Editor's Views: Difficult interviews often yield meaningful details

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Scott Angus
Saturday, February 22, 2014

American skier Bode Miller had tears in his eyes, and he was struggling to keep it together.

NBC reporter Christin Cooper pressed on, asking questions about Miller's brother, Chilly, who died suddenly last year, and how this year's Olympic bronze was different from the five medals he won in 2002 and 2010.

Miller, still flush from the race and overwhelmed by thoughts of his brother, rested his head against his arm and broke down.

Did Cooper go too far? Should she have gone down the road at all? Should she have read Miller's emotions and backed off?

Many people who saw the interview condemned Cooper for pushing Miller too hard at such a vulnerable time. I was among those who found the interview difficult to watch.

Interestingly, Miller defended Cooper for posing questions that any good reporter would have asked.

I think Cooper asked one question too many, but that's a judgment call. I was a reporter once, and I help supervise a dozen of them now. Asking tough questions of people who are reeling from emotional episodes or even personal tragedy is one of the things we must occasionally do.

Why? Because those questions can yield memories and reflections that put colorful, humorous and even wrenching human touches on stories that otherwise would be gray and matter of fact.

The hardest of those interviews involve surviving relatives and friends of people who die tragically. Many on the outside would suggest we respect their privacy at such difficult times and leave them to their grief. Believe me, that would be easier than dialing a number or knocking on a door, not knowing how the survivors will react to your intrusion.

When I was an inexperienced reporter and editor, I decided against pursuing such interviews several times because I didn't want to be insensitive. I subsequently saw powerful and respectful stories from other media that asked the right questions of grieving relatives.

 The pieces featured personal remembrances and stories about the deceased that made readers and viewers more fully realize that the person who died was more than a name and an age. They learned what family, friends and the world had lost.

Now, we ask those questions when we believe they could add depth and understanding to our stories. We instruct our reporters to be sensitive to the wishes of the people we want to interview. If they say they don't want to talk, we respect that, extend our condolences and move on.

Some people are offended, and they make it clear that they think we've overstepped our bounds. A few have questioned our humanity.

Even to us, however, it's surprising how many people want to talk. They might start slowly, but they typically get rolling and reveal insightful information about the subjects of our stories. The process seems cathartic for them, and they sometimes end up thanking us for showing interest in their loved ones and telling their stories to our readers.

Unlike Bode Miller, the people we interview in such cases typically aren't public figures, and they aren't accustomed to being interviewed. We appreciate that, and we do our best to help them and ensure that their words are used fairly and appropriately.

It's the least we can do. Christin Cooper, reporting live and dealing with a media-savvy skiing star, didn't have the same opportunity and responsibility. Given that, I'm willing to cut her some slack.

Scott W. Angus is editor of The Gazette and vice president of news for Bliss Communications. His email is sangus@gazettextra.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @sangus_.

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