunication. And both sides are in the right, and both sides are in the wrong. The Globe & Mail's story is well-written and well-reported. But I did some digging and discovered another story in The Daily Mail of the U.K., written in 2011, and it had the same tenor and tone and style:

"The family Colin Firth left behind: How he will always be in debt to the reclusive beauty who bore his first son"

My guess is this was an advancement of that story, even though the two papers are not related. You know how this works if you've worked in daily newspapers: An editor decides they want to match what another paper has done, and the reporter is sent out with a pre-established list of questions or angle to quench that editor's thirst. I'm not sure if this is what exactly happened in this instance, but I found the similarities between the two stories interesting.

Now we get to the interview itself. Tilly describes the interviewer this way:

"I think the thing that hurts the most, is that I really liked this woman. ...We were both middle-aged women in our 50’s with grown kids, laughing over wrinkly necks, changing bodies, desires. She was wearing this unique jacket that was like this funky piece of art.  She was a writer, I was a writer. ...And it was fun. Sipping on peppermint tea with a little bit of honey. Tucked in a warm booth at a retro diner in a hipster hotel."

Tilly does a nice job setting up the scene, and I see exactly what she's describing. I've been that interviewer in the past. Interviewing people for a story is very psychological. To get them to discuss the most important aspects of their lives, you do need to find common ground and the like-ability factor. And as someone who tests consistently as an ENFJ on a Myers Briggs personality test, this is one area in which I am particularly adept.

But this is where I part ways with the interviewer.

See, whether you want to admit it, we as journalists do have power -- the power to build someone up or demoralize them, just because our words are circulated in print for thousands of people to read. And with that power comes great responsibility.

My heart sank when I read these words from Tilly:

"She felt like a friend. Her sharing her life, me sharing mine.  And when I left, I thought, maybe we’ll be friends, wouldn’t that be nice? ...I started to read, and shock set in.  This was an intelligent woman with warm eyes, this woman had a comfortable laugh, a comfortable body.  We were both middle aged women who had gone through a lot.  How could she have written this? An article that barely mentioned the book, which was the whole reason we met. Nothing about the writing process, the reasons why. The title. That’s it.  There was a brief reference,  a sentence, I think, about Bomb Girls."

You might say to me, "Well, Heidi, Meg Tilly knew exactly what she was doing when she sat down with a journalist. She's a grownup. She has responsibility and shouldn't be whining. If she didn't want that stuff in print, why didn't she say it was off the record?"

Yes, she could have and probably should have. But this is how I know that the interviewer went astray and abused the power that had been entrusted to her.

"An article that barely mentioned the book, which was the whole reason we met."

And no more needs to be said. It's obvious that the interviewer landed the sit-down discussion with this reclusive individual because she had written a book. She was there to discuss the book. She thought the interviewer was going to write about the book. She was led to believe the entire purpose ... was about the book.

If you have a personality that immediately sets people at ease and tells them that they can lower their guard, you have a responsibility as a journalist and as a human being to be as up front with them as possible. If the interviewer's editor said, "Listen, you get this interview, and she wants to talk about the book, but see what else she's willing to discuss ...." (And we KNOW that discussion had to have taken place, because I've heard those words more times than I can count) ... it was the reporter's responsibility to tell Tilly.

I always lay my cards out on the table for each interviewee, if it's a puff piece. We're not talking about investigative journalism. Yes, when I've interviewed slippery politicians, I have just let them talk and hang themselves with their words. But this is an instance where you have a fragile and trusting woman who obviously has a gift for writing as well as for screen acting. She was there to discuss her book. To do a complete 180 on her without giving her any warning may not land you in a court of law for a lawsuit ... but it ignores the simple human call to compassion and kindness.

What did the reader gain from this article? Maybe for the interviewer, it was all about satisfying curiosity and gossiping tongues. But was the reader's life edified? Would it have been so if the interviewer had gone with the premise for the article -- a story about an actress-turned-author?

There are losers on all sides of this story: Meg Tilly lost trust in what could have been a very positive experience, both for her and for the interviewer. The interviewer lost respect and a sense of her own humanity in running roughshod over that trust. The readers lost an amazing opportunity to read an enriching piece about an artist and how she spun her creativity into a new web of wonderful writing.

And as journalists, we also are losers if we can't learn a few lessons from Meg Tilly and The Globe & Mail about human compassion, decency, trust and integrity.

1 comment:

  1. You are a journalist of true integrity, Heidi. Nicely said.