Midday Margins Blog: On Oil Leaks, Authenticity, And Occasionally Asking the Wrong Questions

Jun 2, 2016

Three words are posted above my desk at South Dakota Public Broadcasting. These are the core principals the Dakota Midday team endeavors to bring into the studio every day.

One of those words is “Authentic.”

To me, authentic means that every Midday conversation is as real as we can make it. We don’t script out our guest segments, they are mostly live, the best ones feel like a conversation around a South Dakota kitchen table. Sometimes we outline to keep things organized or to help a guest prepare, but for the most part, what you hear is happening in real time as we follow our curiosity and have an authentic conversation we hope is intriguing, thought-provoking, or entertaining.

Every rule has its notable exception.

This week I talked with Matt John. He’s a spokesman for TransCanada, and we recorded our interview in order to allow for the flexibility of editing. I reached him in Calgary and we first chatted about American Memorial Day and how folks in Calgary recently honored the “beloved Queen” with a day off of work. I’ve never talked with him before, but I liked him immediately. He seemed like the kind of guy my younger brother would go out to the lake and play hockey with.

Soon, we got down to the business of talking about pipeline projects, oil leaks, and climate change.

About halfway through our talk, we waded into trouble.

I would ask a question, and Matt wouldn’t know what I was getting at. I would explain it and he would try to answer, and we’d both fumble to speak the same language. It happened two or three times, revealing that even though we had both prepared for our conversation, there was no way to predict the curves and bellows of where we sometimes ended up.

Sometimes we got lost and had to help each other figure out where we were.

And so … before airing the Dakota Midday conversation with Matt John, I edited the audio file extensively. I didn’t alter content or change the context. I simply cut out the parts where we struggled to understand one another. Because, dear listener, you don’t necessarily want to sit through our experimental tangents.

I paired the conversation down to its essence. It broadcasts today at Noon CT, 11 MT.

When oil seeps from the earth and no one immediately knows what went wrong, it can be easy for journalists and energy companies to settle into an adversarial relationship. Much is at stake. We value integrity. We seek accountability.

We don’t always get the answers we want. At least not within the timeline in which we think we deserve them. And, quite frankly, even journalists don’t always know how to frame the conversation.

Part of my responsibility as host of Dakota Midday is to risk asking questions that might not make sense. To keep digging. To really listen to what guests are trying to say. To make people feel comfortable telling the truth. To make people feel comfortable not knowing an answer. To admit that I might not know the right question.

We’re not done talking about oil in this state. Or energy. Or climate change. For me, the takeaway of the conversation with TransCanada was this: There are things that make your daily life run that you only fully consider when something goes awry. There are workers fueling your morning commute, making sure your lights flicker on in the middle of the night when you fumble for the switch.

If you want to know more about how modern life works, don’t wait for a leak or an outage or a failure. Start asking questions … especially those niggling questions that might not lead where you want to go until you grapple with them a bit. You might be surprised at some of the answers.

This is how we stumble upon truth.

Good journalism isn’t always about holding someone’s feet to a flame. Good journalism is about wading into the soup of uncertainty and admitting that we are all in this great conversation together.

Here are the final moments of my conversation with Matt John. We laugh a little, express our gratitude, and then head out to the pond to whack the hockey puck around.