Most people hate to hear their voices on a recording. The voice they hear on the audio sounds very different from the voice that they hear when they speak.
For journalists, this can be excruciating. Journalists have been trained to think that we are not the story, just the servant of it. Yet an interview is a conversation and often the give-and-take of that exchange slips out of the bounds of professionalism and into the easy tone of two people exploring a topic. Establishing a climate of trust is important, as are gentle remarks along the way that make your subject knows that he or she is being heard.
Often when I hear my voice on a recording, I’ve cringed at my inelegant phrasing of a question, or the obsequious way I sometimes encourage the person I’m speaking with to go further. I think I’ve never been more discomforted by my presence on a recording than I was in my interview with the two young women I spoke with for, “I Rode Suicide.”
In my reporting on the Gutter Punks story, I’m nowhere near being a neutral observer. I was nearly undone by my daughter choosing to hop trains, and having a chance to ask her friends the questions I didn’t ask my daughter at the time brought out fierce maternal feelings. When I was editing this interview down from and hour and a half to the three clips that total fourteen minutes, there were moments where I actually said to the young women, “speaking as a mother” in that same high moral tone of all mothers who are about to deliver the “young lady, this is a serious matter” lesson. I cut those.
Yet these young women are not my daughters. Simultaneous with the fear I felt at the danger they were putting themselves in, and my shock at their casual law breaking, I could hear in my voice a little bit of admiration for their outlaw life: bombing down the road in a stolen car that they’d disguised with graffiti, raising their fists at the sky, getting away with it. I was drawn to that feeling, the “fuck it, I’m outta here” that so many of us dream about, but so few do. As I listened to the recording, I heard myself drawn in at one moment and horrified in the next.
There’s are also several passages in the tape that I considered cutting, but left in. These are places where, if it was my daughter telling me the story, I might have started to disapprove. Yet in the recording, I’m laughing. And there is a passage where I describe one of the many, many fears I had when Marissa was riding the rails, trying to provoke an answer to the question, “What if you stay out so long in this life, you can never come back?”
When I heard that passage, my professional self immediately hovered over the delete button. What will my colleagues think of me being so personal, so candid about how I feel, in my questions? This is not something I would ask, or at least not something I would ask in that tone, if this was a different story, a story where I was detached.
In the end, I left it in. This is a story where I cannot proclaim I am objective. The passionate feelings in these questions are the passion of a mother who loves her daughter and cares about her daughter’s friends. That’s a feeling that I cannot hide and won’t disguise.
This is another facet of reporting in public, then: revealing the bias and being clear about the point of view. Let the chips fall where they will.