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Why journalists should ask dumb questions

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May 05, 2006

Why journalists should ask dumb questions

Stephen Baker

Yes, in a post yesterday I complained that journalists often don't bother covering how things work. A couple of comments seconded the motion, accusing us of ignorance and worse. I see I left myself open.

In journalists' defense, one important point: We rarely know as much as the people we interview. Nor should we. Otherwise, why bother interviewing them? Journalism is a great profession in that it allows us to assume the natural human condition, which is a mixture of ignorance and curiosity. Then we're paid to go learn. Some proud journalists pretend they know more than they do. That's a ticket to nowhere. (This is especially true on TV, where journalists feel compelled to project "authority.")

Here are three reasons why it's good for journalists to act just a wee bit ignorant:

1) It's honest.

2) it puts sources at ease, often placing them in the role of teacher. At this point, their mission changes from defending themselves to helping the journalist understand. The information improves markedly.

3) It leads the interview through the basic assumptions, which are often taken for granted--and misunderstood. All too often journalists cover the latest chapters in a story, but without understanding the background or genesis of it. A basic plowing through this background can make the journalist look uninformed. But it often pays off.

I remember covering a briefing with the Mexican finance minister in the late '80s. One reporter for a leading business daily kept asking him the same question about debt-for-equity swaps. She just didn't get it. The rest of us were rolling our eyes as he patiently went through it again and again. It might have been embarrassing for her. But she did what she had to do to figure it out and get it right. She wasn't going to let pride get in the way. She wrote a smart story, and since then, I've noticed, her career has flourished.

Conclusion: Go ahead and criticize journalists for stupid stories, but not for stupid questions.

10:55 AM

mainstream media

Great post, Stephen. Journalists (and, dare I say, those who work in media and public relations) get paid to be nosey. How cool is that?!

As a former newspaper journalist and now in PR, I can't think of too many better careers. Journalists are experts in very few area (outside of writing and the journalism field), but they are knowledable about a whole lot of things.

So, as you implied, humility and the dogged pursuit of the truth -- even by asking "stupid" questions over and over -- are traits every journalist (and PR pro) should possess.


Posted by: Mike Driehorst at May 5, 2006 03:03 PM

Four students skip class and then lie to the teacher. They say they got a flat tire and were stuck changing it. The teacher says, fine take your seats. Today we have a test. The first question is what tire was flat, write down your answer.

Posted by: Jim Dermitt at May 5, 2006 09:17 PM

A "technical" journalist for more than 30 years, I always say that I am paid to ask stupid questions.

Beware hacks who ask questions designed to prove how smart they are.

Our job is to ask the questions that will occur to our audience as they read what we write.

"What is this atom thingy?" will get a better answer than going on about equations.

Posted by: Michael Kenward at May 6, 2006 11:09 AM

Stephen & Mike, I agree.

I worked as a financial journalist for a national daily for about 7 years and I always used the Columbo routine of asking simple, dumb questions. (I am engineer by training and that taught me that you cant be expected to know much except for a very narrow speciality in a chosen field.)

I went on to get my CFA and to work as an investment analyst covering technology & telecom for 10 years and I used the same technique. Too many Wall Streeters from my experience assume that they need to be the experts, so they dont ask the dumb questions. (Who would want to pay $7/min for a satellite phone service from Iridium? was a good question nobody asked MOT in 1998.) This pride, as you put it, imposes a real limitation on investment research, in my opinion.

As a management consultant now, guess what? Columbo-style questions are still my calling card.

Same thing Drucker did: ask the simple questions because mose people don't.


Posted by: Michael Urlocker at May 6, 2006 09:09 PM

As a product strategy consultant, interviewing is a key tool for me in spending time with my clients' customers - I am always teaching them to ask the naive-perspective questions, even if you think you know the answer, you may not know the answer from the perspective of the person you are talking to - and that other pespective is often crucial to gaining new insight.

Thanks for the smart and humble article!

Posted by: Steve Portigal at May 8, 2006 12:36 PM

This makes sense, up to a point. It's nice to be able to introduce readers to the concepts, but shouldn't we exect our journalists to do a bit of research before they sit down with interview subjects, who are giving up valuable time to be interviewed? If you take this argument to its extreme, you'd turn every journalist into a Larry King.

Posted by: josh at May 8, 2006 07:29 PM

But surely there's a point where the question becomes inane.

In a story on the two miners who were just rescued after being trapped in a cage for 2 weeks in Tasmania, Australia, a Network 10 reporter asked the miners this beauty:

"Does it feel good to be out of the mine?"


Posted by: Jordan Brock at May 8, 2006 08:54 PM

A great point of view over this - each day more exigent - task of "being" a journalist. Thank you.

Posted by: Paulo Gomes at May 9, 2006 04:42 PM

First thing I do when interviewing an astronomer, a physicist, a biologist, a nuclear expert, a doctor, or any of a number of other experts in hundreds of disciplines is to tell them I'm a lowly chemist...

...they usually explain things far more simply than they otherwise would and without most of the jargon.

Not sure why that is, maybe they assume that someone with a chemical education is going to know far less about any other science...whatever the reason. It usually works well.

David Bradley Science Writer BSc CChem MRSC

Posted by: David Bradley Science Writer at May 10, 2006 06:56 AM

How do i mesure my off set

I have a bent 944 turbo twist?

255 tire

I am clueless on what i need?

Posted by: eric at September 24, 2006 03:04 AM

Too many services in internet called Ask a Doctor simply have no license for the activity who it supervises and how with these to struggle? WBR LeoP

Posted by: Pharma David at January 25, 2007 04:29 PM

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