A First Time Look at Interviewing as a News Expert

Getting caught up in the Daily News Cycle

After my experience interviewing with Los Angeles Times, WSJ, UK Daily Telegraph, Baltimore Sun, KCBS SF, Seattle 95.7 KHR radio, and on Al-Jazeera America Live TV for 15 minutes in October 2013.

Michael Taylor, UC San Diego

On October 2, an LA Times reporter interviewed me about Bitcoin in relation to a story on the Silk Road's Dread Pirate Roberts capture. They published a soundbyte from me online that night, and then the next day, the LA Times print edition had the quote. Meanwhile, I took the redeye to Detroit, Michigan to attend a PI meeting for a grant, arriving at 6am and taking a cab to Ann Arbor.

As I sat there with the 26 other faculty, I started to get a stream of emails from newspapers, radio shows, and even live national TV shows for interviews. At first, I was hesitant to get involved. I know a lot about Bitcoin, and had written a paper in the area; and I had logged into the Silk Road early on when it went up but had not published any research on it, and never ordered from it. A few of my colleagues, including Prof. Steve Swanson, encouraged me to respond to them. In the end, I was glad I did -- it was a very fascinating experience.

I ended up talking to half-dozen newspapers, going on a Seattle Radio talk show (95.7KJR) for 10 minutes, and then on Al Jazeera America live national television for 15 minutes that night. All while rather sleep deprived from having only a few hours of sleep on the airplane the night before. I'm sure my days of being a news pundit are quite limited, so here are some notes that might be helpful if you one day get caught up in a daily news cycle:

It will all unfold very quickly. News cycles are extremely fast. You may only have an hour or two notice that they would like to interview you, and presumably you have other things going on that day. I got an email from the Seattle radio talk show that asked if I could appear live on the radio in 15 minutes! So it's basically going to take over your entire day if somehow you get tagged as the person to talk to, as I was. In my case, I had actually flown in on a redeye the night before and was very sleep deprived. I was attending an important funding meeting at the time with 26 other faculty in my research area at the time, when I started getting a steady stream of emails requesting interviews from newspapers, radio shows, and live TV. I ended up taking a bunch of radio and newspaper calls in a conference room and VOIP phone that U of M nicely provided. I was a bit torn between participating in the meeting and prepping for the interview. In the end, I had only time to take a 20 minute nap before the car arrived to take me to the TV studio at 9p.

In retrospect, I should have skipped the PI dinner and slept a few hours, and maybe practiced some sentences, which would have greatly reduced the number of umm's and increased my mental agility in responding to questions that were in a different dimension than I was used to answering. After all, how many times in your life are you likely to appear on national TV?

The logistics of TV interviewing were surprising. Typically when you are speaking remotely as an expert on live TV, they send you to a studio that is local to where you are. Bloomberg TV tried to arrange it but could not find a location in Ann Arbor. Later, Al-Jazeera America contacted me and was able to route me to a studio in the same office park as Domino's Pizza's headquarters in Ann Arbor. The place was deserted, except for a small room with a camera, the guy running it (who was awesomely helpful!), and a bunch of heat-generating equipment for encoding and receiving/transmitting, and of course the chair that you sit in. They put an earpiece in your right ear, and there is a monitor where you can see what the camera is recording -- at least, when you are not live. They can also route the current live TV feed to the monitor.

However, when you are recording, they shut off this monitor. I believe this is because there is lag for your audio to go to them, for it to go through their camera, and then for it to get assembled and transmitted back. So it would be confusing for you to be participating in a conversation with so much lag. The upshot is that when you do the interview, they can see you, but you can't see anything. You are just looking at the camera while you are hearing the audio coming into one of your ears. At least in my case, they only had a earbud for the right ear, which, if you are left-ear dominate (like me), might seem a little bit odd. They tried to switch it for me, but it kept falling out. There is also a volume control potentiometer, which you can turn to adjust volume, which can vary based on who is speaking (the newscaster or maybe another guest from another location). But you have to turn it without looking at it or moving your upper body. During setup, you hear a disembodied voice asking you if you can hear them and asking you to count to ten etc for them to verify audio quality. You also hear a voice telling you that it is about to go live; or they tell you to make sure to keep looking at the camera.

The room I went to was extremely warm (way over 80 degrees), because of all of the equipment. The camera guy blew a fan on me to cool me down, but he had to shut this off so that my hair wasn't waving during the live recording. So basically, as soon as he shut off the camera, I quickly tried to adjust my hair back into place (without seeing it) before it went live. They also had a hairbrush and some hairspray behind the chair, but I didn't use it.

Interviewing is harder than it looks, and you can expect that you will not be at 100% when you do it. There are extremely bright lights that they shine on you during the whole process. Because of the lights and the equipment, it was very hot. You are not able to see who you are talking to and the audio is in just one ear. You are on the spot to answer questions, even if they have a premise you don't agree with or they're not necessarily ones that you feel 100% qualified to answer. You try to answer anyways to avoid disrupting the flow. You're definitely not operating at 100%. So it's harder than it looks.

There is also some audio lag, which can play into the dynamic. The announcer here was very friendly, but in more adversarial shows (like Fox news), I would guess you are at an extreme disadvantage, if they have a convention to cut you off. Since they can see you and you can't see them, it's easier for them to interject or interrupt you than the other way around. It also makes it hard for you to "guard the channel" -- i.e. to pause without handing the conversation back while you think about the next thing to say -- without using "umms."

Umms are extremely distracting to viewers in public speaking, and it's good to work to eliminate them in your day-to-day speaking so that say, if you are sleep deprived and need to interview on TV live, it's automatic not to have them. Also get rid of the "you knows!"

You will likely have an initial Q&A session with a producer, off-line, so they can create questions and materials for the interviewer to ask you. On the drive over there to the TV studio, and also for the radio show I did, one of the producers called ahead of time and had a conversation where they asked questions and I responded. I believe they used this to create the questions and materials for the interviewer to ask you.

You won't have much time to find out what kind of show it is. But it's important. Are you about to get roasted on FOX? Is humor appropriate or not? Are they going to push an agenda?

Even though you can't see the other person, it's important to pretend that you can -- e.g. by nodding your head while they speak, or tilting your head as if you are listening, etc, because in the TV show, it will look like you *can* see each other. They say you should do this also for telephone because it will color your voice better. Note to self: keep mouth closed. =O

What you are wearing is the least of your worries, as long as you have a blazer. I was worried about what I would wear, for instance I didn't have a tie, or a unwrinkled dress shirt. I think if you have a blazer, and some kind of non-distracting dark shirt with a collar, you're generally okay, and this is the least of your worries. I asked the studio guy and he said that most of the professor guests actually wore short-sleeved shirts, which makes sense since it was so hot in the room! The other interviewee (Nicolas Christin of CMU, who did a fantastic job, way better than me!) wore a dress shirt and no jacket, and that seemed okay too.

Try not to give too short answers to the questions. If the person asks a long question and you give a short one, it's awkward. It can be challenging, because you may not understand the question, or the question may be front-loaded with some kind of judgements or assumptions that you don't agree with, and you don't really want to say much about it. It would still be good to add some filler, or maybe to repeat something relevant that you said before.

The newscaster is definitely driving the conversation, and the quality with which you are able to answer depends a lot on their skills in managing the conversation, and setting up the questions for you to give good answers, and how they are able to prep. I thought that both Antonio Mora on Al-Jazeera America's Consider This and Bob Rivers and his co-hosts on KJR both did a fantastic job.

Be prepared for editorializing upon the part of the newscaster. They may call the other guys crooks, or say "what can we do to stop the bad guys from doing this?" etc, without regard to the potential "good uses" of the technology.

You really have to think on your feet. At least in this case, the newscaster would say your name *after* the question, so you didn't know that the question was coming to you or the other guy. And you couldn't see if they were looking at you or the other guy. So I got caught off guard a little bit. After a while, I figured out that he was going to basically alternate between guests, so that made it easier.

The alternating thing was helpful, but also sometimes annoying. I found that in the beginning part of the interview, I basically was hit with the questions that Nicolas should have answered (Silk Road and FBI etc), and he got the questions I should have answered (Bitcoin). In the interview, it's important to keep in mind that they might ask you about material outside of your typical scope (e.g. in my case, I knew a lot more about Bitcoin, and much less about, say, the DEA), so it's worth studying up before on things that you might not ordinarily elect to offer your opinion on as a scientist.

One thing that is particularly challenging is that they are likely to subset the footage. For instance the live footage was about 12 minutes, and was shown on the air, but the online version was only 4 minutes. As is predictable, what was kept was "How could the DEA allow this to happen?" and what was left out was "How could these technologies be useful in day-to-day life, for non-criminal activities?" Like, maybe they ask 10 questions, but they only show 3 questions, and your response. You have to be careful that any particular question/answer pair is not taken out of context -- and you can't assume that the previous questions and answers will be shown. This is another reason not to give short answers -- you should fill them out so that they are somewhat self contained, with respect to the question asked.

A good soundbyte goes really far -- maybe too far. I got called by LA Times because of my paper on Bitcoin. Despite all of the other stuff I said, I ended up getting quoted in the LA Times for basically comparing the Silk Road founder to Walter White of the Breaking Bad series. This was an extremely popular show, which had just had its season finale. So there was a great resonance between the story and some popular culture, and I was the one that had the quote that made the connection, so that made me the prime person to talk to in their eyes. Unfortunately, they misquoted me (see below).

I also asked a reporter from the Baltimore Sun why I was getting so many emails, and he said having the lead quote in the LA Times will do that; so this does not contradict the theory that the Breaking Bad quote was a huge contributor. Although I emphasized that most of my academic expertise in the case had to do with Bitcoin, they needed to get the news out ASAP and what they had on hand was what they were going to use.

As chance would have it, because of my interest in Bitcoin, I had connected to Silk Road with Tor in the past and had followed the related news and academic literature in general, and read the affidavit (as a result of a post on misc actually.) When the questions on the TV moved into questions about the DEA's actions, it required some fast thinking to say something reasonable based on my limited expertise in that area.

If it's a criminal issue, make sure to not name the particular accused person, or when you do, use the word alleged, for libel reasons. I believe I was successful in doing this, but I was nervous about it. The newscaster did say something up front that basically pointed out that everything is allegations, "but if they were true, then ..." But what happens if they subset the footage and don't include that part?

When you talk to a newspaper reporter, they will surely subset what you say so that it fits into their story. You don't know what they'll pick, or even what the real story will be. My advisor, Anant Agarwal, used to say, the problem with talking to reporters, is you talk to them for an hour, and think you got a particular message across, but in the end, they have their own agenda and basically can imply anything by choosing what they leave out.

So for instance, in the Wall Street Journal article on Bitcoin mining, I spent a number of hours helping the reporter put together the article, telling him stories about interesting people in Bitcoin mining, and connecting him to them, and helping him reword sentences to be factually accurate. In the end though, I was presented not as an expert on Bitcoin, but just a participant in what seemed like a financially dubious transaction with the main character in the article (a chemistry professor who had bought an early bitcoin mining machine and from whom I bought a fractional share) -- the guy I had told him about and connected with each other. The reporter did mention my paper on Bitcoin, but very tangentially.

Do your best to defend against getting misquoted. In my interview with the LA Times, I ended up getting misquoted. They said something like "at the same time they disagree with his con", while I actually said "at the same time, they are uneasy with the illegal nature of his activities." I don't think it was deliberate or malicious, and they were under a very tight deadline. Possibly, they were trying to reduce word count and shortened it to fit. But still, the quote did not reflect my beliefs.

While in Michigan, Prof. Dan Grossman of UW gave me some great advice: when talking to newspaper reporters, it's a very good idea to up front ask them if, after their conversation, they can repeat back their notes to you so you can make sure that everything was clearly communicated. When I did this for subsequent interviews, I found that the outcome tended to be much more favorable.

Ask the studio guy for a copy of your TV footage. At least in my case, they gave it to me afterwards, and I was glad. Although the full footage went out live, only a subset was posted to the website, and some of my answers seemed out of context because the previous questions were not there.

Back to Michael Taylor's webpage.