Friday, January 30, 2015

Question time

An article on recently got me to thinking ... and it may have the effect of making me a slightly better reporter.

The article was called "The Worst Question in Sports." For those who don't want to go through it all, the worst question is not a question. It's the reporter saying "Talk about ..."

The next time you listen to an extended news conference, see if you'll hear something along those lines. The odds are pretty good that you will.In fact, the odds are almost as good that you can listen to long periods of those news conferences waiting for a question to be asked ... and one doesn't come along.

What's going on here? A number of things.

Sometimes it's just a matter of wording. "Talk about your goal" can be instantly transformed to "What happened on your goal?" It's a pretty simple fix. Bad questions like "How frustrating was it to lose to the Fighting Spiders again? (the answer is always "very") can be changed easily to a slightly good-natured "Are you sick of losing to these guys again?"

It can be a case of different media outlets requiring different answers. When I was in radio, I didn't often care what people said into the microphone ... as long as they took at least 10 seconds to say it. That meant I had to ask about more general material, which could be worked into a story later, or I didn't even bother asking anything - allowing others to do so. When I moved over to newspapers, I had much more specific needs in mind when I was preparing to write a story. 

Often it's simply habit. Conversations with friends, etc. aren't filled with questions; they often are an exchange of informational statements - one after another. Many athletes, especially the pros, know what is expected of them in interviews, and have an answer of some length ready. An interview is a more formal situation, but it's not necessarily adversarial. Exchanging statements can seem to make it a little more friendly.

Finally, and least common, is the story where the reporter is busy trying to impress the interview subject with his knowledge. "You did a nice job of penetrating their defense with quick breakouts from your own zone that didn't allow them to get their best players on the floor." Pause. There's not much room for the subject to go somewhere with an answer. It would be nice to hear the response of "You're right" or "Thank you." But usually the answer is more generic and polite than that. Apparently, some people forget that the smartest guy in the room about a particular subject is the one answering the questions.

I'm willing to admit that in some cases, nerves play a role in all this. Most reporters don't want to ask a really stupid question and embarrass themselves in front of the people they cover and their peers. My tendency is to sometimes ask a question, and then clarify it with background information due to a mild case of nerves over not being clear. ("Can you catch these guys? You're not mathematically out of it but the numbers are daunting now.") Better to turn that around and ask the question last.

After reading the Grantland article and listening to tapes of news conferences lately, I plan to try to do better. Maybe I'll get better answers that way. Hope so.

Later on, someone can say to me, "Talk about your attempt to be more direct in your questioning..."

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