Monday, March 26, 2007

MAKING THE STORY: To Be or Not To Be...Biased

-Ricardo Ramirez (All Things Considered)-

Somehow NPR gave me a recording kit. Later, in someone's brightly-lit office, I was doing an interview. The man towered over me, even as my arm held up the microphone. I blurted out questions about textbook prices, trying to get to the bottom of my story subject. I wanted a definitive answer - Why do the publishers this man represents hurt American education with high prices?

Breathing heavily, his eyelids growing tight and annoyed, he peered down at me. He spilled out even more numbers supporting his "there-is-no-money-in-textbook-publishing" motto.

And I kept asking questions...

"Is this thing on?" he pointed to my recording kit, implying he wanted to say something off the record. He was becoming upset and gradually raising his voice. I did not understand what was bothering him. He was upset and I was confused.

In retrospect, I don't think he liked where the interview was going. Publishers often get the blame for high textbook prices. The media accuses them of purposely devising tactics to inflate textbook prices. I think I came across as one more biased journalist, and he felt threatened. After all, I'm not real journalist, but I had the power of the microphone.

"DON'T YOU GET IT??!!" his mustache flared up. Frantic, he dug out textbooks packaged with CDs and slammed them on the table. The spoon inside his coffee cup rattled. I wondered if his coworkers could hear his commotion.

"They don't give a-" With the microphone turned off, he suggested that everyone else involved with textbooks - student advocacy groups, the government, faculty, and the media - just feigned to care. After all, everyone has a job to do. Student advocacy groups need something to protest about, journalists need something to report.

I upset my first interviewee. Did this make me a bad pretend journalist? Don't I ask balanced questions?

I can't give a clear answer. I can't tell if I was really trying to find who to point the finger on, coming across as biased. Perhaps I was too determined on finding someone to blame, as if this were a black-or-white issue. Or maybe he was not comfortable answering my questions. I don't know.

After sharing some cigarettes and life stories, my interviewee and I dug deeper into what we thought of the textbook industry, explaining why we believe what we believe.

"Go save the world, kiddo."

"I will," I smiled, walking away.