The unsatisfying journalism of live interviews considered

If you pay close attention to NPR’s “Morning Edition” show, you’ve probably noticed a shift in the journalism. Gone — mostly — are deep dives from reporters. Interviews with “newsmakers” are in.

That change is causing waves with NPR listeners, as NPR’s ombudsman, Elizabeth Jensen, wrote last month when she said listeners are finding it unsatisfying.

She’s not letting go of the format shift, indicating that this is one of the biggest NPR changes — at least in terms of listener feedback — since “Morning Edition” fired the iconic Bob Edwards.

Given its inner Beltway location, most of the interviews are with politicians and, of course, are one sided. That’s what happens when you give a microphone to only one side.

Earlier this week, for example, NPR provided an update on how Trump supporters think he’s doing — a complicated angle best left to reporters than spin doctors — with Matt Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union.

How Schlapp thought the president is doing was never in doubt. And yet it was surprising that just before host Rachel Martin asked about a White House official’s degrading comment on Sen. John McCain, she noted that Schlapp’s wife is the strategic communications director of the White House. So his answer wasn’t going to be surprising there either.

“The interviews… do not add to listeners’ understanding of the issues being discussed,” ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen writes in her column today, again invoking the “unsatisfying” term.

She said the political philosophies represented in the interviews are roughly even. “Who gets on the air is primarily based on the news but also is partly a function of who agrees to be interviewed — and that sometimes varies by story. Sometimes politicians don’t want to come on air to be pinned down on thorny topics,” she writes.

Reporters excel at that sort of thing, though, which is why their work is missed by listeners. They can keep mistakes from getting on the air. They can provide context to a story. They’re more focused on what the big picture of a story is rather than the micro one-sided spin that fills up a news hole.

NPR gave Schlapp six minutes of airtime to say little that added any value to a listeners understanding of a story. Reporters would kill for six minutes of airtime.

A traditional piece reported by an NPR journalist can be fact-checked. The reporter can include important context or competing views.

By contrast, the interview format largely does not allow for either of these, unless added by the journalist doing the interviewing. Show hosts do that far more often than not, but they cannot be expected to know, or catch, everything.

And only very occasionally do the NPR newsmagazines pair interviews with newsmakers from opposing sides, as the weekend edition of All Things Considered did on May 6 with back-to-back interviews on the Republican and Democratic midterm election strategies.

Even paired interviews can be unsatisfying, giving the listener little more than he-said, she-said conflicts over the facts.

Unfortunately, it remains difficult to get a full read on NPR listeners reaction to the format change. The network ditched comments sections on all its stories and Jensen’s columns almost two years ago.

  • Guest

    Gone — mostly — are deep dives from reporters. In are interviews with “newsmakers” = = = BECAUSE it is easier (think cheaper).

    • Yeah, pretty much. It SOUNDS like news. This is pretty much the cable TV recipe for filling time.

    • X.A. Smith

      Hey, if they want to save money by not reporting, I’ll save money by not pledging.

      • Well, stop reading the blog too, then. Please.

        • X.A. Smith

          Never!

    • 212944

      As my Editing and Design professor used to pound into our heads in college, “Follow the money. Always.”

      She was profound, that one.

  • Mike

    I’ve noticed that all the mainstream media, NPR included, are extremely deferential to national security and military officials in these live interview formats. In one session on NPR I remember from several months ago, a CIA official was lamenting the number of leaks that were happening. It was the usual litany you’d expect: such leaks endanger national security, blah blah blah.

    The interviewer never asked the obvious question: might some of those leaks be in the public interest, despite the opinion of the CIA? I guess not; the agency’s view is apparently not open to challenge.

    This exchange between Glenn Greenwald and Dina Temple Raston is illustrative:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f1-Z-YZ0l3s

  • jon

    I suspect, in depth journalism is getting harder. If you want to report on climate change, you need a climate change expert, some one who can break down the math to the point where the general populous can understand it… want to report on facebook data breaches, you’ll need a IT expert, and maybe a data scientist (heck anything with large numbers would benefit from a data scientist).

    It’s the increased specialization… back in the day a reporter needed to understand how a blacksmith did their job, maybe a bit of what was involved, and the same is true now, except they need to understand how an IT person does their job, how a blacksmith does theirs, how a cell phone company keeps your location data, how an internal combustion engine works, how immigration laws impact families, how international trade agreements are established and setup… etc. We’ve made the world more complicated, and being able to understand the world is harder and harder, because we continue to know so much more, and create so much more…

    Thus, bring in the “experts” and have the journalists ask them questions…

    The missing piece here in my opinion is the role of the fact checker (who could also be the journalist/interviewer) to hold the experts accountable to reality, instead of letting them spin fantasy and propaganda…

    • Guest

      EXCELLENT points

  • I understand the economic incentives for the interview-centric segments. Plus, it’s easier to dodge accusations of bias when you’re essentially just serving as an on-air stenographer for the people lucky enough to get booked.

    But as a journalist and a heavy news consumer. it’s not something I can support financially. I’ve cancelled my MPR membership, since the news is the primary reason I’m a supporter.

    • Jim in RF

      I’m not in favor of them either, but it doesn’t rise to the level of cancelling my membership (which I’ve had since 1981). There’s a lot of other good activity there which needs supporting.

      One thing I’d like to hear, instead, is a reporter from a random state give a pretty in-depth overview of what’s going on uniquely in that state, culturally and politically. I’d guess NPR has affiliates in most states so there’d be very little repeat.

      • This, of course, is a great idea. People in Washington speaking about what people who don’t live in Washington is about as irrelevant as it gets. NPR has regional bureaus where editors work closely with reporters at member stations. I don’t know how it is now but back in the day it was always a struggle for them to get the pieces produced their on the air.

        I know hearing more Wade Goodwyn on the air wouldn’t be a bad thing at all. Always like to hear Martin Kaste from the PacNW. Howard Berkes did great work from Utah. I haven’t heard Mark Moran from Phoenix in years.

        There’s a lot of America out there.

        • Guest

          NATIONAL Public Radio does or does not mean WASHINGTON DC Public Radio?

      • Vince Tuss

        The interview overviews with reporters is something I think “The Takeaway” has done well.

      • emersonpie

        Yes, yes, a hundred time yes! My brother travels for work and brings me papers from across the country. I sometimes find in-depth articles in the “A” section that somehow I missed in the Strib or radio or TV. But the local news in these papers can be even more eye-opening. There are times I hear yet another NPR report on something going on in India or Bolivia, and I sigh, “OK, I’m a world citizen – I should learn about this.” But there is news happening in 49 other US states that rarely gets a headline in local or national media unless there is much death and destruction. I’d love to hear even a weekly roundup of state news.

    • Cosmos

      I reduced my membership contribution, and the lower quality news is the sole reason. I have cut back my listening, too. There haven’t been any driveway moments in recent memories, I can’t think of a story I wanted to share with a friend.

      Morning Edition and All Things Considered no longer hold my attention, but perhaps that is by design. Maybe they want younger listeners to tune in for 10-15 minutes and get a few highlights. There is no reporting in the hour I listen to Morning Edition in the morning, I’m trying to continue to listen, but I’m ready to switch over to The Daily every morning.

  • Rob

    When I’m listening to NPR and one of these puff piece/shill interviews comes on, I simply change the channel. Sheer vapidness.

  • Mike Worcester

    On my daily commutes I tend to flip between MPR and the BBC (XM 120), especially during pledge drives (am already a member). The difference between the two is noticeable. The BBC continues to make those deep dives, both live and taped, with segments that last upwards of 10 – 15 minutes. I understand that the economics and listener habits of NPR/MPR people may not be the same, but I do appreciate the in-depth approach. Does that make me odd? I’d like to think not…

    Right now, MPR/NPR are the only product on the radio that compares to BBC. That’s why I will keep listening.

  • KariBemidji

    Lately, it seems the host has been poorly prepped. I can’t remember the topic of the interview but the interviewee said “I’m not talking about that anymore”. David was audibly taken aback. I said to my MPR app, ‘well, then why am I talking to you’.

    I felt the same way listening to the interview with Matt Schlapp (who also threw a twitter temper tantrum and walked out of the White House Correspondent dinner). That was propaganda not an interview.

    • Mike Worcester
    • Reporting is hard and time intensive. You talk to people, you learn stuff, you talk to more people, you learn more stuff, sometimes you go back to people already talked to and eventually you sit down and write a piece (after logging ALL your conversations) and then you give it to an editor, who rips it apart and gives it back to you, so you write it again, maybe you talk to more people again, and send it back to the editor and engage in shuttle diplomacy while you sand off the rough edges, and then you lay it down and put it on the air so that people can tell you how much you suck at your job and how you don’t know what you’re doing because they read something on Facebook once.

      • Guest

        Does a thick skin get issued with the sheepskin? 🙂

  • AL287

    “Sometimes politicians don’t want to come on air to be pinned down on thorny topics,” she writes.”

    Of course they don’t but it’s a reporter’s job to make them squirm in their seat and there hasn’t been a more important time than now when people around the country have withdrawn into their political corners never to come out again.

    Perhaps NPR could learn from TPT’s Almanac.”

    Every Friday they have a political round table during the legislative session with both major political parties represented. The discussions can get quite interesting and there is often heated debate.

    And it’s not always the same people coming to the discussion table.

    PBS Newshour does the same thing. Both sides of an issue are represented or at the very least invited to the table.

    I never miss Friday broadcasts of these two programs.

    You cannot have a debate on the merits with only one side at the table.

    When you have overblown shills on to boost ratings what do you expect? You can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.

    The listeners are telling NPR they don’t like it. And they put their money where their mouth is.

    So do something different, for heaven’s sake! This isn’t rocket science.

    Get out of your comfort zone.

    • // Every Friday they have a political round table during the legislative session with both major political parties represented. The discussions can get quite interesting and there is often heated debate.

      Meh, same people saying the same predictable thing.

    • theoacme

      Are there only two sides to political issues? The corporate media says yes…I say no…

      …which is why I don’t trust NPR and MPR’s political coverage at all…for something to be merely better than FOX and CNN is like giving me the choice between cyanide, arsenic, or hemlock.

    • Rixware

      I have stopped watching the “panel” portion of Almanac when the guests are introduced either as “strategists” or with any sort of party affiliation (as is often the case). Occasionally, they have journalists discuss recent events, and that actually represents something valuable. When it is the partisan HACKS, which is all too often, I tune them out because you know everything they might say before they open their mouths.

      On the other hand, I LOVE “Washington Week.” Journalists who have been in the fray report the moods and machinations behind all of the meaningless rhetoric. If only Almanac could stick with that much more useful model.

  • Rixware

    I hate to say this, but I just don’t care what politicians or partisan pundits have to say anymore, partly because it is completely predictable, partly because the truth or fairness or reasonableness of statements is seemingly irrelevant, but mostly because it plays into the use of repetition as tool of propaganda. Every word represents weaponized rhetoric — with the audience as the intended victim. As soon as I detect that an interview falls into this class, I turn it off. (Separately, this is also why I no longer watch the “panel” segment on TPT’s Almanac.)

    It sometimes feels like journalism has been reduced to reporting that, “A spokesman for Side X said today that the sky was plaid,” while no one looks out the window to see if it’s true.

  • lindblomeagles

    Part of the journalism problem can be traced (certainly not all of it) to the country’s war with the science community (see global warming, immigration, and global trade) over the last 2 decades. In spite of documented, long term, disciplined, researched FACTS regarding the earth’s climate and threats to it, factors contributing to immigration and the additions immigrants make to communities, and the rapid technological displacement of workers rather than trade itself being the sole reason manufacturing jobs are disappearing, a segment of the PUBLIC rebuffs the science community. If you are already CLOSED OFF to scientific facts, you honestly are not going to be open to journalists who are reporting the facts. In summary, a segment of our population has an opinion, and they are only interested in hearing someone validate that opinion regardless of science, journalism, or any other legitimate factual source. It’s the “I HAVE TO BE RIGHT” egocentric syndrome a segment of the population endorses; therefore, media outlets have been reduced to providing just that – validation for those individuals who need validation instead of truth.

    • Sonny T

      I would be skeptical of any “scientific” claim involving a partisan issue. “Science” and scientists are not at all immune to politics, and are aggressively co-opted by stakeholders.

      • lindblomeagles

        And there lies the exact problem I referenced in my post. You are at war Sonny with the science community, the one community that generally is sworn to leaving bias out of the experiment. Yet, you don’t trust them. If everybody is as unsavory as you believe, to whom do you go to for information? For those like you Sonny, they turn to the first mouthpiece who validates their assumption about what facts are. This thus leads to the crux of this article, the reduction of the journalist as mere repeater of a belief system the consumer has rather than reporting WHAT ACTUALLY is.

        • Sonny T

          Again, “science” and “facts” are not absolute when it comes to politics, and must be thoroughly vetted. This is a big part of investigative journalism.

          Industry influencing science is far from uncommon:

          https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/01/business/monsantos-sway-over-research-is-seen-in-disclosed-emails.html

          https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/dec/12/studies-health-nutrition-sugar-coca-cola-marion-nestle

          • lindblomeagles

            Again, Sonny, when polars die because the Artic Ocean can’t produce ice anymore, that’s a scientific fact. We, as human beings are often interested in doing, politicize a lot of things, including global warming. But are politicizing ignores the fact that the world IS NOT producing cold weather like it should and it will continue to do so as long as we are politicizing the facts. The United States has had several WAVES of immigrants to its shores since the Founding. Each time these waves arrived, America has been just fine absorbing them, and the immigrants have created benefits for America. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t going to stop POLITICIZING immigration even though there are NO FACTS indicating the so-called demise of American culture. Like I mentioned before, Sonny, to whom do you go to for knowledge if you aren’t willing to put some faith in the scientific community? By the way, you didn’t answer this question the first time I asked it.

          • Sonny T

            I go to the scientific community for knowledge, just like you. But I am also aware of potent outside influences, and weigh what I see.

            For instance, the overwhelming scientific opinion is the planet is warming. Any reasonable person accepts this. But scientists are not at all in agreement on whether we can stop it. So I am skeptical of handing out billions in credits and deals to the rich and powerful.

            We should probably leave this alone for now. Suffice to say I am as liberal or more on these issues. I simply urge appropriate caution when a scientific “expert” gets high and mighty on a political issue. Too often they are influenced in ways they don’t want you to know about, including their own political affiliations.

            Thanks for your input.

  • Sonny T

    A show on “how Trump supporters think he’s doing” is likely to reveal he’s doing just fine. They support him, after all.

    • Got it. Got the first 15 stories. I’d like to see stories asking people who didn’t vote why they didn’t vote and whether they’re done with voting or reconsidering their role in the civic process.

      I’m bored with people who parachute into a coffee shop, talk to a couple of the fellas in the booth over there and proclaim they’ve tapped into the Trump voter. Bored.

      • Jim in RF

        Washington Post contacted my org in W WI a few weeks ago asking to be introduced to some Obama voters who didn’t vote for HRC. I said no thanks, partly because of the PITA and partly on principle.

      • Sonny T

        Go in and rattle their cage. You’ll get something good 🙂

  • X.A. Smith

    Ah. So it isn’t just me then.

  • An advantage of getting one’s news via radio – let me instead expand that to “audio” – is that it is a medium that allows you to safely telescope tasks. You can drive and listen, walk and listen, and lie down with your eyes closed and listen. Those are things you cannot do with newspapers or screens. The obvious problem with radio is that its content is delivered linearly, with one story following another, and so on. Actual news is thus punctuated with ghastly bumper music and the kind of boring, time-wasting live interviews Bob describes above. Frequently near the end of an NPR hour of “news” programming there will be what I call the lamebrain segment about some pop music or other “light” topic.

    Of course you don’t have that problem with newspapers because you scan the sections, consume the news of import, and dump what you don’t want. But you have to devote yourself to this medium – no driving or resting your eyes allowed.
    TV manages to combine the worst of both – you have to watch and sit in one place while getting the same kind of linear feed as the radio.

    Audio is a more configurable medium. Grab a podcast for news or topical content and still have the advantage of consuming it while doing other things. Stream PRI for a different, more serious devotion to news.

    And finally – don’t over consume news. Pare out programming that wastes your time with live interviews and panels of sycophants and stick to programming that delivers news stories straight up without “analysis” – and only choose analysis programming in those rare instances where it is unique and professionally conducted. Take your news from multiple sources of known quality. Don’t suffer fools and toadies.