On May 12, 2014, I interviewed Jeanna Repass. I looked at her and a saw a successful African-American woman living in the suburbs of Kansas City. I was excited to learn about her and from her. I had prepared my sheaf of papers filled with questions, time-stamps and data. We both sat down across from each other, a camera pointing at Jeanna over my shoulder and lights illuminating her from several angles.
The interview began:
Nathaniel: “How do you identify yourself Jeanna?”
Jeanna: “I’m a suburban middle-class mother of two and wife to one.”
Then, I proceeded to ask her about her identity as a black woman.
In the moment I didn’t even think about it. I had prepared my interview questions and I was forging ahead in the direction of my notes. Afterward, I realized that I had utterly ignored the content of her self-identification, projecting onto her the identity that I wanted to talk to her about. And I was ashamed.
However, as a documentary producer, and this is uncomfortable, I am compelled to cast my characters. That is, Brainroot searches for certain types of stories or certain demographics we want to include in whatever series or film we happen to be producing at that moment. If we weren’t to cast our characters carefully, we would probably end up with a very non-diverse group of folks and would probably produce much less interesting content.
Jeanna fills several demographic markers that we wanted to include in the first season of Your Fellow Americans. She is black, female, she lives in the suburbs, and, perhaps most strikingly, she was willing to let her story be reproduced in video format, put on display forever, and discussed at great length by many viewers. (And discussed here, in digital print.)
I feel no regret that we profiled Jeanna for inclusion in Your Fellow Americans. Profiling is, for better or for worse, part of our the job description: Documentary Producer.
The regret I feel has to do with the delicacy of, once sitting down with our willing interviewee, how to keep from schlepping onto him or her all of the stereotypes that make up the reason I chose to include him or her in the documentary. (Sometimes, we may choose someone because they are in some way or ways un-stereotypical. So it’s equally possible that I might schlep onto someone all my assumptions that they are in fact un-stereotypical in one way or another.)
On a bad day, I feed an interviewee the words I want them to say, I force them into a corner, poke them with a stick, and grunt, “Talk.”
Cognitive biases are those patterns of thought that subconsciously skew our decision-making or viewpoints in a particular direction, many times in spite of data toward the alternative. Expectation bias, a type of cognitive bias, is the tendency for “experimenters to believe, certify, and publish data that agree with their expectations for the outcome of an experiment, and to disbelieve, discard, or downgrade the corresponding weightings for data that appear to conflict with those expectations”(Jeng, M. 2006). (If you’re familiar with confirmation bias, this is very similar, it’s just that I like to think of myself as an “experimenter”.)
So when I talk to someone we have chosen to interview, I always have pre-formed expectations about what things they will say, what perspectives they will share, etc. These expectations cloud my ability to listen to them.
It’s like when you’re having a conversation and you’re maybe getting a little impatient with the other person or maybe you’re getting excited and you want to jump in to show them that you’re on the same page or something. So you interrupt them and say, “Yeah! It’s like this…” Then they reply, “Well, that’s not exactly what I was saying…” and you find out they were making a completely different point.
Your expectation, based on your own beliefs, perspectives, understandings, biased you to conceive they were in agreement with you when they were, in actuality, not in accord with your beliefs, perspectives, and understandings. You were a victim of expectation bias.
Overall, that’s pretty crummy. And overall, I’d say that’s exactly what happened when I proceeded with my planned question about blackness when Jeanna, in her previous answer, said nothing about identifying as black.
I don’t want to interview people and miss what they’re really saying because I’m expecting them to say certain things. That’s not great interview technique and, on the day to day, it’s just not a great way to be human.
Jeng, M. (2006). “A selected history of expectation bias in physics”. American Journal of Physics 74 (7): 578–583