Editing Interviews

In this week’s issue of upFront.eZine, Ralph Grabowski suggested that the job of an editor is to decide which parts of an interview he should print and which parts he should edit out. He likens a formal interview to the “letters to the editor” that he receives containing all kinds of unprintable stuff. He thinks of editors as gate keepers whose job is to allow “good” free speech and not all free speech. In his view editing an interview is not censorship. In my opinion, it most definitely is.

Firstly, let me explain how I conduct interviews. At the start of the interview I tell the person that if he wants to take anything off the record he should let me know so that I can turn my voice recorder off or stop taking notes. I publish only the stuff that is on my voice recorder or in my notebook. While the interview is going on, I sometimes stop and ask the question, “Do you want to take that off the record?“. I understand that people can sometimes get carried away in the heat of the moment. Case in point, Carl Bass on his looney bin comment. If the person says yes, it appears on the voice recorder and I know that I do not have to publish it. If I am taking notes I strike out the comment to mark it as off the record and I don’t publish it. After the interview ends I ask the person if he wants to take anything off the record. At that time the person reflects on what he has said and then lets me know. I make a note of it in my notebook or strike out statements as necessary. After this final question is answered I turn the audio recorder off.

Secondly, let me explain how these interviews are set up. Interviews are not done in bars over a bunch of beers, where people speak their mind under intoxication. Interviews are almost always coordinated by a PR agency. For example, the interview I posted last night with Chris Randles and Blake Courter was initiated by SpaceClaim’s PR agency while I was still in India, weeks before I even arrived in the US. Since I did not know my schedule at COFES, it was decided that I meet Chris or Blake at the Scottsdale Plaza and set up a time and place for the interview. I met Chris and Blake on the first day of COFES and we decided to do the interview the next morning in their suite. My point of telling you all this is that interviews and well planned and thought out conversations, not some stupid letter to the editor written by some pissed off reader or a comment posted on a blog or forum by someone with a hidden agenda.

So after giving the person all the chances to retract statements or take things off the record, if the person still wants his statements to be published, then who the hell am I to censor it? Who am I to decide what is free speech and “good” free speech. The people I interview are senior executives and an important part of their job is to talk to the press. The only time when I will ever censor an interview is if the person launches an unwarranted personal attack on another person, which is what sometimes happens on blogs and forums. No senior executive worth being interviewed is going to do that. They do say stuff about their competitors but make it a point to prefix it by saying that it is off the record. I have done a lot of interviews  and so far I have never come across a person who has made a statement that amounts to a personal attack on another person and has asked me to publish it.

Lets take an example. In my SpaceClaim interview mentioned above, Blake used some pretty strong words. He used “disgusting” and “sickening” when describing what CAD vendors were doing by adding dumbed down analysis tools to their CAD systems. I do not agree with that. Not just the opinion, but also the way it was articulated. So did I edit out that part of the interview? No. Instead, I put forth my contrary point of view and had him respond to it, which he did. If I don’t agree with the person I am interviewing, I may, at the most, argue with him. I most definitely do not censor him.

Besides, I believe that editing out parts of a formal interview, especially after giving ample opportunity to the person being interviewed to take things off the record, also amounts to insulting the person. Say if someone interviewing me asked if I wanted to take something that I said off the record and I declined and he still went ahead and edited it out, I would be freaking furious. How dare someone edit out something that I explicitly said that I wanted in my statements? Who is that person to decide whether what I said is good or bad. His job is to take my statements and publish them as they are without taking them out of context. His job is not to decide what part of the things I said is “good” and edit out the things that he does not agree with. The interview is about the person answering the questions and not about the person asking them.

Another thing. And this is very disturbing. After an interview, I have sometimes been asked for a draft of what I am going to publish. In most cases, the PR person does this, not the person who I just interviewed. I simply look at the person and say, “Sorry, it does not work that way.” I find this utterly disgusting and repulsive. First of all, I have given ample opportunity to take things off the record. And now I am being asked to submit a freaking draft so that it can be polished and tweaked. I have two words for these people. The first starts with a F and the second ends with two F’s. Why waste my freaking time? Why don’t they just write the questions and answers themselves, send it to me to be published and I will send them my invoice. Why don’t we simply go ahead and do a “pay for play” interview?

If this is how the press works then I do not want to be called press anymore. I prefer to be called blogger or something else.

I need a drink. I’m outta here.

  • Tony

    I believe editing interviews has been common because of space limitations in “traditional” media (print, radio, TV). So the reporter might have 10 pages of notes and be required to reduce it to 1 page.

    If that's the case, then if I were being interviewed, I'd want to be able to approve the results — because it is very easy (in fact, I believe it is widely done by the mainstream media, especially TV and newspapers) to selectively reduce the interview to make the reporter's point. And before the internet, there was very little the average reader/viewer could do to know if the interview really was as reported.

    Of course, that's not a problem with Deelip's approach.

  • To me, the difference between editing and censorship is intent.

    Like Tony points out, sometimes editors have to trim a 30 mins interview to fit 2 printed pages (roughtly 1,400 words, which fit only about 10-15 mins' worth of transcribed conversation). Sometimes editors also trim interviews to keep it within focus. In conversation, people tend to weave in and out of different topics and side topics. Good editors do a service to the reader by selecting only the portions relevant to the topic they've set out to cover.

    Censorship is when the interviewer deliberately leaves out parts of the interview where the speaker says something he/she disagrees with.

    There are also times when an editor has to be judicious about what gets printed and what doesn't. When someone begins saying things that are self-congratulatory or self-promotional, an editor can rightfully leave those out. But this is not an exact science, so sometimes valuable stuff get trimmed too.

    I feel that editors have a responsiblity to be fair and accurate, but they also have to use the platform at their disposal responsibly. It's always an ethical dilemma when they come across someone who says something that may be factually accurate, but highly inflamatory (in some cases, the speaker is counting on creating a buzz by saying something provocative).

    Editors shouldn't censor someone, but they shouldn't print everything they come across either. Readers do expect them to be able to tell what's newsworthy, what's gossip, what's irrelevent, then take appropriate action.

  • I find press releases more challenging than interviews. At least you can cross question the person in an interview. You need to take a press release at face value. If you ask for a clarification, you almost never get one. Yet, many continue to publish their contents.