Fri, 07/21/2017 - 02:36

Posted by Mary McGuire on September 17, 2007

When editing interviews....

The most important rule - NEVER change the meaning of what the interviewee said.

  • It's okay, even expected, that you will cut out ums, ers, long pauses, and other examples of verbal stalling - unless their verbal stalling is key part of the story, as in the case of a politician ducking tough questions.
  • It's okay, even recommended, that you will cut out extraneous words.
    Before editing: "I think that, you know, that, the university should lower tuition fees."
    After editing: "The university should lower tuition fees."
  • It's okay to cut out reiterations, if you can do it skillfully enough to avoid a jumpy cut that sounds either unnatural or like an obvious, audible edit.
    Before editing: "The students in the new program -- the students -- their families, and their teachers will welcome this change."
    After editing: "The students in the new program, their families, and their teachers will welcome this change."
  • It's okay to cut out subordinate clauses, especially to make a clip shorter, as long as it doesn't change the meaning of what they say.
    Before editing: "The police arrested a man, I could see it from across the street, who was carrying a large green knapsack on his back."
    After editing: For example: "The police arrested a man who was carrying a large green knapsack on his back."
  • In other words, it's okay to make edits that help someone sound sharper, tighter, clearer. It's just NEVER okay to change the meaning of what they said.
  • It's also okay to use excerpts or clips from an interview in a different order in your story than they appeared in the original interview. Similarly, it's okay to ask someone to identify themselves at the end of the interview, and use that at the beginning of the interview on the air.
  • When using the interview, or excerpts from it, on the air, or on the web, always identify the speaker somewhere. No-name clips should generally be avoided.

When conducting interviews for editing later ...

  • It's not okay to tell someone what to say. It is okay to re-ask or, better still, rephrase a question to allow someone another chance to collect his or her thoughts and answer it again. Often, they are clearer and more succinct the second time around.
  • If you want to use the interview, or excerpts from it, on the air, you must get the permission of the interviewee, in most jurisdictions. Find out what the rules are in your state or province.
  • It is not okay for you, as the interviewer, to record different questions and dub them in or substitute them for the ones you asked during the interview. Sometimes recording what are called "re-asks" is required, as in television, when an interview is shot using only one camera and the questions are recorded again afterwards, but the same questions must be used. In radio, re-asks should almost always be avoided, except in those rare instances when the interviewer literally chokes asking a question or there is a technical glitch that makes the question inaudible. But in each case, you must ask the same question posed initially and take great care to match the ambient sound. Mismatched background ambience will make it sound like a doctored interview.

When recording and using actuality sound in audio reports...

The most important rule - NEVER use sound you did not record yourself at the scene or while doing your research. In news, it is not okay to use canned sound effects, sound beds from previous files, or fabricated sound.

For example, if you interview a carpenter but fail to record the sound of him at work in his workshop, you can't just record yourself using a hammer at home later and pretend, in your report, that it is the sound of the carpenter at work.
If you cover an outdoor protest where demonstrators are singing John Lennon's Imagine, but a windy day created some mike noise, you cannot just substitute the sound from another demonstration the previous week where different protestors sang the same song.

You can't do either of these things and honour the first principle of journalism - accuracy.

Unfortunately for those of us steeped in news traditions, the rules about using fabricated or canned sound are increasingly broken by people who produce public affairs or documentary radio programming and believe production values are as important as journalistic values. They justify it by saying background sound beds and key sounds make stories stronger and more interesting for the listener and sometimes the reporter fails to get those sounds in the field, so they must be added later. They believe that if the added sounds don't change the essence of the story, it's okay.

But when radio producers add or fabricate sounds, they are, in some ways, deceiving listeners. They are doing much the same thing as newspaper photographers or editors using Photoshop to doctor photos to make crowds look bigger, criminals look more sinister or to erase body parts from train tracks after explosions. When news organizations have been caught doing those things in the past they have apologized because they know it hurts their credibility, undermines their commitment to accuracy and breaks trust with their readers.  Using fake sound in radio may be harder to detect, but it is the equivalent of manipulating photos.

A variety of professional organizations take the same view.

The Radio and Television News Directors Association Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct includes the following:

Professional electronic journalists should pursue truth aggressively and present the news accurately, in context, and as completely as possible... Professional electronic journalists should not:

  • Manipulate images or sounds in any way that is misleading.
  • Present images or sounds that are reenacted without informing the public.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Guide to Journalistic Standards and Practices says, in part...

Special effects, including sound effects, should be used with particular care in the presentation of journalistic material. On the rare occasions when they are used, rigorous judgment must be applied to ensure that they do not distort reality or have the effect of producing editorial comment.
Accuracy and integrity can be compromised by abuse of the technology of radio and television, which offers a wide variety of visual and sound effects, to modify what is being broadcast.

For more:
The RTNDA's Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Guide to Journalistic Standards and Practices

Rules compiled by
Mary McGuire
Associate Professor of Journalism
Carleton University


NON-TRADITIONAL ELEMENTS IN DOCUMENTARY It is important to maintain rigourous standards for news. When you enter the realm of storytelling, I think there is a different value system. By this I would never suggest that one should manipulate reality to distort meaning or truth. My comments are meant to open the door to more creative storytelling. When one applies news patterns to longer formats, they can create notoriously boring documentaries, resulting in a rather painful choo choo train of script/clip/script/clip. Under the goal of broadening Documentary and storytelling skills, I would support pushing the boundaries. You could argue that using real actors with the ethnic heritage to read the English translation of clips is closer to reality than having the reporter or someone else in the newsroom read it. The translation could also contain the real emotion of the clips. When one uses actors for a docudrama, I like to acknowledge their presence, either in the beginning or a mention in the credits so that people know the English voices were not the principles, in the same way one mentions if we are using a different name for a source. A documentary that occurs in the past could involve could involve actors and music and re-created sound as one replicates memory. Music can have symbolic or add a more than literal, or extra level of meaning. I would never be heavy handed about this. Sometimes when a story occurs in someone’s mind, it is twisted with their fears and anxiety, and there is value in trying to replicate that state. When we’re presenting something creative, we don’t say this is exactly what happened. We set it up in a different way, for instance, saying that we’re presenting someone’s story. Because there are different schools of thought on documentaries v docudramas, sometimes there is a debate at awards about separating the categories. Some do have separate categories. Drama v Current Affairs. The model you are proposing of documentary in its pure form is no longer the norm at, for instance, The Current. Within the CBC, I would say the Current has a premiere reputation for documentary making. It is there that the boundaries are routinely pushed. You wouldn’t fake something – if a character doesn’t play basketball, one wouldn’t put him in a scene at the court. But if he does play often, it would be considered a fair way to unfold the story. Increasingly the majority of European documentaries are also mixing non-traditional elements. When I was part of the Jury at the Prix Italia last September, it was interesting to see that though there was a drama category, entries went into the documentary category when there was only one small part of the documentary that originated from a real element. So within the Documentary category, there were many entries with additions that weren’t pure documentary elements. The winner at the Prix Italia last year was a beautiful story about a blue coat (“The Blue Coat” by Kasia Michalak)– it was a Polish entry set in the post WWII era. An old woman told a story from her childhood about a coat that was donated by someone in Australia. The girl remembered that her mother took apart the seams and turned the coat inside out so her brother would have a coat that wouldn’t appear used, and in doing so found an address of the previous owner. That led to a lifelong friendship with the woman who donated the coat and her family. In the end, the main character, now old, goes to Australia or rather tells how she went to Australia, and finds the husband, John, alive. Together they visit the grave of his wife, and he talks about putting flowers on her grave so she will always be alive. You know she isn’t, and cry as music that has been the theme creeps in once again. John is an actor. And the story has been interwoven with sound effects, and historical newsreel that the journalist definitely didn’t record, since she wasn’t born yet. The only pure documentary element was one single interview with the main character and she likely stayed in the same chair to tell her entire story. One single, rich voice, dressed up with other elements sustained an hour. Everything interwoven about the story was a recreation. It was magnificent and it won the Prix Italia. So while your suggestions are still solid for news, my thinking has evolved in a different way when it comes to longer form storytelling. My apologies for being long winded! Lisa Hébert CBC Producer, on sabbatical & Carleton Sessional instructor

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