Why - and why not - record interviews

By Jerry Bellune, Writing Coach

Well-known reporter Gay Talese shares my distaste for what we once called tape recorders. 

Today you can record interviews with your cell phone, even transcribe and edit them electronically.

But do you need to?

Talese called recorders a “benumbing literary device” many writers use to save time. 

Their only value is to protect your editors in libel lawsuits. A recorded interview can protect you from  claims your article damaged and misquoted them. 

Accusations in these times of soaring legal fees, Talese said, concern even courageous editors.

He said reporters only half-listen and relax, knowing their recorder captures every word. 

That can be critical in confrontation interviews. Our friend Bruce Locklin used two recorders and gave his subject a tape to ensure  fairness and accuracy.

“What they are getting is not the insight that comes from deep probing and perceptive analysis and old-fashioned legwork,”  Talese said. “It is rather a once-over-lightly dialogue that too frequently reduces artful craft to the level of talk radio on paper.”

I once recorded an interview with a prominent politician because he had a history of lawsuits. The recording offered us some legal protection. 

Take notes or do as Truman Capote did in interviewing two killers for In Cold Blood. Train your brain to store what was said but not as direct quotes. 

While your nose is in your notes or you feel safely protected by a recording, you are missing visual cues, your subject’s body language, that would give your readers greater insight and understanding.

“Since my earliest days in journalism,” Talese said, “I was far less interested in the exact words that came out of people’s mouths than in the essence of their meaning. More important than what people say is what they think, even though the latter may initially be difficult for them to articulate.”

He said he gently tried to prod them as he accompanied his subjects whenever possible before dinner or after work. “I try physically to be there in my role as a curious confidant, a trustworthy fellow traveler searching into their interior, seeking to discover, clarify, and finally to describe in words (my words) what they personify and how they think.”

Neither Talese nor I are opposed to taking notes. That would be foolish. What is important is how and when you take notes and what it is you note.

He says he takes notes when he hears a turn of phrase, a personal revelation that should be put on paper at once lest part of it be forgotten. That is when he may take out a notepad and say, “That’s wonderful! Let me get that down just as you said it.” 

His subject often is flattered, not only repeats it but expands on it. You have probably found that, too. Your subjects are flattered that you think what they said was so brilliant that you had to write it down. 

Talese also makes notes immediately after the interview while it is still fresh in his mind. 

This takes time that you as a reporter do not always have. My advice? Do the best you can.

Next: Protect your precious credibility

The above will appear in The Art of Compelling Writing, Volume 3. Volume 1 and 2 are available at Amazon.com for $9.99 each. The author, a well-known writing coach and retired newspaper owner, wrote these books to help editors like you teach your reporters how to write well. 

Sales proceeds go to adult literacy tutoring.

To comment or with questions, please write JerryBellune@yahoo.com

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