Sunday, August 5, 2012

Dealing with factual corrections during live TV interviews

I've been an on on-air television expert discussing airline safety topics for over a decade, serving as one of those aviation safety experts who show up on camera whenever there is a major newsworthy event involving aircraft and danger.

On-air experts like myself are typically seen only in the studio, and photographed with a head-and-shoulder shot. The term for this kind of guest is a talking head, and I do my best to be the best talking head I can be. Like most talking heads, I've never had any formal training in how to be a talking head, and every time I get the chance to be on the air, there is something to learn, often because of unexpected issues that happen when I am on the air live.

Last week, I was a guest on CNN's HLN channel discussing an air traffic control situation that occurred 31 July 2012 over Washington, DC. It was a relatively minor incident that received significant media national media attention in the US primarily because it was reported by the Washington Post newspaper, and because the highest levels of the FAA had to respond publicly to the incident.

Typically, a show's producer wants me to provide the viewer with some context about the event, and my goal is to use the short amount of time I have to give at least one good bit of information.

In this particular interview, the HLN anchor Isha Sesay introduced me as a retired pilot. When that happened I faced a bit of a dilemma. While I am a pilot, I've never been a professional or military pilot of any kind, and I'm also not retired. I had two choices, ignore the mistaken introduction and go ahead with the interview, or take time to correct the anchor on-air.

Given that I would have less than 30 seconds of air time, I immediately decided to take the first option and go ahead with the interview. In the second or two that I had before I had to start talking, I concluded that calling me a retired pilot was incorrect, but it wasn't worth taking up limited air time with a correction and running the risk of not being able to provide the audience with useful information. Also, I wasn't introduced as a retired airline pilot or military pilot, which would have been very misleading to the audience. Had that happened, I would have immediately corrected that error.

In retrospect, one way to avoid this problem was to confer with the producer ahead of time about how I should be introduced by the anchor. However, even if I had done this, the same mistake may have happened. Live television is a very fluid situation, and everyone who is on the air has to do their bit to keep things moving. For all I know, the anchor knew the introduction was wrong the moment it passed by her lips, but like me, she had to keep the conversation moving.

The two things I work hard to avoid while on the air is silence and wasted words. The silence would have happened if I took too much time to think before I start talking, and the wasted words would have happened if I said things that were not relevant to the task at hand or got in the way of my goal of providing useful information.

While I always strive for on-air perfection, the two goals that I always have at the top of my mind are to encourage the audience to keep watching and to get invited back for future talking head opportunities.