Wednesday, October 25, 2006

When It Comes To The Ethics of Interview Editing, Let the Buyer Beware

Do you have guidelines that govern how you edit interviews? What are they?

I have a lot of personal rules when it comes how I edit interviews, but I believe they are just that - personal. There is far less consensus on the topic of interview editing than on some areas of reporting, and in a litigious age in which reporters are often playing defense, the ethics of the many editing techniques applied to interview material are one of those things journalists don't much like to talk about. So I thought it would be interesting to outline some practices I employ which some journalists might take issue with, and others I avoid that some journalists feel are acceptable.

I wrote yesterday about how great it was using Google Talk to conduct an interview for this blog. The chat client created its own transcript and the format had the immediacy of a telephone interview and the ease of an email interview, and with just a little coordination can be the best way for a busy blogger to get a good feature interview. That got me thinking about publishing the transcript of our interview so readers could see how different an interview transcript can be from a finished interview. I believe that a lot of editing - some of it quite aggressive - is often necessary to create interviews that meet the basic criteria for good stories in other forms. But I also think that these methods should be fairly transparent, so that readers are aware of the ways in which what they see on paper may differ from what occurred.

Reporters may or may not have covered these finer points of interviewing ethics in journalism school, but there is no gold standard on the topic. The best we can really hope for is that reporters apply consistent standards that are in line with broader journalism ethics and err on the side of preserving their subjects' autonomous ability to speak for themselves.

Here are a few things I do with my interviews:

  • Rewrite questions in Q&A interviews to better set up answers. The course of a natural conversation can seem disjointed on paper, and statements by the interview subject may require additional explanation which in some cases is more naturally "seeded" prior to the question than interrupting the quote or inserting an editor's note. I do this only if the changes don't put the interview subject at a disadvantage. Of course, if the interviewee was deliberately changing the subject, that's sometimes informative to leave in.
  • Edit multiple answers together and strip out questions, or break up long answers with new questions, to improve the flow of the interview.
  • Move questions and answers in a Q&A around at will to improve the "story" of the interview and to make sure that it leads off well and ends with a punch.
  • Use ellipses ("...") liberally. I use them to excise not only words but whole sentences or paragraphs if my break points fit together nicely and truly represent the same "train of thought," even if it means hopping over statements by the interviewer along the way. In keeping with the original intention of the quotational ellipses, which (I believe) is to strip out material within a single quote, I will not, under any circumstances, create a sequence of fragments that violates the natural time-sequence of the interview - for example, using a part of a quote from an early point in a conversation to round out a quote at the end. This is fairly easy for me to justify in a profile interview, where huge blocks of narrative dross interject between quotations, but in Q&A interviews I typically require myself to move whole Q&A chunks rather than breaking them up, and eschew the practice completely in "documentary" features which follow a conversation through an action - although even then things can get tricky.
Here are some things I don't do:
  • Construct quotes from handwritten notes. I used to have to do this occasionally when I reported news. I never liked it, so I stopped doing it in my features interviewing. Now that that's all I do, I have made it a rule.
  • Correct bad grammar. I take out the "ums" and "ers" of interview clips and correct the occasional slip of the tongue which the interviewee would immediately recognize as such, but the language we use says a lot about who we are, and I prefer to err on the side of accuracy. It is amazing to me that so many reporters graciously "correct" bad grammar for their interview subjects on a routine basis. I prefer to allow people to speak as they are.
You can see for yourself what one of my interview transcripts looks like because Rebecca Whipple graciously and enthusiastically agreed to allow me to post ours on Think In Pictures.

Here is what I wrote, in part, to Whipple to propose that she give me permission to share the full transcript of our interview:
Below is the edited interview I'd like to post. I have reordered a few things (you can see what by comparing with your chat transcript), combined some question/answer segments to make our blocks of speaking longer and correct any delayed responses, and done grammar edits throughout. I also rephrased a couple of my questions where I saw that there were better words I could use. You are welcome to request edits to your own speech, but try to do it with a light hand - a conversational tone is really important for a Q&A interview. Please let me know of any changes you'd like to make in the next few days.

Another thing:

I have been thinking about how well the chat format worked for our interview and had a thought. I have done hundreds of interviews - phone, email, and live - and always edit them in this way, but have often thought that readers would be interested to see how an interview transcript translates into a finished interview. Since obfuscation is a necessary theme of your Languages of War, and since we conducted our interview in a format people don't use much yet (a chat client) I thought it might be interesting to offer the original transcript of our conversation for readers who would like to see how an interview is edited and how a chat interview constructs itself. Granted, not everyone would be interested in this, but it isn't something I've seen done before and I think it would be interesting to some, and I would roll it up in a conversation about the benefits of using Gmail chat for interviewing.

As an experiment in openness, how would you feel about this? We might each have said a thing or two we would not have phrased in exactly that way if we had planned from the start on publishing a straight transcript (the interview would have been pretty bad if we had!) but unless you feel like there's something very compromising to you in it, I'd like to do it.
Click here to read the full transcript.

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