Editing interviews

Don Yelton, the Republican party official in North Carolina who was forced to resign because of the stupid things he said to The Daily Show‘s Aasif Mandvi made the usual excuse that his remarks had been ‘taken out of context’ and the interview edited to make him look bad.

Those criticisms are very likely true but that does not mean that he escapes culpability for what he said. That would be the case only if the editing was such as to make it appear that he said things that were very different from the things he actually said and conveyed the opposite impression.

In interview shows, to save costs the producers usually send just one camera crew. The interview is first done with the camera pointing at the interviewee. Then afterwards, the camera is shifted to look over the interviewee’s shoulder to point at the interviewer and the interviewer repeats the questions, sometimes even changing it to make it flow more smoothly or more pointed. They also take shots of the interviewer and interviewee just nodding or looking interested or other expressions. These shots are used to make the cuts smooth. So if someone makes a long statement and you want to cut out the middle portion, the cut becomes obvious and jarring if you see only the interviewee. So what they do is switch to the other person silently nodding at the point of the cut.

This is all pretty standard stuff. It is undoubtedly possible to take the raw footage and make the subject of the interview appear to say the opposite of what they meant. That is absolutely unethical but happens which is why one should be careful of giving interviews to people who have no scruples or else protect yourself by insisting on having your own recording done at the same time.

Bob Garfield of the radio program On the Media took provocateur James O’Keefe to task for doing such unethical editing and then in the last two minutes of tiss segment demonstrated how it can be done by re-editing that same interview to make O’Keefe appear to espouse views he did not hold.

In the case of The Daily Show, they sometimes show the cameras and it looks like they have two cameras rolling simultaneously, one over each person’s shoulder so there is less need for repeating things. But they still take reaction shots later and likely repeat segments when the first takes don’t go well. And since it is a comedy show, I expect that they take extra shots of the interviewer rolling their eyes, looking baffled and bemused and other things for comedic effect because although they assuredly pick people whom they think will say absurd things, they cannot know in advance when and how they are going to do so. Also a joke may occur to them only after the person has said something and they have to write and insert it.

So much of the comedic effect is obtained in the editing room by cutting and splicing and making the person more foolish. But I have never heard that they distort the interview to make the subject appear to say the opposite of what they meant. So if people accuse them of taking things out of context, they need to explain what the context is that made the offensive remarks seem innocuous.

UPDATE: Thanks to commenter Félix Desrochers-Guérin for this excellent clip of how things can be edited to make things more clear and concise or to distort and deceive.

And here’s a more detailed tutorial on how to do editing, thanks to commenter wtfwhateverd00d.


  1. Al Dente says

    It’s hard to take “If it hurts a bunch of lazy blacks that want the government to give them everything, so be it” out of context.

  2. trucreep says

    Yeah. The only way you can take that out of context is if the guy had been quoting another person, and then it was edited to make it sound like this guy said it. Clearly that’s not what happened.

    Makes me think of that episode of The Colbert Report where he interviewed a politician in Florida I think. The guy was running unopposed, and so to make a point of some sorts, Colbert had him say these outrageous statements like, “I love cocaine” with the sole purpose of seeing if it’d be taken out of context and attributed to him actually “saying” it. Sure enough, it was.

  3. wtfwhateverd00d says

    From the script to Broadcast News:

    Jane, you know how Tom had tears in
    the piece the other night? Ask
    yourself how we were able to see
    them when he only had one camera
    and that was pointing at the girl
    during the interview.
    (on her reaction)
    I’m fairly sure I was right to tell

    And thanks @Félix Desrochers-Guérin that video was enlightening.

  4. left0ver1under says

    If interviewees are so worried about “being taken out of context”, they should demand the camera have both people in the shot at the same time, no angles and cuts.

    Then again, if the interview was done with both in a single shot, they couldn’t claim things were “taken out of context”. Why would they want to change?

  5. maudell says

    After the show was aired, Don Yelton said on the radio that he was impressed with the accuracy of the interview. He said he thought they would twist his words, but that he was satisfied with what came out and that he stood by his statements.
    It’s only after he resigned that the story about being taken out of context emerged…

  6. Mano Singham says

    Thanks! This is great and I have added an update to the post so that more people will see it.

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