New Self-Defense Training

By Jonny Lupash.
Fowarded to this site by Geist
Author’s Notes:  I have not experienced all the scenarios mentioned in this piece and I mean no offense to the RLSH involved in the ones I have.  I’m not a critic nor a naysayer, and I only use the terms “Real-Life Super Hero,” “movement” and “community” as basic blanket terms to avoid long-winded definitions of the undercovers, the vigilantes, the charity workers, the groups vs. the individuals and so on.  Thanks for understanding.  If you have any doubts of my sincerity or purpose with this piece, please go look up anything I claim here about journalism.  I actually encourage it; I have nothing to hide and gain nothing by lying.
I’ve conducted four interviews for my project on the Real-Life Super Hero movement.  In my research I came across several news articles and televised segments featuring the RLSH, and all of them have had at least an undertone if not open slander against the subject in question.  I’ve watched news anchors unable to keep a straight face discussing an RLSH; I’ve heard insults slipped into context as happenstance.
So when I started my interviews, I was amazed anyone would speak with me.  The TV had done enough damage, completely ignoring the degree of privacy and anonymity that comes with the job.  I expected to be met with shut doors, folded arms, unreturned phone calls and no luck.  My result was so far the opposite that part of me is still waiting for the other shoe to fall.
As a token of appreciation for the candor, open-mindedness, time and patience the Real-Life Super Hero community has given me, and for the superhuman bravery, goodwill and selflessness it exhibits in each of its members’ nightly endeavors, I offer this.
I received a BA in journalism in December of 2006.  I finished with a 3.9 GPA, having spent a full two years of my life devoted very specifically and very solely to every aspect of print journalism.  I learned all the tools necessary to guide and shape an interview to my liking, and the deaths of journalism and trust that accompany their misuse.  All journalists can do is ask questions; the difference between a good reporter and a bad one is what questions they ask and how.  So by way of thanks, and of apology, here are some of the pitfalls and how to avoid them.
1.  The Leading Question.  When someone asks a question that, from the outset, sounds like “Don’t you think that…” or “Wouldn’t you agree…” they’re doing so very purposefully.  This is a cheap device used to twist words from sources and get quotes before the source has time to think about their answer.   A reporter will do his or her best to paint you into a corner this way.  Here’s a perfect example.
Reporter:  “Wouldn’t you agree that people don’t necessarily have to wear a costume to go support a charity?”
RLSH:  “Well, sure.”
This will run in the papers as you saying there’s no reason to do what you do.  If a reporter wants more information about your charity work specifically as an RLSH, they’ll ask you the following.
Reporter:  What benefits do you find working with charities as an RLSH that you may not in civilian dress?
The main difference is that reporter #2 is asking an unbiased question to get facts about the subject and not leading you into saying what they want.  Here’s why this is the best practice.  If they don’t agree with costumed charity work and they ask you this, there are two outcomes: You’ll either tell them about drawing more attention to (and rallying more people around) a cause as an anonymous Good Samaritan than as a casual civilian, or you won’t tell them any benefits and they’ll get their answer anyway – but they’ll do it honestly, and without being sneaky and making you the bad guy.  On the other hand, if they support you but have to stay objective, this is your chance and theirs to explain what you do in a positive light without them leading you into showboating by asking “Isn’t being an RLSH just the best?!
2.  Body Language.  I recognize that many interviews are done over the phone or via e-mail or an instant messaging service.  For those done in person, beware journalists who interrupt, speak aggressively with their hands, fold their arms, cross their legs or let you see what notes they’re taking.  Ideally, newspersons will sit with both feet flat on the floor, arms at their sides, taking notes on a pad whose back faces you the whole discussion, and let you finish speaking and wait three to five seconds before asking another question.  Gesturing and speaking passively with hands is no problem, but pointing and cutting motions are always a red flag.
3.  Closed-Ended Questions.  Probably the quickest way to determine whether a reporter is even worth your time is to listen for “closed-ended” or “closed” questions.  These are questions that are answered with one or two words.  Some questions have to be closed, like “Where did you say you live again?” or “How old are you?” but any question that can be answered openly should be asked openly.  Here’s another example, since the closed- vs. open-ended discussion gets a bit jargony.
Reporter #1:  I read on your MySpace that you often visit outreach centers and orphanages to bring food, clothes and toys to the less fortunate; is that accurate?
RLSH:  Yes.
 
Sure, it’s nice that they care enough to do their research, but this is no way to engage a source in a conversation.  If the reporter asks this question the right way, it will sound very different – in fact, odds are there are at least two questions there if not a whole new line of discussion.
Reporter #2:  I’m interested in your work with charities; can you please tell me how and why you got started with that?
RLSH:  [Answer.]
Reporter #2:  Which charities do you currently work with?
RLSH:  [Answer.]
Reporter #2:  What have been some of your highlights or best achievements with those charities?
 
4.  Baiting.  This is similar to my notes on body language.  Since about 2005, when a lot of the 10-year contracts on the first reality shows like The Real World and Survivor have been running out, the fantasy of reality shows has reared its ugly head.  In 2007, a special aired on VH1 detailing added sound effects, re-shot footage, re-edited dialogue and interviewers asking bait questions on these and other programs.  A scathing criticism of The Real World appeared on an episode of Mission Hill in 1999, featuring hidden cameramen directing the actors to act and react certain ways.
Perhaps the most dismaying example of this in television was when several cast members of Big Brother started surfacing on news programs after their contracts expired to discuss the hostess and interviewers making up things that other cast members said and asking them to react.  Relationships were made and broken on-air from one such reporter saying, “Did you hear that so-and-so wants to sleep with you?  He brought it up with us in his last interview,” when the man in question had never said anything of the sort.  This caused the woman being interviewed to believe a bond was forming, which caused the man to believe he was just flirting with her, and they ended up dating for the remainder of the season.
Any time a question feels like it may be asked of you to elicit an emotional response, it probably is.  The most obvious sign is when an interviewer presents you with a “fact” and is unable to tell you its origin.  Finally, no good question is blunt.  Keep this in mind at all times.  “So why do you wear a mask?” is not a good question.
5.  Intuition.  For some reason I’ve always been able to read people like a book.  Five seconds into a conversation I can tell you if they’re going to be my friend or not, and ten seconds in I can determine the course of the rest of the interview.   My final red flag in Yellow Journalism is built on hunches, colloquialisms and, most importantly, intuition.  If you get even the slightest idea in the corner of your mind that someone’s making fun of you, they are.  If they’re not, they’re too stupid to realize how to phrase a question, in which case I guarantee this is not an interview you wish to give.  Remember, these are people who, like me, have devoted two years bare minimum learning how to phrase a question.  If you find yourself being asked “So, do you live with your parents?” or “How many comic books do you own?” it’s time to check out.
I can’t guarantee that every bad interview will be set in stone to these guidelines, but no proper reporter worth his or her salt will behave in the ways mentioned above.  Occasionally we all have our flubs – I think I had to call one subject back four times due to bad reception in my apartment and put another on hold to calm down my newborn – but by and large, there are some mistakes that the press just can’t afford to make these days.
So now that we’ve covered some passive resistance and warning signs, there’s still something to be said for active – yet respectful – defense.
1.  The “No Comment” Comment.  Never say “no comment.”  Never.  Erase it from your vocabulary.  Regardless of circumstance or topic, don’t say it.  This is seen and heard by the public as “I’m guilty” or “I have something bad to hide.”
Now this is not to say you have to comment or divulge every secret in your vault just because some busybody asks you.  Let’s look at another scenario with our bad reporter and how you can turn the tables on them.
Reporter #1:  How do you feel about the criminals you haven’t stopped yet – the pedophiles, the murderers?
RLSH:  No comment.
Of course everyone can recognize that some things are out of your control, but saying “No comment” is always a bad idea.  They teach in colleges to go in for the kill on a topic when someone says “No comment.”  In that scenario, the RLSH sounds ashamed and self-deprecating – like he (or she) can’t even bring himself (or herself) to talk about their inability to be everywhere at once.  Let’s try that again with just a bit more optimistic frankness.
Reporter #1:  How do you feel about the criminals you haven’t stopped yet – the pedophiles, the murderers?
RLSH:  Obviously there’s no way for me to be everywhere at once, but one can only hope the crimes I have stopped – the muggings, the rapes, the drug deals – are inspiring other civilians to stand up for one another and inspiring the criminals who hear about my interventions to stay home.
 
May sound a bit cliché, but you’ve avoided that horrid “No comment” comment.  The hardest judgment call to make, from my perspective, sounds like this from the RLSH.
Reporter #1:  How do you feel about the criminals you haven’t stopped yet – the pedophiles, the murderers?
RLSH:  I’ve done a lot of anonymous investigative work that’s led the police to X amount of arrests in the last 5 years.
 
A couple of my interview subjects have said this, and of course I believe them and will vouch for them in my own writing, but that bad reporter will ask you to prove it.  If you can’t go into it specifically (which you obviously can’t due to compromising a pending investigation), the reporter may become defensive and feel stonewalled, which will only convince them to make you sound less than credible.  I wouldn’t say never to say a comment like that, nor do I feel fazed when I receive that answer, but please be careful regarding to whom you say it, and if any cases are closed, try to provide as many specifics and details as are permitted by your work as an RLSH.  It will go a great length in solidifying your credibility and maturity for the rest of the interview.
2.  Keeping it “Off the Record” for real.   Since I’ve started this project, I’ve heard maybe a half-dozen jaw-dropping stories that have been requested as staying off the record.  I’m happy to oblige; I’m not a paparazzi or a gossip writer, I’m trying to bring a modicum of dignity back to investigative journalism and I can’t afford to burn any bridges besides the fact.  I’d much rather compromise and use non-specific examples to illustrate a sensitive subject, or drop the matter entirely, than to betray a source’s trust and lose that contact and risk being ousted from the story itself.
But not everyone is like me.  When giving an off-the-record story to another reporter, never say the following (keeping in mind I’m making this up and nobody actually told me this).
Reporter #2:  So how did you first decide to become an RLSH?
RLSH:  Well, my house was robbed while I was in it and I was hogtied to my bed and saw them take everything I own…oh, but that’s off-the-record.
 
Please, please lead off with that off-the-record remark.  It’s way too easy for the tape recorder to run out of batteries or tape (or for it to be stopped by the reporter).  If that off-the-record comment goes on-the-record because you said it was off the record too late, that comment is admissible in court.  If you take that reporter or paper to court for slander, they will win.
Let’s look at it the other way around.
Reporter #2:  So how did you first decide to become an RLSH?
RLSH:  Well, off-the-record, my house was robbed while I was in it and I was hogtied to my bed and saw them take everything I own.  On the record, I guess I’d just seen enough crime and was sick of it.
There are audio experts who can hear the difference in background noise when a portion of a tape has been edited or cut and they can and will bring that to a judge’s attention if your accord has been compromised.
3. Question for Question.  Nothing raises a red flag to a reporter higher than answering their question with a question.  Don’t fire their question back at them and don’t answer their question by asking them another one in return.  It sounds suspicious and evasive to them, and they’ll magnify that effect to the public.  Here’s an example.
Reporter #2:  How do you feel the Real-Life Super Hero movement has affected the public since its inception?
RLSH:  How do you feel we’ve affected the public?
Or
RLSH:  Well do you feel safer walking the streets at night, knowing we’re out there?
 
Ideally, reporters aren’t supposed to take sides, but whether or not they’re good enough to stay objective, I guarantee you don’t want their answers.  If you have to answer a question like that and want to retain some humility, here’s a perfect answer I received (which you can only give if applicable, of course).
Reporter #2:  How do you feel the RLSH movement has affected the public since its inception?
RLSH:  Well I hope they’re inspired to go out and make a positive difference in their communities, and I’ve seen the crime rates in my area drop since my patrolling began.  If I had something to do with that, I’m not sure, but I believe and can only hope that I have.
 
4.  Stupid Questions Can Be Your Best Friend.  Just because someone asks you a dumb question doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t care or hasn’t researched.  Reporters are required to get some of the most basic information straight from the horse’s mouth, so don’t take offense.  Simultaneously, we have to ask some of the questions we know for a fact you can’t or won’t answer, or our paper/syndicate/etc will have our jobs, so bear with us, and keep in mind this is your chance to shine.
In the world of journalism, brevity and uniqueness are keys to quotes going in articles and on segments.  If, hypothetically, I interview Batman and I ask “What’s your secret identity?” the best answer on Earth he can give me is “Batman.”  This puts things into an amazing perspective for the reader and is a short and sweet answer to a played-out question.  I can see that exchange blown up in a different color in a magazine; it’s exactly what we’re looking for as reporters.
One final note: it goes so far, psychologically speaking, that human beings are so protective over their own identities that it’s almost a rule in journalism that no matter how flattering or how honest you are in regards to a subject, their perception of your coverage will be very negative.  The first day of many classes the professor will tell the students that never, under any circumstance, is a reporter to allow a subject to see what the reporter has written about him or her before the article goes to publication.  It’s the worst mistake you can make as a reporter, second only to not verifying a claim.  So again, take reporters with a grain of salt – even if we’re trying to help, it may not always seem as such.
So be careful on the streets, be careful in front of a camera, and with luck, these nine tactics can help flourish the relationship between the RLSH and the journalist.

Tagged with: Closed-ended question, geist, Leading question, MySpace, Real Life Superheroes, Real World, rlsh, Television, United States

3 Comments on “New Self-Defense Training

  1. Very insightful. My pre-RLSH and RLSH activist days provided alot of first hand experience in this area.
    Since I’m not masked or costumed per se my experience has been a bit different. My pre-RLSH activism had ideology be the bone of potential contention to be on alert over during interviews.
    Since my RLSH activism addresses police/community partnerships; helping the hungry and promoting general crime prevention the chance of spin is considerably lower.
    Still, be mindful that you don’t control the final product which emerges from an interview and this article should be studied deeply beforehand.
    Spin is as great a villain as crime and hunger.

  2. Dear Fellow Heroes:
    If I had this knowledge 10 years ago, when I was interviewed by Creative Loafing, it would have lead to a positive, not a negative article about me as a real life singing superheroine and disabilty rights activist.
    DANGER WOMAN

  3. Jonny also wanted me to point out that he was sort of going out on a limb by giving us this advice. He wanted to warn us about unscrupulous “journalists” while trusting us with the fact that he’s not going to take advantage of us in any way.
    I trust him and believe him. I’ve been interviewed by him and would suggest that any of you should accept an interview with him as well. Giving us this advice is a leap of faith on his part.
    Geist