Intro from Jay Allison: We think of Elizabeth Arnold as intrepid. After all, her reporting has ranged from the halls of Congress to the world's deepest wilderness. When we created our recent series, Stories from the Heart of the Land, we asked Elizabeth to go to the Great Bear Rainforest, Mongolia, and the North Pole! Like I said, intrepid. But Elizabeth has a different view. She actually feels insecure about her work. Which may be what makes it so good. Come read her manifesto "On Interviewing" which centers on the values of patience and respect. Also, Elizabeth will be available at Transom for a while to answer your questions.
So much has already been covered on this site that I found myself at a loss for what I could contribute. Here are all these fabulous radio types offering cogent nuggets of wisdom with just the right balance of humor and insight. What could I possibly have to offer?
So like any challenging writing project, when I’m casting about and can’t come up with anything good, I fall back on the truth. Yes, honesty. It always seems to work for me.
Here’s my big secret. I’m shy and insecure. Really.
If there’s one assignment I hate more than anything in the world it’s “man on the street,” “vox,” or as one AP radio reporter friend calls it “triple A….Ask Any Asshole.” I hate it simply because I am shy and insecure. Really.
The idea of walking up to a perfect stranger and asking a question like, “How did you feel on September 11th?” Or “what do you think about the fact that farmed salmon has red dye added to it?” I can’t do it. It’s intrusive, it’s arrogant, it’s obnoxious…and worst of all it gives the person a perfectly legitimate opportunity to tell me what a jerk I am to my face, or better yet, the once in a lifetime opportunity to snub a reporter with “no comment.”
But I do it.
So, how could someone like me possibly be a poking, prodding, intrusive, obnoxious, question-asking reporter for more than 20 years, asking any asshole anything on a daily basis?
In a way I think, my insecurity and shyness has helped. I am forced to dig down deep, to summon the courage to blurt out my question. It had better be good, it had better be important, I better not be wasting this person’s time…..okay just hear me out, before you start blogging all over the place about how lame I am.
One of my first reporting jobs was in a remote Yupik village in northwestern Alaska. Well, I was first and foremost the typesetter, then the honey bucket dumper, and THEN the reporter.
Anyway, it was a tough beat for any number of reasons, not the least of which was that I was a white girl in a tightly knit native village.
But here’s the thing that made it most difficult.
In the Yupik language and culture, there are no questions. One does not ask a question. It’s rude. Very rude. As in, you will never get an answer out of anyone rude. So, you hang out, and maybe just maybe, in the course of hanging out and talking and listening, some answers to whatever you are wondering might be forthcoming. It’s like asking your kid how school was? “Fine.” You get nothing. End of conversation. But, instead if you start telling your kid how lousy or great YOUR day was, you won’t even get a chance to finish before he’ll want to jump in with some complaint or triumph of his own.
So, I cut my teeth as a reporter in a community where questions were prohibited. I learned patience. I learned how to listen and how to ask questions with my eyes. I learned the importance of letting the tape roll through the silences. More importantly, I left that village thinking that every interview is a gift, that when someone speaks into my microphone, they are giving me something that I should treat with respect, even if it’s just an opinion about farmed salmon. Oh I know you are groaning and rolling your eyes but I’m talking ordinary people here.
PUBLIC FIGURES ARE A WHOLE DIFFERENT BALL GAME.
And maybe that’s why it was so EASY for me to be a tough political reporter…those people deserved every stupid question I ever asked. You run for office, you make yourself a public figure, you ask for it.
BUT, back to the normal folks who don’t think they should be President, who don’t even know why you want to know what they think. Why should they talk to you…I mean really, why?
I have spent a lot of years reporting on indigenous people. What I learned is pretty simple. It’s all about time and respect.
Years ago, I went to a tiny community in the Arctic where I was hoping to speak with an elder who supposedly was the leader of the opposition to mineral development there. She was an old woman who lived in a one room cabin. I had nowhere to sleep, no one to show me around, in short, no clue whatsoever, once I was dropped by small plane into this village.
I walked down a dirt road and started asking for her. I was petrified I wouldn’t find her or even if I did, I’d get nothing.
When I got to her cabin she just grunted when I tried to explain ever so respectfully why I had come to her village and why I wanted to talk to her.
Long story short, three days later, after I had plucked her ducks (the tedious part of cleaning waterfowl before cooking it), split her wood, and helped butcher her brother’s caribou, she told me she was ready. Ready to talk. And it was good.
Here’s a bit of what made it into the piece. Bear in mind this was twenty years ago, so cut me some slack. Sarah had never done an interview before. Now she regularly lobbies Congress on behalf of the Gwichin.
Sure there are people who can’t wait to tell their stories, who want to take the mic in their own hands they’re so eager. But most folks aren’t that way. They need time to understand what you aim to do with their words, time to trust you, and they need your patience while they say what it is they want to say, just to get it out, before you start in with the pointed questions.
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I’ve met so many good people over the years through reporting. And bad ones too. But I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever treated anything anyone’s ever said to me on tape without respect, even points of view and positions so extreme and offensive to me that I could barely stay focused.
So what am I offering here with this? Maybe just the idea that everyone isn’t of the MySpace generation, that what people tell us on tape is of value and we should take care with it. Maybe that’s obvious? I don’t know. It certainly wasn’t for me and I think it’s only my shyness and insecurity that makes me apologize in advance when I interrupt some already overburdened mother at the Safeway to ask her what she thought of Hillary’s tears.
Ok so the truth is out of the way. Now maybe I could answer some more practical questions about interviewing? About working in remote areas? About overbearing editors? Ask away.
Listen to Elizabeth’s pieces from Atlantic Public Media’s recent series Stories from the Heart of the Land.
Read an interview with Elizabeth Arnold.