Tuesday, 15 April 2003
|1703 - Journalistic pet peeve|
I'd originally posted this as a comment to nonethewiser's journal, but she apparently deleted it. (First she asks me to comment in her journal, not in mine, then she deletes the comment when I do. Bleagh.)
I'd commented that her article, in http://www.toasted-cheese.com/absoluteblank.htm, was good overall, but it tripped my pet peeve detector.
The question, "How does that make you feel?" and its variants, is THE SINGLE MOST IDIOTIC QUESTION IN JOURNALISM! Every time I hear it, it's in a context where the subject's feelings on the matter are 1) manifestly obvious and 2) what anyone else would feel in similar circumstances. "Your 6-year-old son just got sucked up into a running jet engine and is now a red smear on the compressor blades. How does that make you feel?"
I swear, if I'm asked that kind of question in similar circumstances, I'll beat the offending journalist to death with his camera and tell God he died. No jury would convict me.
(Re the mood: If you ask me to comment in your LJ instead of mine when replying to a post, please don't get mad when I do exactly that. And no, it's neither silly, self-serving, nor untrue. If it's offensive, perhaps you should examine why it offends you: too close to home, perhaps? Journalists have this tendency to see themselves and all that they do as being just this side of saving mankind. The rest of the world doesn't quite agree.)
current mood: pissed off
I tend to agree that "How did that make you feel?" is often overused and done to create drama rather than report. However, just because it's stupid to have it be the first question out of a reporter's mouth toward someone who just suffered a major tragedy doesn't mean it's never a valid question. Idiotic ratings-pandering TV reporters aside, the fact still remains that we are emotional creatures, and it often is important to make sure that it's understood how someone felt about something happening, instead of just taking their feelings for granted. Especially when conducting an interview well after the fact instead of immediately after an event, emotions will not always be visible or understandable, and asking someone "how did that make you feel?" can shed insight into, well, how they felt at the time, which is an important part of what happens to people.
Yes, there are wrong times for the question. But there are also right times for it, too. And keep in mind that rhia's piece on explaining how to write seems to be suggesting the right time to ask it--in post-event interviews, and over the phone, where it's harder to read someone emotionally anyway. And with this kind of reporting, it's not being done to get a shock response on tape which will then be used to increase ratings and sell cars and low-cost mortgages; it's being done to get an insight into what happened so that a more accurate story can be written, which is a journalist's job. There is a difference between the two, and what rhia is suggesting really doesn't seem the same as what you were complaining about.
And journalists, the ones who actually do it for the right reasons, would usually like to think that their efforts are actually accomplishing something and aren't just wasted. They do tend to think that they're contributing to the betterment of mankind, but why shouldn't they, if they're doing their job properly? There are plenty of jobs out there that do a lot less toward exposing and correcting the world's problems. Not only that, but journalism isn't very rewarding financially, either, so you have to really love the contribution you're making in order to stay in the business. Good, hardworking journalists tend to get upset at people who shrug off or insult those efforts and contributions because it belittles their very existence. If someone is your friend, do your really want to reward their long often-thankless days by telling them the world doesn't appreciate their efforts, as you've just done?
["how did that make you feel?" can shed insight into, well, how they felt at the time, which is an important part of what happens to people.]
I agree. Without the human perspective the news becomes just "a lot of stuff that happened somewhere else." The last thing we need in today's world is to feel even more disconnected from world events.
Is the question overused? Undoubtedly yes, but that doesn't make it any less valid in the right situations.
But there are also right times for it...
I've spent some time trying to think such a right time. So far, I haven't found one where the answer would be non-obvious and therefore of real interest. So, any real examples of right times?
When you assume that the answer to this question is always obvious, and therefore there's no point in asking it, you deny people the opportunity to speak for themselves. Yes, there's a good chance that if you ask "How did you feel when you won the lottery?", the person is going to say "Great blah blah blah" - but you don't *know* that the reply won't be "I felt so guilty at the thought of so much wealth, I've decided to give all my winnings to the RSPCA, sell my home and become a Buddhist monk."
The question may be pedestrian, but the human emotion in the response isn't.
(That said, I think sports journalists should be banned from asking it.)
You didn't answer my question.
Is there any real world example of the question actually being asked and the answer being non-obvious and thus interesting?
I once asked a survivor of Auchwitz how he feels when he speaks to high school students about losing his entire family in the death camp.
Don't you think the answer to that question might be interesting?
(Yes, I'm a journalist.)
Off the top o my head, I'd say that he said he felt sad about reliving the experience, but determined to see that it doesn't happen again. How far off am I?
That said, I'll grant that there are some limited circumstances where the answer is non-obvious, and in those cases, I'd reluctantly let the reporter live. Most of the time, though, it's simply inane at best and insulting as hell at worst.
So what you're basically saying is that a journalist should (almost) always take a person's feelings on an issue for granted, rather than give the person a chance to actually say themselves how they felt, even though a journalist's mission is supposedly to gather and spread the truth.
Most of the time, it's blindingly obvious. (Especially most of the times it's uactually used.) On those instances when it might actually shed some light on the subject, it might be appropriate; those instances are much, much rarer than those in the profession appear to believe.
Asking the question when it should be painfully obvious insults the audience and, quite often, cuases even more hurt to the subject of the interview. Of course, journalists don't care who they hurt, as long as they get the story.
To assume something is obvious instead of asking to be sure is to accept ignorance. I will agree that asking someone immediately after the event is rather tasteless, and doing it for the purposes of gaining a shocking clip to air on TV is ratings-mandering and not journalism. However, for post-event interviews, it's a useful tool--and if the person didn't want to talk about the event after the fact, then they wouldn't consent to a post-event interview.
I'm not talking about shove-a-camera-in-someone's-face-and-ask-them-a-loaded-question-for-ratings type stuff. That's not real journalism. I'm talking about what real journalists do. Most of the time, when watching something a real journalist does, you won't even realize that was a question they asked.
Well, if you're interviewing something about what happened to them a long time ago, it can be a good tool, both to make sure you're not making false assumptions, but also to let them put it in their own words. If someone's lifelong rival died, for example, and they mention this as a turning point in their life, wouldn't you be interested in finding out why, finding out what they felt when they found out that person died and why it changed who they are today?
It's admittedly not an easy question to answer, but if you're doing a story on someone's life, it's not really fair to skip any important details because you're afraid to ask the questions. And it gives them an opportunity to put things in their own words. I think the example mentioned below is a good one--when interviewing a Holocaust survivor, for example, wouldn't it be nice for people who weren't alive then to know how the person felt to go through such a thing? That's a significant part of history, the human part, and a part we shouldn't lose.
It's easy to make assumptions, but it's better to know the truth.