I was interviewing a teacher in Bucharest, watching her class from the back. Despite my best efforts to be low key, I don’t really blend in in those situations. Indeed, I might say that it’s impossible for a redheaded American journalist to blend into a class of 25 Romanian 7th graders.
Everybody in the room was taking notes. The pupils were copying what the teacher wrote on the board, and I was watching them do it, writing down the sexy little details that will paint the scene for my readers down the line. They were things like “the kid next to me is eating a mysterious cheeto-like snack. He threw the packaging from the other bag on the floor.” The fact that I didn’t blend in was a problem. The teacher in question was concerned with the image I would take away, and her eyes watched mine about as much as they watched the class. My presence had knocked the tension in the room one point too high for her to relax.
As she wrote on the board, her phone rang. I froze. “I hope she picks it up” I thought. “Please let her answer it.” I was already dreaming of the prime real estate I would give that juicy little detail in the coming article. In the shaky world of journalism, it’s those selective anecdotes that drive a point home. In short, if I’ve only got your attention for five minutes, I’m not just going to talk to you about the difference of teaching practices in Romania. I’m going to tell you about the teacher who answered her phone in class, so that you can stand aghast.
She picked it up. I had a party in my head, and celebrated the victory like a total asshole. I hurriedly scribbled a note, and I’m sure my face broke into a crack of a smile.
Her turn to freeze. She looked at me directly. “I only answered it because it was someone the director is waiting for.” I looked down guiltily at my notebook. My reaction to her phone call seemed to confirm her suspicions that all journalists are sharks. The worst part was that I couldn’t even deny it to myself. I’d had it in for her, without even knowing it. I’m sure it made my job much more difficult for the rest of the interview.
It was a key lesson for me as a green reporter. Ever since that moment, I’ve learned to live with my poker face on. I’ve learned that the best interviews happen when I push but don’t critique, when I agree with them just enough that people get comfortable. It’s not about being artificial. It’s just about being low profile, making the smallest possible changes in a subjects environment. It’s about making them comfortable enough to just be, to let their true passions and faults and quirks come out.
It’s my poker face that allows me to write better and more accurate stories. I don’t think it’s unjust to say that reporters attack stories with an arc of conflict already in mind. We look for the characters we want. They are never there. It’s when I put my poker face on, just let somebody talk, that the unexpected and real them can come out, and I can understand what role they play. The more relaxed and passive I become, the more I catch the spark in their eye that tells me what’s important. If I follow that spark, I can filter out the fluff from the story.