Verbatim and the facts

January 27th, 2011

I heard a fantastic interview with the journalist Gay Talese on the New Yorker Out Loud podcast recently, about his article on the soprano Marina Poplavskaya. With the likes of Tom Wolfe, he was one of the proponents in the 1960s of new or literary journalism – reportage with narrative flow and subjectivity that strives to express truth in a deeper sense than simple facts.

His craft was formed in a very different environment to the one in which we as game journalists work today. We have very few staff, we have a very wide remit, we must report immediately, we must bow to the strangling restrictions of PR departments, we do not have fact-checking departments.

But I think he has a lot to teach us, especially about our responsibilities to represent the truth. I guess I’m getting at some recent controversies about reporting individual quotes from interviews as news.

Talese spent six weeks researching and interviewing Marina Poplavskaya – an impossible luxury for the likes of us. He does not record his interviews and conversations with his subjects. He doesn’t even make notes at the time; rather, he puts them together later from memory, and then checks with the subject that he has it right. Here’s what he said at the end of the podcast – obviously, there’s an irony to quoting this, but hey:

“I will then go to that person: ‘I heard you say this, is this what you meant? Do I have this right?’ I’ll do that if it’s verbatim. I don’t usually go much with verbatim because I’m more interested in trying to understand them. Sometimes word for word isn’t what they mean. It’s a first draft – when I write a first draft, you wouldn’t understand it, because I don’t get the sentences right. I polish and I rework.

“A person who’s being queried by someone who’s sticking in their face some end of a tape recorder, the tape recorder unfortunately gives you the sense that you’ve done your job because you have a lot of verbatim commentary. You’ve got something on tape and you can say that they’ve said it and it’s true. But it isn’t really fair. I don’t think you can hold people accountable on verbatim at that point. So I don’t. But I’m very confident that I’ve done justice to what they’re saying or what they represent.”

As game journalists we get a lot of Q&A interviews with subjects who are fully briefed and locked down to avoid saying anything controversial. We transcribe the interviews and publish them as is. We never really understand the creative minds that produced the games on which we report, nor the business sensibilities that form the environment in which they’re made. All we get is words. First draft words.

In the absence of that richness and depth, we eke some kind of interest for our readers by finding odd lines that are a little controversial and report them as news. And in doing that, we erode trust in our subjects and make them fear talking with us. And so the cycle continues, making it harder for us to report.

Trust is the key to breaking it. And I think Talese’s method shows us how we might gain it: by checking with our subjects and making sure we understand what they’re trying to express, beyond what they actually say. Because if our subjects are interesting enough to report on, they’re deserving of respect. And if we respect them, they will respect us. That’s a much more virtuous circle.