Perfecting the art of crafting questions is a daily challenge for reporters

The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room in the White House. Photo by The Guardian.com

Many social media users have expressed concern about reporters and the questions they ask, specifically at the now-daily White House press conference, which is the only exposure many people have to members of the press.

So I figured I’d help clarify things, since, as a retired journalist I have, as they say, been there, done that. Over my nearly 30 years in the field, I have not only crafted my own questions, but, as an editor, have worked with numerous young reporters to help them figure out how to draw information out of a reluctant source.

Here’s my plan: To give the reader an idea of where I’m coming from, I will list some of the concerns that Twitter users have, then summarize how reporters work, generally, as they draw up their questions. Then I’ll go over each concern individually.

 I only ask a few things.

— First, keep an open mind. You don’t have to agree with everything I say. Just remember that this is not so much a defense of journalism, but an explanation.

— Second, put yourself in the reporter’s shoes. Imagine you are either at a press conference or sitting in a one-on-one interview trying to get your reader or viewer information they need to make informed decisions.

— Third, and maybe most importantly, keep in mind that you will be judged not only by your editor but by the harshest critic of all: readers and viewers like yourself.

And now, the complaints.

Many people think reporters:

1. Ask questions on topics people don’t care about.

“The thing about some of these White House Reporters…they are focusing on stuff that I’d assert most Americans don’t care about or asking questions with false premises to seemingly instigate and contrive drama.”

2.  Are the reason Trump was elected in the first place:

          “… they are largely responsible for us getting Trump, and they learned NOTHING over the 4 years.”

3. Have only their self-interest at heart:

          “They want to write books and get invited to White House cocktail parties.”

4. Ask questions that don’t make much sense:

          “I completely agree with you. It’s just nonsense a lot of it.”

Let me start by saying the media is not perfect. Our field, like any, has its share of incompetents and has plenty of those who really should be doing something else because they make the rest of us look bad.

That said, the majority of reporters are well-trained, intelligent and not only care about their craft but about their country. No one I know entered the field to win pats on the back, get rich (hardly) or have the spotlight firmly aimed at him or her.

Before I continue, I need to make it clear that reporters come in two stripes: print and electronic. And of those two categories, I can add two more: local and national reporters.

National reporters are the ones we see on TV and who are, generally referred to as “the media.” When they screw up (not often, but occasionally) we all pay the price with a tarnished reputation.

Local media, of which I was a part, are the ones who cover your kids’ spelling bees, science fairs and awards ceremonies; we sit in meetings and let you know what your local elected officials are up to, and we tell you when accidents close your roads and storms cut off your power.

Most people see reporters as intruders who push microphones in people’s faces and whose only interest is in ratings and recognition.

Unfortunately, that is not the typical journalist, just the most visible.

And while this negative image of journalists didn’t begin with Donald Trump, he was responsible for boosting it to its current level of animus, mainly through his pushing of the claim that reporters are the “enemy of the people.”

The typical reporter does the majority of his or her work behind the scenes, where hairstyle, make-up and ratings are not part of the picture. They knock on doors, sit on phones and, more often than not, are snubbed by sources who wish they would just go away.

As noble as it sounds, reporters really do just want to keep the public informed with accurate information. That is, after all, the job. And, in a job market that is pretty competitive, the more accurate the reporter, the more stable his or her position is.

Accuracy is the most important attribute a reporter can have. No reporter likes corrections, so always getting a story right is something for which reporters strive.

I could go on and on about how noble a profession journalism is, how under-appreciated we journalists are and how people really need to like us more, but that is not my point…although all that’s true.

My point here is to respond to some of the comments made by Twitter users, and, along the way, offer a bit of journalism education.

OK. Back to the matter at hand, the complaints.

1. Reporters ask questions on topics people don’t care about.

When a reporter attends a press conference, he or she knows that the chances of being selected to ask a question are slight. It’s up to the person conducting the press conference to decide upon whom to call, and that decision can be based on many factors, ranging from the reporters’ reputation to plain old personal preference.

So when a reporter is selected, the question better be a good one. I’ve known reporters who sweated for hours over the choice of a question. Usually, a reporter will ask about whatever is happening that day or will ask a follow-up to any statement that was made before questions were taken.

So sometimes questions are planned and sometimes they have to be conceived on the spur of the moment, which calls for quick thinking.

Despite what some think, reporters don’t always ask “gotcha” questions. Sometimes, though, when a source is being combative or evasive, a “gotcha” question is exactly what’s needed to get that person on track.

As an editor, I’ve worked with many reporters to design questions that we believe will garner a fair amount of information, which is the desired outcome.

Whatever the topic, the question must elicit the best answer – one that is thoughtful and information-packed. And, yes, sometimes questions are asked to put the person on the spot, because sometimes that results in the best answer. And sometimes, a reporter has to ask a question the source doesn’t want to hear.

And, honestly, asking tough questions can do a lot for a reporter’s reputation.

Crafting questions can be difficult. You don’t always want to ask a simple yes-or-no question because that won’t give your reader or viewer a lot of information. You want to ask a question designed to make the person explain what is meant.

I, personally, am not a fan of multiple-topic questions. For example, a reporter, knowing he or she will get only one shot, will ask “What do you think about X, and also, what do you think about Y?”

This usually ends with the source answering only what he or she wants to answer, leaving the reporter hanging and looking like a fool in some cases.

In another situation, a reporter may be working on a story unrelated to the issue of the day, and, again, wanting to take his or her only shot, will ask a question that may seem to come out of left field.

Listeners may wonder what the heck the reporter is talking about and think the question is totally irrelevant. But if asking the question results in the “best answer,” then a reporter has to do it.

As far as asking questions with “false premises to seemingly instigate and contrive drama,” I’d suggest that it’s not so much drama that the reporter is after, but a fact the source doesn’t necessarily want to reveal.

Occasionally, I’ve asked a question designed to draw someone out on a topic. I’ll ask a question based on an obviously wrong assumption, just to get the person to dispute it and give me some information I may not have previously had.

Knowing what question to ask and when to ask it can be an art. To an observer the reason for asking a particular question may not be clear. But to the reporter, that specific question may be just what is needed to get the desired information.

2. Reporters are the reason Trump was president.

Some people blame the media for giving Trump a platform for some of the ridiculous stuff he says. “If the press didn’t publish what he said, he wouldn’t have been elected.”

Actually, I’m going to use that argument myself. “If the press didn’t publish what he said …” no one would know how nuts his statements and positions were.

First of all, when the media covers a candidate, especially someone running for president, how would people know for whom to vote if their statements weren’t published? That’s kind of the point of an election: to let people hear all sides and chose who they want in office.

So there’s no question that, out of fairness, the media must publish what a candidate says, no matter how off the wall.

Second, once a person is elected to the highest office in the land, virtually everything that person says is important for many reasons: It can shape world events, it can determine how people live their lives and it can help people decide whether that person should be reelected.

It wouldn’t be fair to either side for the media to censor what a president says. It may be cliché, but the people do have a right to know what their president thinks, says and does. And, like it or not, it’s the media’s job to keep the people informed, for better or for worse.

Many Twitter contributors are not fans of the media reporting both sides of an issue, but that’s how American journalism works. I addressed this in a previous blog: https://my3centsworth.com/2020/12/17/why-both-sides-journalism-is-necessary-for-keeping-the-public-informed-despite-what-some-might-think-2/

(Now, what if the president’s words incite violence or an insurrection? Should the media feel obligated to publish that? That is a whole other issue and needs to be addressed in a future post. It’s a tough one, but in a nutshell, my answer is yes. If not, the media would be complicit in any deaths or injuries that would occur from the public not being warned.)

3. Reporters have only their self-interest at heart, in that “They want to write books and get invited to White House cocktail parties.”

No.

First of all, the average reporter, the one who sits through boring school board, water board, city council or boards of supervisors’ meetings – or White House press conferences – has no shot at being invited to a White House cocktail party. Nor, I would suggest, would most of them want to. The same goes for invites to shindigs held by mayors, governors, board presidents or other local officials.

In fact, most journalists worth their salt would not accept invitations to social events with politicians they cover because it wouldn’t be ethical.

Accepting gifts or favors is severely frowned upon in the journalism world because doing so could either skew a reporter’s view of the person or beat being covered or open that reporter up to claims that one side or another is being favored in stories because of a friendly relationship. It’s just not done.

That’s not to say reporters don’t attend events where their sources are present. Of course they do. Usually, though, it’s with the permission and blessing of their editor.

To repeat myself, though, there are journalists to whom unethical behavior is OK and should be overlooked. Not by me, though. I prefer the ideals of non-involvement and objectivity.

As for book-writing, I have no problem with journalists writing books about their experiences. If the book is good enough, it will sell. If not, then the writer wasted his or her time and will hear about it from the appropriate editor or publisher.

Most books written by journalists expand upon what they have previously written and usually benefit society. If it doesn’t, then an editor or the marketplace will give them the bad news.

4. Reporters ask questions that don’t make much sense.

I believe I covered this in section No. 1.

One Twitter poster suggested that the public provide reporters with their questions. That’s not a half bad idea. And if that happened, I think the public would discover that reporters, who are generally members of the same community as their readers, already ask those questions.

So there you have it.

Hopefully, I have answered some media consumers’ questions so the next time they see a reporter at work, it will be a bit clearer what is going on.

Published by Mike Sturman

I am a retired journalist with nearly 30 years in the field, during which time I was a reporter and held numerous editor positions at local newspapers and a number of magazines. After I retired, I was a sub in my local school district, then did PR for that district. I hold a Bachelor's Degree in journalism, and as for my politics, that's simple: I'm a liberal Democrat. I'm married, and my wife recently retired after 25 years as a teacher. We have one daughter, who has earned her PhD and works at a UC. Through this blog, I hope to pass on some interesting thoughts and ideas, entertain with some lighthearted posts and generally quell my pandemic-induced boredom.

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