Journalists, interviews and the crying game

When someone cries in front of you, how do you feel?

What if you’re the one who made them cry?

Watch this video and note how it makes you feel.

A prevailing opinion among TV news crews and others who interview people for video stories is that tears are absolute gold. They rivet the audience’s attention — the video analytics go through the roof. For nonprofits, they evoke an emotional response that might even spur people to, oh, I don’t know, give money.

In some circles, the ability to draw tears out of an interview subject is a sign of how good the interviewer is. On his ESPN interview show, Roy Firestone used to routinely make pro athletes cry — to a point where it became a running joke.

As a Christian and a journalist, I’ve wrestled with this tension. I hate the idea that making my subject cry is a goal. Of course subjects cry sometimes. I do videos for our local rescue mission, interviewing people in recovery from addiction and trauma. When a person gets to a particularly emotional story and needs a minute to compose themselves, I’ll usually pause the camera until they feel good about continuing. But their emotion is certainly part of their story.

I suppose the reason behind someone’s tears is the key ethical question. Are they telling me a story they’re comfortable telling — one so close to their heart that it causes them to tear up? Have they willingly stepped to the equivalent of a podium because they feel compelled to say something?

Certainly the most memorable part of former president George W. Bush’s eulogy for his father was when he broke down crying at the end. I cried with him. No, I would not have stopped the camera.

The only time I’ve ever broken down publicly was when I gave a speech to a college journalism convention the week after five students were murdered on our campus. The speech was carried on Chicago radio and I was OK with that. Everyone in the room was feeling similar emotions and it helped me to express those to a friendly audience.

In other instances, though, the person has been traumatized and media actions feel intrusive and unwanted. I knew one of the student editors at another campus where a mass shooting happened. During the early aftermath, with network TV cameras everywhere on campus, she was overcome with emotion. As she knelt to weep, she heard someone say, “She’s crying! Let’s get this!” Suddenly a camera was 12 inches from her face.

Am I catching someone at one of the worst moments of their life? Do my questions and the presence of my camera make the story better, or worse for them? Do they tell the story fairly and respect the person’s dignity? And what is my responsibility to my employer and to my audience? Can those coexist?

Another friend, reporting for a major newspaper after the 1995 terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City, found himself in a gymnasium where distraught family members waited for news. Rather than simply approach people coldly, he walked silently around the gym with his reporter notebook clearly in view. People stared daggers. Some cursed him. Others made gentler eye contact, and he used that cue to decide whom to approach respectfully and humbly. He delivered a powerful story.

Recently, the Washington Post spoke with NPR’s Terry Gross, one of the best interviewers of our time. The reporter asked Gross how she deals with the possibility of exploiting someone in a bad moment. Gross responded:

“It’s different when you’re talking with politicians because there’s a level of accountability we should demand. But private people don’t owe us anything. So I always tell my guests, “If I ask you anything too personal, let me know, and I’ll move on to something else.” This week, one of my guests just broke up in tears. I just said, “Do you need a moment? Do you want to stop?” And that’s what we did. I don’t like to exploit people’s emotions. Like: Oh, yeah, tears! That’s going to be great radio. Let’s keep it going. Because we all have our public self and our family self, and our truly personal self that is off-limits to everybody. I’m hoping for the best candid version of the public self. Not to trick you, or outsmart you, or show you up.”

The best candid version of the public self. I like that approach. It honors the person I’m interviewing, and I think it honors God.


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