kottke.org posts about Mike Doughty

The challenges of conversational journalismJan 24 2013

The most visible journalism these days -- aka the loudest journalism, namely cable news, pop culture blogs, tabloid magazines, TMZ, Buzzfeed, HuffPo, talk radio, etc. -- mostly takes the form of opinionated conversation: professional media people discussing current events much like you and your friends might at a crowded lunch table. A side effect of this way of doing journalism is that you rarely hear from anyone who actually is an expert on the subject of interest at any particular time. That approach doesn't scale; finding and talking to experts is time consuming and experts without axes to grind are boring anyway. So what you get instead are people who are experts at talking about things about which they are inexpert.1

And the challenge for listeners/readers/viewers here is obvious: non-experts can completely miss stuff that's obvious to an expert. Take the two recent stories of our times: Manti Te'o's fake girlfriend and Beyonce's potential inaugural lip-sync.2 Literally hundreds of thousands of hours of the news media's time were taken up over the past week discussing whether or not these things occurred, who knew what and when, and so forth. And that's the appeal, right? Speculation is fun and people want their news to be fun.

But a little expertise is enlightening. Ilana Gershon, an Indiana University assistant professor, spent two and a half years doing fieldwork among Samoan migrants. Manti Te'o is Samoan. In a piece at Culture Digitally, Gershon provides some valuable context to the Te'o hoax.

None of the news stories are commenting on the fact that Manti Te'o is Samoan. The reporters are wondering whether he was truly hoaxed, or whether he was complicit. Why didn't he ever insist on visiting his girlfriend in person? They had been in touch for four years after all -- chatting by Facebook message, texting, calling each other on the phone. How could he not be a bit suspicious? But in wondering all these questions, they never ask what his cultural background might be -- what ideas about truth and verification did he learn growing up in a Samoan migrant community, especially one that was so religious (in his case, Mormon)?

So as an ethnographer of Samoan migrants, I want to say that I heard a number of stories that sound almost exactly like Manti Te'o's story -- naïve Christian golden boys who had been fooled by other Samoans pretending to be dewy-eyed innocents. Leukemia was even a theme, I guess Samoan pranksters keep turning to the same diseases over and over again. But I did this fieldwork before Facebook or cell phones, and even before email became all that widespread outside of college circles. All the stories I heard involved husky voices on telephones, and maybe a letter or two.

Read the whole thing. Interesting, right? Te'o didn't have to be in on it. The whole crazy thing makes sense once you take the cultural context into account.

As for Beyonce, both audio engineer Ian Shepherd and musician Mike Doughty think that, in their expert opinions, she was not lip-syncing the national anthem. Shepherd:

When she starts singing, her voice is hard to hear -- the microphone gain is too low. The sound-man quickly corrects this -- but if we were listening to a recording this wouldn't happen -- in fact back-up recordings are used to solve exactly this kind of problem.

At 1'16'' in the video above, she tilts her head slightly closer to the mic and the sound gets suddenly more bassy. This is because of an acoustic effect known as the "proximity effect".

At 1'52'' she takes out one of her earpieces. Some people are citing this as more evidence she was lip-syncing, but in fact it's what singers do when they're having trouble hearing the pitch of their own voice through the earpiece. By taking it out, she can hear her own voice more clearly and sing in tune more easily. (In fact, if the pre-recorded vocal was going to her earpiece, she may well have been finding it distracting.)

And Doughty:

Most dramatically, sound waves actually blow around in the wind. Sometimes, when I do a big outdoor festival, I sound-check in calm weather, but the wind picks up when the actual show begins, taking my voice and throwing it someplace other than where I'm expecting it. It's easy to get confused. A politician might choke, like, "I'm not speaking right! Or the sound's not right! I better be super loud! Or use the mic differently!" That would be a Howard Dean moment. If you're the sound engineer at the inauguration, a big part of your gig is preventing Howard Dean moments.

Beyoncé, being a samurai, clearly came expecting that possibility. So she compensates: She sings the word "bursting" a little too close to the mic, causing a little bit of discernible distortion -- it's like a subtler version of when you're talking into the mic on your phone, and you suddenly get loud, or too close, and for a moment the voice gets kind of larger and fuzzier.

When she pulls out her left earpiece -- more on that in a moment -- she's adjusting how she sounds to herself, and she subsequently pulls the mic further from her face. Notice how the echo suddenly gets more obvious -- for a split second, the vocal sounds like it's going through a tin can.

Right after that, you can tell that the sound person is scrambling to adjust the sound, because she's adjusted her mic position. It sounds noticeably different until "Oh say does that star-spangled banner still wave," when the sound is dialed in again.

Doughty, because he is a performer himself, manages to be both expert and entertaining:

For me, the most compelling evidence that Beyoncé was doing it for real is the HELL YES smile on Joe Biden's face. Now, that is, clearly, a dude standing two feet from an electrifying lady singing like a motherfucker.

Pretty convincing in both cases, more so than thousands of hours of inexpert opinion anyway. More like this, please...and sooner in the process.

[1] And I should know...look at me prattling away about journalism and expertise (and food and parenting and politics) like I know what I'm talking about. I am an expert on people being inexpert experts.

[2] Both "even if it's fake, it's real" moments at some level, BTW.

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