The tough question of when to subtitle

On consecutive shows in October, ESPN's newsmagazine "E:60" included interviews with subjects whose speech wasn't always easy to understand. But the network made different choices in how it presented those interviews: the words of Jamie Convey, a 10-year-old white child with cerebral palsy from Philadelphia, weren't subtitled; those of Ernest Willis, an impoverished black man from Tennessee, were.

Intentional or not, that's the kind of contrast that can leave viewers asking questions and send bloggers to their keyboards. But conversations with members of the "E:60" production staff provide a window into the sometimes-agonizing decisions ESPN makes about when and how to use subtitles.

Subtitling, says "E:60" executive producer Andy Tennant, is "one of the most difficult and intense and thorough decisions we make."

Particularly when subjects are speaking English, subtitling defies blanket policies or sweeping generalizations, and there's rarely an answer that's clearly right or wrong. Every case is different, and every one generates debate. (For more on subtitling in the Willis and Convey cases, read Steve Marantz's blog entries here and here. They're from ESPN's in-house Production Notes blog, which is well worth a bookmark.)

We'll start with Willis.

"The Good Life" is the story of San Francisco 49ers all-pro linebacker Patrick Willis. It's gripping stuff: Willis and his three siblings grew up in poverty outside the little town of Bruceton, Tenn. Their mother left when they were quite young, and they say their father, Ernest Willis, beat and threatened them before state officials arranged fot their placement in foster care.

On the final day of shooting, producer Beein Gim learned that Ernest Willis wanted to answer his children's allegations in an interview. Gim noted that Willis spoke very quickly and occasionally rambled or mumbled, and there were points in the interview in which she didn't entirely follow his responses. When the interview was finished, a cameramen raised the possibility that Willis might have to be subtitled.

Coordinating producer Michael Baltierra saw an early version of "The Good Life" that lacked subtitles, and recalls having trouble understanding Willis despite having read the script. By the time ESPN staff members screened the "The Good Life," the subtitles had been added.

Above all, those involved with "The Good Life" say clarity was the major reason for subtitling Willis - clarity in the service of fairness. If the audience didn't understand what Willis was saying, his arguments on his own behalf would be undermined.

"Serious accusations were being made against this man," Baltierra says. "Even before we had the subtitling discussion, we talked a lot about making sure that any time someone accuses him of something in the piece, we have to give him a chance to respond."

So the question became whether viewers could understand Willis. ESPN staffers watched "The Good Life" twice, and those we interviewed agree that the audience of about 25 or so was split evenly between those who could follow what he was saying and those who couldn't. (They also note that staff members of various races were in the room, as were producers from Willis's native Tennessee.)

In pondering whether to subtitle, feature producer Lisa Binns tried to separate what she'd heard from what she'd read. During the first screening, she says, "I wasn't really listening as much, which I think is our tendency - if words are on the screen, we're drawn to them."

For the second screening, Binns says, she closed her eyes and listened - and understood what Willis was saying. That led her to argue that subtitling wasn't necessary - though she acknowledges that "of course I had the benefit of seeing it twice, which the viewer doesn't. . . . I couldn't say whether I understood him because I'd already seen it."

While the primary discussion was about clarity, the assembled staffers did discuss other concerns - what were the implications of subtitling "a black man from the South who's not wealthy," as Binns puts it. The decision not to subtitle Jamie Convey was also raised as part of that discussion.

Like Binns, Baltierra wondered if the subtitles had influenced the viewers in judging their own ability to understand Willis. So he and others in management watched segments of the raw interview without subtitles. Baltierra concluded that the audience would need help.

"I thought for a first-time viewer it would be almost impossible to get every nuance of his argument," he says.

That, Baltierra says, made the rest of the conversation "much clearer and easier" - sensitivity to race and socio-economics were worthy of discussion, but clarity trumped those concerns.

"Before everything else,'' he says, "the viewer has to understand what's going on in the story."

Clarity was also the primary concern in the decision of whether to subtitle Convey for "Radio Dreams", a moving story of a kid with a challenging disease chasing a dream. During the screening of that feature, Tennant says that "about 80 percent of the room" felt comfortable not subtitling him.

Again, clarity was the most important question, although a different story called for different criteria. The Convey interview was part of a portrait of the subject, while the Willis interview dealt point-by-point with specific allegations. If the audience didn't understand what Willis was saying in his own defense, that very defense would be rendered ineffective. But if Convey on occasion wasn't completely clear or not understood, the portrait would still work.

"There were one or two places where you might not follow what he's saying, but I get it," says Baltierra. "I'm not losing the thread of the story."

In the wake of the Willis piece, Binns suggested one change in ESPN's procedures.

"If there's ever a question," she said, "we should screen it without the subtitles first and see how people react to get a real read on whether this person can be understood or not. And then have a discussion."

It's advice Tennant says he plans to take. Given that the same issue came up with back-to-back shows, it's natural the two instances were linked. But those involved say that was simply a case of timing.

Binns thinks it's impossible to have a blanket policy for subtitling. She thinks the question will always be decided on a case-by-case basis, with the biggest concern whether the audience can understand what's being said the first time.

"You just have to make sure that the point people are trying to make gets through," Gim says. "It's about making sure voices that need to be heard get heard."

That sounds right to us.