Review of Interview

One of the projects I’m involved in at the moment is an investigation into Science Communication, and this project has the nice by-effect that from time to time I can turn theory into practice. The project researches in which ways academians, scholars and other people in the sciences and humanities interact with non-academic crowds; and once in a while I am myself in the position to interact with interested or concerned publics.

And whenever I answer such public calls, I realise how difficult it is to be satisfied with the end result. To wit:

At the end of October I received an e-mail from a producer at CNN who was interested in the usage of a particular mask during recent protests. She told me that she had seen people in Joker-make up or -masks in protests in Lebanon, Hong Kong and Chile, and was flabbergated as to why protesters would choose a villain (of recently renewed movie fame) as a masquerade. Whilst I haven’t written anything about the Joker or recent protests, she told me she had read my article from 2019 about the Guy Fawkes-mask and therefore considered me an expert.

Important mental note: For the mass media, the line between expert and lay person is a thin one. That was one of the things I had read repeatedly in the descriptions of science — media interactions, but it was surreal that a producer from the US East Cost would want to phone a German guy about such a phenomenon, presuming him to be an expert because of one article she had read by him. Anyway, after updating myself about the appearance of joker-faces in current protests (few at the time), I convinced myself that I could indeed say something substantial about the topic and gave her my number.

We scheduled a telephone interview, I spend nearly two hours prior preparing what I hoped were stringent, short answers to her possible questions, and then we talked for roughly 20 minutes. Well, I talked, mostly, answering the producer/reporter’s questions about the role of masks in protests (veiling your face, bringing a carnevalesque mood to the scene, connecting either with other protesters or with international audiences via pop-cultural references etc.) and guiding her towards the ambiguity the Joker character has built up and that that was a great base for internet memes and thus worldwide attention. Pop culture sells, I told her, even as an item of protest.

Second important mental note: My quite long preparation came in handy, as her questions almost always met with what I had thought she’d be interested in. My bullet points helped my against the ur-scholarly appetite for longish explanations, meandering sentences produced by too detailed a knowledge and general school-masterly-ness (Does that word exist? It should!).

I also tried to incorporate a bit of wisdom I gathered from several texts on scholar-reporter-communication: After a more or less academic portion of your answer, it advised, try to repeat the gist of it in a colloquial manner. In my own words: Talk like a teacher, then summarise like a smartass.

Seemed like sound advise, thus I did just that: All the ground I covered was signposted with some more or less intriguing quotidian phrases, supposed to round it all up nicely. Alas! when the article that contained the interview was published a week later, I noticed two things:

  1. Quite a lot of what I had explained about the general background of current protest movements and media environments as well as possible reasons for people to don the mask/make up, went into the article unattributed. Hurts the inflated sense of myself, but okay: I guess that’s how things are. A person should never witness how sausages or news articles are produced, Bismarck once (more or less) said.
  2. More worringly is the fact that the only direct quotations that went into the article alongside my name were exactly those quotidian round-ups I had provided for salience’s sake. In the context of the article, which is constructed around e-mail interviews with protesters, unattributed background info and my down-to-earth, no-nonsense “lemme tellya straight”-quotations, my own words sound like the least-reflected in comparison with the protesters and the article writer.

Both of these observations are not to say that the producer-writer has done anything wrong or hasn’t acted in good faith. The effect, though, leaves me in an unfavourable light, at least regarding the standards I set for myself. Those don’t mean that I have to come out the smartest person in the room whenever I open my mouth (reality proves me wrong there on a daily basis), but somehow I feel misrepresented simply by the decision of the reporter which words to choose and which ones not. And, a bit, which ones to mention but not attribute.

I wonder in which way I can conduct or guide possible future interviews to turn out a bit more in my favour. And I now begin to understand at a personal level how different the logics between mass media compatibility and academic discussions are. And, finally, I will re-think heeding those advices from obsure manuals…


PS: The  photo above is taken from the CNN-article. It’s attributed to “AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd.” And doesn’t this guy from Chile look a bit like that Guy Fawkes-themed Occupier from Berlin I used to illustrate a past conference?


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