Reporters and good questions

Reporters are supposed to hunt for facts, to search for the truth, and their best tool is a good question.

Knowing a good question and knowing how and when to ask it are skills prized by the wisest members of society from Talmudic times in Judea to the philosophers of ancient Greece and China.

As Hillel the Elder, the philosopher Socrates, and many other wise thinkers knew, great truths reveal themselves to those who ask good questions.

Making a bold statement or throwing an insult or a challenge will get you an opportunity for a photo -- a “photo-op,” but asking a good question gives you the chance for something deeper and longer-lasting. 

As the great New Yorker cartoonist and humorist James Thurber once wrote: “It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.”

At White House press briefings, you often hear questions from those who think they already know all the answers. Not surprisingly, those who already “know the answers” do not know how to frame good questions.

Some of those who call themselves journalists often do not know what to ask or how to ask. Their questions never seem to get to the point, let alone to the question mark. They sound like unending United Nations resolutions, debating motions, legal indictments, or theatrical soliloquies: -- “whereas,”  “insofar,” “some people  say you are evil…” etc.

When you hear a question with a preamble longer than the Constitution, you know you are not listening to a real reporter but rather to a blowhard auditioning for a career in acting or politics.

Yes, a good question should challenge the person being asked, but it also should be a good-faith effort to get at the truth, to elicit a response. When a question lasts for three or four paragraphs, that is a good clue that it belongs on a debate stage as a rhetorical question or in court as a prosecutorial summation.

A good query should be much shorter than the response.  A good question sticks in your head. When someone tries to avoid answering a tough but fair question, it is clear that evasion is being attempted. However, when a question is merely an excuse for the questioner to appear on camera or to insult the person being questioned, then it is easy to wave off the question as “fake news.”

A democratic society needs answers to real questions in order to make informed decisions. We always need better politicians, but never have we had a greater, more desperate, need for real reporters, for honest journalists who seek the truth, not just a photo-op or an evening headline.

Dr. Michael Widlanski taught political communication for two decades at The Hebrew University, Bar Ilan University and as a visiting professor at Washington University in St. Louis in 2007-8 and at the University of California, Irvine in 2014. Earlier he was a reporter at The New York Times, Cox Newspapers, Israeli Army Radio and Israel Television.

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