June 25, 2005

Ritual questions, ritual answers

Rasheed Wallace has a model for how reporters frame interview questions:

Rasheed Wallace pretended to be a reporter. This was on an off-day during the Miami series. As Ben Wallace sat down at courtside, Rasheed shouted his question:

"Is it true that you're the team's asshole?"

This made Ben laugh, an invaluable gift in the middle of a tense playoff series. But I suspect that if many reporters at these NBA Finals could respond, they would say, "No, Rasheed. You are." [Michael Rosenberg, Detroit Free Press, "Inside the curious case of Rasheed Wallace", 6/15/2005]

Reporters, even sports reporters, aren't usually quite so blatantly provocative. However, when I listen to recordings of journalistic interviews, I rarely get the impression that anyone is trying to learn anything new. The journalists already know what the stories are. Their questions are not designed to discover any new facts or ideas, but rather to get quotes that will fit in to designated places in the frameworks of logic and rhetoric that they have already erected.

To see how this works, let's look at a couple of cases from Tim Duncan's interview after game 7 of this year's NBA finals.

Case 1: The headline for Sam Smith's piece in the Chicago Tribune is "Ginobili's why these Spurs are the best". Smith leads with a riff on how "Tim Duncan finally emerged ... from the forest of Detroit Pistons defenders to protect, if not secure, his legacy as one of the game's greatest players ever", and then quickly switches focus to the role of Emmanuel "Manu" Ginobili:

...it was Manu Ginobili, the usually unpredictable and often spectacular Argentine, who again finished what Duncan started and carried the Spurs the last steps to their third title in seven years. He scored 15 fourth-quarter points and made the plays that made you gasp, remember, stand and cheer.

"Manu is unbelievable," Duncan said. "I don't think we've even scratched the surface with him. He plays with reckless abandon. He doesn't care if it's a preseason game or a Finals game.

"He's going to continue to grow, and we're going to continue to grow around him. He was so big for us every game. We love what he does down the stretch."

Here's the whole of the relevant question and answer from which Smith's quote was taken. The question was actually asked by Massimo Moriani from La Gazeta de lo Sport. I did the transcription from the recording on the nba.com website. The selections used by Smith are in boldface.

Q: Can you please tell me what it's like to uh- have had Manu as a teammate for the last three years, and watching him grow so much?
A: Oh, Manu's unbelievable. And uh- um- [pause] you can say this about so many people and- and- and whether it'd be true or not, I- I think it's absolutely true for him. I don't think we've even scratched the surface with him. He's uh- he's got so much to him. Um, he- he's- he just plays with reckless abandon. He doesn't care the time, the situation, he doesn't care um- if it's a pre-season game or it's a finals game, he plays the same way. And uh- uh- he's gonna continue to uh- to grow and we're going to continue to grow around him. We're going to continue to understand what he- what he wants to do and when he wants to do it. And uh- um- he was so big for us, every game of this in the fors- in the fourth quarter. He jus- he was the guy that really took things o- really th- really made things happen. And- and to have s- to play beside someone like, who can do that in that situation, uh- it- it takes so much pressure off myself, off of Tony, um- uh- it- it helps our team so much, and- and he can just- you can see it in him, he does- he doesn't care, he's- he's gonna- he's gonna make the play. He's gonna make it happen, um- and he got a lot [pause] uh- well he gave himself a lot of crap for the- for the- the finish of uh- whether it be game six or whatever, he- he thought he took some bad shots, he thought he uh- he thought he didn't make some plays down the stretch and missed some shots, he- he got on himself about it more than anybody else got on him, but that's what he's gonna do. And- and- and we understand it now, a- and we're- we uh- we love having him, and we- we love uh- uh- we love what he does down the stretch.

Let's note in passing the selective snip-n-trim quotation. As in the quotes from Rasheed Wallace that I cited before, the meaning is not significantly changed in this case, but it might have been, and I'd rather not have to rely on the reporter's judgment and good faith. If something is in quotes in a news story, without any indication of ellipsis, it seems to me that it ought to be a genuine quotation, not a collage of fragments from which hundreds of words have been silently omitted.

However, that's not the point I want to make here. Smith didn't learn from Tim Duncan's interview about how important Ginobili's contribution was. He heard it on the wind, he saw it on the court during the game, and he backed up his impression with scoring statistics. Why did he bother with the quote? I suppose that it was partly because Smith wanted to suggest that Duncan recognizes Ginobili as Pippen to his Jordan, but the main reason is surely that a news story is supposed to follow each point with a supporting quotation from a newsmaker. Once this obligation is recognized, then the questions and the answers in most journalistic interviews become completely predictable. It was certain that someone would ask Duncan about Ginobili -- both because of Ginobili's play and because he is so popular overseas -- and it was equally certain that Duncan would say a bunch of complimentary things. There was a place in Smith's story for a <Duncan-says-nice-stuff-about-Ginobili> quotation, and the postgame interview ritual predictably supplied it, without adding anything to anyone's knowledge of Ginobili's play or Duncan's attitudes.

Case 2: The headline for Stephen Holder's piece in the Miami Herald is "Not just Spurs of the moment". His point is that "The Spurs are here to stay, folks, with the primary pieces of their roster -- Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili -- under contract through the end of this decade". And like Smith, Holder anchors his point with a quote from Tim Duncan:

''It's a great feeling,'' Duncan said. ``In years past, we've lost six, seven, eight, nine guys in a year and rebuilt. I think we've really got a core here that we're in love with; that obviously is a pretty decent core, and we're going to have it together for a couple of years.''

There will be no rebuilding project this time around. The Spurs have all five starters coming back. And four-fifths of the starting five is expected to be here awhile.

Here's the relevant part of my transcript of the postgame interview:

Q: Tim, along ((those same lines)), are- you're not the GM, I don't- I don't think you are, but you know, you guys had a-
A: Not officially, at least.
Q: Yeah, not officially. Everybody comin' back, you know, long range things set up, is that a good feeling, and do you expect that, you know, this is a team that can kind of- besides some little pieces, can stay together-
A: It's- it's a great feeling. It's a great feeling. Years past, we've uh- um- we've lost six, seven, eight, nine guys, in- in a year, and- and- and rebuilt, I think uh- we've really got a core here that we're um- that we're in love with, that uh- um- obviously is a pretty decent core. Um- and we're going to have it together for- for- for a couple years. And- and uh- um- Pop'll probably come in here and say that we- we did- we didn't play very well tonight. and uh- he'll be tough on us, but uh- um- we- we can play- we can play a lot better. And- and- and that's- that's so horrible ((to)) say right now, as we're sittin' up here NBA champs, but um- w- we have- we have years t- t- to do that, and I think that's the greatest feeling in the world. We have a team um- that we'll be able t- t- to try to uh- in- in years to come, to try to get back to this point.

In this case, the quote is an accurate, contiguous selection, with entirely appropriate editing of disfluencies.

However, the content of the quote is again almost completely uninformative. Everyone knows that the Spurs have a terrific core of relatively young players under long-term contract. It's predictable that someone will ask about this -- it's such an obvious question that Duncan doesn't even wait for the (admittedly numb-tongued) reporter to finish asking before he interrupts and starts to answer. And the content of his answer adds nothing to what we already know, either about the situation or about his attitude towards it. Even if he was perversely dissatisfied with the situation -- which he surely is not -- he wouldn't say so in a press conference.

So why did the reporter bother to ask the question? Well, there are places in a news story where convention dictates that there should be a quote, and so the ritual Q&A must be enacted. And when Holder got to the spot in his story where he needed that quote, there it was.

In a case like this, where everyone pretty much agrees about the content, these apparently pointless rituals do still have a social function. They tend to ensure that the content of newspaper and wire service stories will not stray very far from the publically sanctioned conventional wisdom. However, when there's significant disagreement or controversy, the same techniques take on a very different character. Then it becomes a matter of journalists trying to trick people into saying things that can be taken out of context to make them seem to have said things that they never meant.

And from a certain point of view, the goals and the methods of the ritual love-fest and the confrontational grilling are essentially the same. The journalist wants to get a quote to slot into a certain place in the story's logical and rhetorical structure, and asks questions designed to elicit answers from which the needed words can be taken, in more or less the right order, without too much extra stuff in between.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 25, 2005 11:06 AM