Talking About Talking                       Oral History Interviewing and                         Journalistic ....       ...
Before I start this eight minutes of tape, let me give you some context. This audio concerns the testimony of the Hmong pe...
THOUGHTS?                         QUESTIONS?                          CONCERNS?Are there reactions to this tape that any o...
WHAT DO WE KNOW              ABOUT THESE            APPROACHES TO             INTERVIEWING?So let us talk about the histor...
ORAL HISTORY                                 VS.                             JOURNALISMSo having read about oral history i...
(HOW) CAN ORAL                         HISTORY                      CONTRIBUTE TO                       JOURNALISM?So we h...
RESOLUTION                                                          VS.                               NEGOTIATIONAfter lis...
Andi Dixon        Communications Ph.D Student    Columbia Graduate School of Journalism           aad2151@columbia.eduWell...
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Talking About Talking


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  1. 1. Talking About Talking Oral History Interviewing and Journalistic .... Interviewing: A Comparative Conversation-Introduction: Andi Dixon, Ph.D Communications. I am an interviewer, and I am studying the epistemology of the interview. I have aMasters in Oral History from GSAS, and that is my primary interviewing methodology, though I have also worked in journalism inpublic radio and television contexts.-So today, I want to talk to you about interviewing. In terms of your training as journalists, this is one of those vital, bedrockcomponents of your practice, and yet, students often receive little instruction. Seemingly, people assume that you know how to askquestions and get answers. But that simplified approach to interviewing denies that there are real and important choices to bemade in terms of how you approach your interviewing practice.So to begin, allow me to play this great piece of tape for you. Those of you who are public radio listeners may have heard this. It isan excerpt from the show Radiolab, specifically a recent episode on the nature of facts, and of truth.
  2. 2. Before I start this eight minutes of tape, let me give you some context. This audio concerns the testimony of the Hmong people, a minority Asian ethnicgroup found primarily in Laos, Vietnam and parts of China.The time period this story concerns the period of and the years following the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. Dating to the early 1960s, the CIA begantraining the Hmong to fight against the encroaching North Vietnamese Army, in Laos. They fought throughout the war, ultimately losing more than one-hundred thousand soldiers by the War’s conclusion.The North Vietnamese Army discovered that the Hmong had been waging this war against them with support from the U.S. So, when the U.S. withdrew,they retaliated by persecuting the Hmong—they were killed, sent to re-education camps, some became refugees in neighboring countries, and forthose who remained, their access to resources was cut-off.So these people suffered tremendously—displaced, decimated and destroyed. So when the Hmong people in the early ‘80s began complaining thattheir persecution was continuing in the form of “yellow rain,” a pollen-like substance, said to kill flora, and induce illness, or even death in humans withtens of thousands of victims, the Reagan Administration responded by declaring that yet again, Soviet Communist forces were intervening in Laos,persecuting the Hmong with chemical weapons.Through to the mid-eighties, the Reagan Administration declared “yellow rain” as a reasonable rationale for the U.S. manufacturing “chemicalweapons.” Scientists were dispatched to the area, and analyzed the “yellow rain.” After some conflicting data, the majority of scientists declared thesubstance to be a cloud of bee poop, not at all chemical weaponry, not at all harmful.Obviously, this revelation did not sit well with the Hmong, who attributed their new destruction to this “yellow rain” agent. So this is a multi-wayinterview, between a young woman, Kalia who translates for her uncle, who experienced “yellow rain” first-hand. Radiolab producers Jad and Robertdiscuss with reporter Pat Walters in between the interview excerpts. So that is what this story is about, so let’s listen.
  3. 3. THOUGHTS? QUESTIONS? CONCERNS?Are there reactions to this tape that any of you might like to share? Concerning sensitivity? Regarding relevant ethicalconcerns? Questions of emphasis on facts vs. testimony? With whom are you siding? What do you think this story shouldreally be about? Did the reporter and hosts go too far with the narrator and his translator? What do you think of theinterviewing? Let’s get a dialogue going.So obviously, there are a variety of opinions concerning how this interview was done, how the story was set up, thenature of this sensitive issue, and others.Obviously, the interviewing methodology advocated on one side was a very facts-based, journalistic methodology, andon the other hand, the narrative, testimony, bearing witness approach of oral history.
  4. 4. WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THESE APPROACHES TO INTERVIEWING?So let us talk about the history of interviewing in each of these contexts. Obviously, reporters have always asked questions inpursuit of responses, particularly from those who held political, social and economic power in societies. However, the idea that thewords attributed to the figures were direct quotes, that they actually said what was attributed to them, dates only to the mid-19thcentury.Thus the modern interview, in practice and as published, emerged with the earliest examples appearing in printed, Q&A format inthe 1830s, ‘40s and ‘50s. The earliest examples bridge the Atlantic: there are a few examples published under the editorship ofThomas DeLane editor of the Times of London, and of course the classic American examples of the Helen Jewett case at the NewYork Herald, and Horace Greeley’s interview with Brigham Young in the New York Tribune.Meanwhile, oral history interviewing grows out of the growing prevalence of interviews in the press, practically as a response to“Great Man” approaches to history, as reflected in press interviews. The form was pioneered by the gathering of ex-slave narrativesin the 1880s.Oral history acknowledges that people are more than repositories of facts. Sometimes people dont have all the facts. But thatdoesnt mean that their testimony is irrelevant. Sometimes you have to dig deeper for the heart of the matter, for the truth."Oral history is not only getting the facts, it is the process of pushing memory, language and ideology as far as possible to bringinto articulation the horizon of the interviewee, to understand how those facts are understood." - Ronald Grele-Priorities of Oral History: The interview is the negotiation of your study experience, and their lived experience. The primary productof an oral historians work is the interview as archived, though other work may also result. However, the archive is paramount, aswe hope to retain this content for future generations access. Thus audio or video recording quality, transcription and properarchival processing is vital to the oral historians work.
  5. 5. ORAL HISTORY VS. JOURNALISMSo having read about oral history interviewing methods, in what ways does this contrast with the journalistic style with which youare already familiar? Let’s get a list going... Oral History vs. JournalismProcesses of Oral History:-Make appropriate initial contact explaining whatever details necessary, establishing permissions, set expectations for interview and theavailability of that interview, arranging for rights and responsibilities, setting the number of sessions, building in breaks; set the timing asdesired and feasible.-Come to the interview as informed about the topic at hand and context as possible, with organized questions and notes to facilitate theinterviewing process.-For best results, pre-test audio equipment, make accommodations for you location, arrange for transcription and proper archival processing.-Avoid closed questions, shoot for questions requiring extensive responses; allow the first question to set the pace for your talk; relax, andallow the content to develop and structure to emerge; listen and follow up as appropriate, employing flexibility and preparation to develop theinterview.-Ask for examples; "Tell me a story about that..."; "Set this scene for me."-Note your interviewees response to your questions; allow for silences, allow for "on the record" content and "off the record" content ifnecessary; forewarn interviewees if necessary, but do not shy away from politely challenging the interviewee on points you deem crucial to thenarrative.
  6. 6. (HOW) CAN ORAL HISTORY CONTRIBUTE TO JOURNALISM?So we have this list. Are there things you might take with you as you develop your individuals interviewing practices? Things youfound interesting or helpful?Tips for Journalists from Oral History:-Journalists could benefit from oral history knowledge about memory and the way humans remember during the interview process.-Journalists could enhance the quality of their interviews by applying some of the concepts from the oral history academic approach to therelationship between interviewer and interviewee.-Journalists could augment their skills by borrowing techniques from oral history methodology that involve shared ownership (or "sharedauthority" as it is called in oral history studies) of the story theyre covering.-While the literature shows that journalists are more advanced in terms of question types and technical skills during the recorded interviewprocedure, there are practices within the life experience genre of oral history interviewing that could enhance the way journalists do interviews.-As journalists process material to be consumed and understood by the public, they can take valuable lessons from oral history interviewingmethodology in how to treat peoples recorded experience during the editing process.-The underlying emphasis of oral history methodology on the search for meaning during interviews could inform the way in which journalistsseek evidence as they cover in-depth features or investigative stories.-Journalists can draw lessons from oral history interview methodology as a model for transcribing and archiving material for future verification.
  7. 7. RESOLUTION VS. NEGOTIATIONAfter listening to the tape, some of you are raised questions about the facts vs. the emotional heart of the story, and how in thisinstance, and probably in others you have or will encounter, those two pursuits can conflict. Ultimately, though, there is not right orwrong interviewing style. There are biases to either approach: each is a way of accessing meaning, a kind of truth: journalismgenerally via facts, and oral history via testimony.In any case, these two approaches do not stand in opposition to one another. Some of your choices concerning what to do in whatscenario may be situational—others you pin on your personal style—in either case, in your interviewing, you will find yourselfnegotiating between the two, searching for a kind of balance.
  8. 8. Andi Dixon Communications Ph.D Student Columbia Graduate School of Journalism aad2151@columbia.eduWell that is my talk. If you are interested in continuing this discussion, in interviewing, oral history, memory, testimony, I would behappy to speak with you further. Here are my contact details, and I would encourage any of you interested in Oral HIstory to visit theColumbia Center for Oral History, in 801 Butler Library. Their archives and staff are truly extraordinary, so it may benefit yourcurrent and future work. Thanks very much.