Tara Brabazon: Interview ‘technique’

Let the Twitterati take note. For all the glorious advancements of Web 2.0, there is no substitute for old-fashioned research. Media platforms give us new ways to say things, but we need something to say first, says Tara Brabazon

April 8, 2009

There are extraordinary and inspirational scholars. There are courageous and talented journalists. But when these professions lose the aspirations of the likes of A. J. P. Taylor and Polly Toynbee, Henry Giroux and Beatrix Campbell, the resultant writing is often mediocre, damaging or dull.

Most academics and journalists have tales to tell about the other side of the professional divide. Four years ago, journalists from a well-known Australian media corporation asked if they could interview me for a short film about youth culture, style and fashion. As I was writing a book on the area, I agreed and cleared an hour to answer their questions. They arrived on time, but spent 38 minutes setting up lights and microphones. The yellow filter was well positioned. They removed every office hum and thump.

The room was silent and hot. They pressed “record” on their bulky and precociously impressive equipment. Size mattered in those pre-Web 2.0 days. I looked to the three journalists, awaiting their questions. Pause. They glanced at each other. Uncomfortable silence. Who wrote the questions? It became clear that none of the three had conducted research and framed queries. They panicked and squirmed. Students began to gather around my door to discuss assignments.

First rule of interviewing: do some preparation

Quickly, I started to ask and answer questions that I thought would help their programme. What is youth culture? What is the relationship between style and youth? Are young people agents of change or followers of fashion? Are we in a “post-youth” age? Was there anything else they needed? They shrugged their shoulders. Without asking a question, they packed their gear and left.

This bizarre event made me realise that technical expertise is important, but it’s not enough to create an effective interview. Fast-forward to last week. I was booked to discuss the changing information environment for journalists and media practitioners, with a focus on how to educate future media professionals. That was the cover story, anyway. The journalist really wanted to talk about why I “banned” students from using Wikipedia and moved them from Google to Google Scholar. She thought it would make a great online story because her primary sources of research were – unsurprisingly – Wikipedia and Google. Sigh.

Her first mistake was the location: a coffee shop above a kitchenware retailer. This meant that there was the constant clatter of cups, the growling grinding of beans and unfortunate noises from the downstairs shop as a proto-Nigella Lawson experimented with a mincer. At one point, a child screeched so loudly that it appeared she had become part of the experiment.

It gets worse. She wanted to use some of her recordings as part of the online article. She did not recognise the difficulty in removing this cacophony of commerce from the audio file. Her problems were made worse because she placed her recorder behind a coffee cup and next to her notepad.

Second rule of interviewing: never conduct the session in a coffee shop

As the conversation progressed, it became clear that a ten-second soundbite on a radio programme and a newspaper interview encompassed the span of her “research”. She thought her readers would be interested in my stance on Google and Wikipedia because “it’s so controversial”. I replied that the Iraq War is controversial. Building a coal-fuelled power station in 2009 is controversial. A university professor affirming the value of information literacy and engaging with high-quality scholarly material isn’t. She tried to read some of the work mentioned on my website, “but couldn’t work out what it was about”.

As the interview progressed, her worry was that my arguments were “much more complicated” than other journalists had reported. The interview stretched. There was no pattern to the questions. She was waiting for a soundbite.

Third rule of interviewing: do not rely on second-hand quotations and composite stories when material written by the subject is available

I had experienced similar delaying tactics when being interviewed about one of my books a few years earlier. The interview lasted two hours and it appeared the journalist was interested only in outing me as a lesbian. She asked about my sexuality in multiple ways, probing my private life, my relationship with my father, whether or not I played sport and if I had “close” female friends. The only problem with her line of questioning? I am not a lesbian. When she replied that she was certain I was deluded, I replied that she possessed greater insights into my character than either my husband or I. At the mention of a husband, she was silent for about 40 seconds, and then proceeded to abuse me for selling out the sisterhood. I laughed, but also learnt some important lessons.

Fourth rule of interviewing: beware journalists who interview you for more than 30 minutes. They have prewritten a story and are waiting for a headline

As the googling, wiki-enabled journalist continued to dodge the coffee cups and ask unrelated questions in search of a theme, it became obvious that she had read only the first chapter of most of the books she was quoting. She cited Clay Shirky. I raised a problem with the later stages of the book’s argument, about the pro-anorexia and self-harming communities. No response. She was running out of ideas.

Fifth rule of interviewing: read more than the introduction if you are going to talk in depth about a writer’s work

She had saved a final surprise for me. Although unable to conduct much research for the interview, she had managed to send a shout-out on Twitter. No, I am not joking.

She provided a link for her followers to an interview and a radio soundbite. She asked if any followers would like to ask me a question. Really. I am not joking. I did not realise that I was being interviewed by dial-a-crowd.

The expected tweet response was – yawn – that because I argue that Wikipedia’s standards are too low for university students to use, I must be a Luddite, denying “the fuu-cha” of Web 2.0. From what I can ascertain, the fuu-cha tweeted about by this particular Twitterer involves journalists becoming a conduit for the Twitter community, formed by people with dull jobs, exciting mobile phones, voyeuristic intentions and ADD (Accelerated Dialogue Diarrhoea or Attempts at Downloading Democracy).

The journalist, having become embedded in the culture of blogging, comments from anonymous and vitriolic trolls and the ego-pumping possibilities of the Twitterati, never twigged it was offensive to waste an interviewee’s time by repeating ill-informed nonsense from Twit(terer)s who need to read more and tweet less. They should stop following other people’s lives and get one of their own.

Sixth rule of interviewing: a shout-out on Twitter is not adequate preparation for an interview

There was one more element in this interview from hell. She wanted some video footage to embed in her article. This was quite interesting to me. There had been no mention of ownership of the footage or how it would be used. In a YouTube age, questions of ownership and copyright violation always seem a bit inconvenient and limiting for those confusing participatory downloading with democracy.

She had no idea how to work the camera. I had to remind her to remove the lens cap. No tripod was used, but she thought she would try to hold it steady as her elbows dodged coffee cups. There were no prompting questions; she merely asked that I “say something about Wikipedia and your attitude towards bloggers and stuff”. She wanted me to look straight into the camera as if I was selling car insurance.

Seventh rule of interviewing: sort out copyright and intellectual property rights issues on visual content before switching on the camera

The interview ended. On the train home, I realised that this scenario was worse than the Australian journalists who had arrived without questions: this interviewer piggybacked other writers’ work and ridiculed their efforts.

When I got home, there was an email waiting for me. Yes, it was from her.

The camera did not work.

That is a shame but expected, I thought.

She blamed her boss for not setting it up for her.

Feminism did happen, I thought. Women cannot blame others if they are unable to manage media platforms. Get on with it. Learn the kit. Do not complain. Which part of Web 2.0 do you not understand?

Then the clanger. She asked if I could use my Flip camcorder to record myself and then send the files to her for the article.

I shut down the computer and went for a walk.

As I slipped into melancholia about the media’s future, I remembered two redeeming stories involving my students. A couple of months ago, three first-year undergraduates interviewed me for a project on youth culture. They entered my office at the appointed time and had the camera set up, the lighting levels checked and the microphone in place in less than five minutes. They asked six intelligent questions and left.

A week before the journalist twittered at me, two third-year students came to my office to record a few minutes for a promotional programme. They set up the room at speed and asked two questions. Then one of them, a student called Hollie, paused and did something extraordinary. She explained that I was – intentionally – the last interviewee for their programme and that they had three “linking problems” that remained on their storyboard. They did not want to use a voiceover, but lacked three transitions. She asked if I could find a way to connect creativity and scholarship, education and cultural diversity, and the academic and social environment of the university.

I fulfilled her request, but I was much more impressed by her foresight and initiative than anything I contributed. Hollie was thoughtful, prepared and conscious of editing and continuity problems while filming the final footage. She remembered what I had taught her about creative industries in the first year of her degree and held the technical expertise to manage media platforms. She also possessed something else: an understanding of how to align form and content, media and knowledge.

This young woman is 22 years old and captures what media and cultural studies programmes – at their best – can achieve. Hollie and the tens of thousands of students like her around the world are the future of the media and creative industries. We need them. They are a world apart from the lowly standards of twittering journalism.

A few years ago, we could assume that journalists knew how to use their equipment. It is ironic that at the very point when media platforms have never been easier to use, we are witnessing a complete inability to use them well.

Those active in media environments must know how to deploy software and hardware. Yet simply because we can use them does not mean we have anything interesting to say. The speed of composing tweets does not mean that they are relevant or useful. Simply because a blogger offers a comment does not mean it adds to a discussion. In such an environment, it is necessary to harness, align and increase technical and intellectual experience and expertise.

Soon after my arrival in the UK, Janet Street-Porter made a caustic comment in the pages of The Independent. She stated: “I would never employ anyone with any qualifications in media studies: they are useless.” It is no surprise, but the unfortunate journalistic experiences listed above did not involve graduates with degrees in cultural or media studies. Their qualifications were gained from core disciplines in the old humanities. I am not against the attainment of such degrees. They are valuable and life-changing. My first bachelors and masters degrees were in history. But such knowledge is the platform for a media career – it cannot fuel it.

A supposedly Luddite professor (as a twit on Twitter confirmed) can capture, edit and upload footage that journalist 2.0 could not manage. Therefore, instead of damning the new humanities as useless, Street-Porter should write another article questioning the expertise held by some members of her profession. Instead of trolls and Twitter, we require a forthright and robust discussion about educational methods and strategies for media education in a mediated age.

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