journalism training

In life as in journalism - open-ended questions yield the most interesting answers

Curiosity is an essential and endearing asset, and the number of questions and the type of questions you ask of others can define who you are.

People are flattered by questions. When I embarked on my first - and hugely unsuccessful - round of dating as a teenager, a wise male friend advised me to stop trying to impress by endlessly talking about myself. "Ask them questions" he said. "Then ask a a follow-up, then another." 

But what type of questions to ask?

TYPES OF QUESTIONS JOURNALISTS SHOULD AVOID:-

On the way home from school recently, I asked my son "How was your day?". The answer was perfunctory and predictable: "Good" - which hardly makes a great quote or headline. So I had to think harder.  My next was an improvement: "what was the best thing that happened today?" That solicited a long response about the soccer match at recess, which enabled me to ask follow-ups.

Questions which invite a short response, usually informational questions, are mostly easy to answer, but the answer is limited and doesn't encourage conversation. These are known as "closed questions".

"Leading questions" can be used to solicit a particular response, often the one the inquisitor desires. "Rhetorical questions" urge the interviewee to agree with the point the questioner is making (usually in speech-writing or in advocacy). The website skillsyouneed.com explains these definitions in more detail.

USE OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS

Open-ended questions are almost always the best strategy for journalists. They are more likely to yield a longer and more personal answer, providing you a with a human perspective for your story.

"How?" or "What happened?""how did you do that....?"

or "what did you think of....?" or simply

"what happened when you.......?

Even in an adversarial interview (for instance, with a politician or a business leader trying to avoid bad publicity) open-ended questions are better.

Don't ask: "Are you going to resign?"

Do ask:- "Many people have called for your resignation. What's your reaction?"

You are inviting an answer which tells a story, which makes for a better headline, quote, sound-bite, or narrative for your feature. There is more chance this type of question will solicit honesty, or intent, background anecdotes, interesting new angles, and emotion from the interviewee.  Try it for your next reporting assignment. Then try it socially with your friends - it works there too. The goal is to get people talking, and to open up to you.

The Irish author James Stephens wrote: "We get wise asking questions, and even if these questions are not answered, we get wise, for a well-;packed question carries its answer on its back as a snail carries its shell."

 

What social media and witchcraft might have in common

Trawling aimlessly through my Twitter feed it dawned on me that it sometimes has a lot in common with the Lancashire Witches – a group of hapless, poverty-stricken women who were hanged in 17th century northern England on the misogynistic basis of repeated gossip, allegations, rumors, a vengeful judge and the demands of the baying mob.

The Saxon town of Clitheroe, and the foreboding and mysterious Pendle Hill behind - the scene of some of the 17th century murders

The Saxon town of Clitheroe, and the foreboding and mysterious Pendle Hill behind - the scene of some of the 17th century murders

The more they protested their innocence, the more widespread became the myths and the gossip, and the more fact became confused and merged with the saucier fiction.

We could give it a contemporary buzz-phrase such as “malicious crowd-sourcing” or “judicial trolling” but the message is the same – truth can be as elusive a commodity today as it was then.

My journalism students often wonder what a journalism degree is worth these days, when anyone with an Amazon discount code can buy a digital camera and drive to a riot zone to make a dangerous name for themselves on CNN.

So we came up with a list of attributes which might separate “real” journalists from the mob. I’m sure readers can add to the list.

Real journalists can distinguish their work and bring success to their organizations:-

  • By acquiring ALL the skills necessary to create and contribute to all types of platforms
  • By taking careful notes and recordings and keeping them
  • By being first hand witnesses to events, vigorously questioning any derivative versions
  • By standing for truth, accuracy and diversity before speed
  • By building credibility as tellers of significant stories
  • By having trusted, first-hand sources and extensive contacts
  • By building expertise, knowledge and experience in chosen beats
  • By rising above the “noise” to report fact, not rumor or hearsay
  • By remaining neutral and emotionally detached from their subject

It may seem a quaint notion, but is it time to restore credibility to the profession by having a nationally (or internationally) recognized qualification as a journalist?

A central body could administer the standards for J-Schools and training colleges to meet. Qualifiers would carry a professional card or license to show to law-enforcement officers, at news conferences, and other public events. Card-holders could assert their credentials online, or in print, to emphasize their trustworthiness to users and readers. Cards could be withdrawn for inaccurate or irresponsible reporting, plagiarism, and ethical breaches.

News organizations who only employed card-holders, and genuine freelancers, could increase their credibility and enhance their reputation as trust-worthy custodians of truth and reliability.

Call me old-fashioned? The Lancashire Witches could have done with some independent observers who sought the truth. The first draft of history prevailed then, as it does today. But with all the tools of discovery and dissemination of news now at our disposal, shouldn’t we be doing more to get it right?

Mark McDonald

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