Keep asking until he cracks

If you’ve been watching the Winter Olympics this week, you probably saw that cringe-worthy interview of Alpine skier Bode Miller by NBC’s Christin Cooper. Cooper asked Miller about his emotions and about his late brother. Then asked again. And again, until finally Miller broke down and the camera zoomed in.

Here’s the interview, in case you missed it.

Cooper, a former world class Alpine skier herself, took tons of heat after the interview. Miller came to her defense the next day, saying he didn’t blame her at all.

That’s gracious and classy.

The interview bothered me because instead of simply reflecting the emotion that was already present, the interviewer prompted it – kept asking loaded questions until she got the response the producer in her earpiece wanted.

Let’s remove this from a prepackaged, made-for-TV spectacle like the Olympics and transfer it to something real: the scene of a school shooting. In 2007, after a gunman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech University, the campus was swarmed with reporters. As one TV crew interviewed a student, she broke down, stepped away, knelt and wept. The reporter said to the camera operator, “Get this!” And the camera zoomed in, to about the same distance the camera zoomed on Miller this week, so the world could see a distraught student weeping.

The person who related this story to me was also a journalist – the editor of the student newspaper at VT. She was appalled, as were others who saw this happen. The reporter might have said she was just doing her job, but I think most good journalists would agree she was violating a basic ethical tenet of journalism: Minimize harm.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics lists several points under that tenet, including:

  • Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
  • Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
  • Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
  • Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.

What NBC is providing from Sochi isn’t really journalism – it’s prepackaged entertainment – but I think these ethical principles still apply. They certainly apply in any missions reporting situation, where we often deal with victims of trauma.

More about that next week.

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One Response to Keep asking until he cracks

  1. Pingback: On the Record | Emotional interviews, Events

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