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Homepage / Journalism / Why do reporters ask such obvious questions?

Journalism

Why do reporters ask such obvious questions?

Journalists are frequently accused of asking obvious questions of their sources. While it isn’t possible to speak for or defend some legitimately questionable questions, there are several reasons a journalist may intentionally ask what appears at first glance to be a “stupid” question.

JOURNALISTS CAN’T MAKE ASSUMPTIONS: Journalists try not to make assumptions. The wrong assumption can harm the journalist or news organization’s integrity and can lead to accusations of libel. Yes, journalists are capable of connecting the dots, but it is better for sources to make those connections. Sometimes, a journalist may ask what seems like a basic question to confirm what he or she has already pieced together.

ACCURACY IS EVERYTHING: Journalists strive to report the facts accurately. The reporter may have asked a question that the source just answered, but he may be trying to get clarification on a certain detail. Sometimes re-phrasing the question leads to an answer that fills in the gaps in the background information. Sometimes, the answer to a reporter’s question may seem obvious, but attention to fine details is the basis of an accurate news report.

UNDERSTANDING IS KEY: A journalist can’t report news in a way readers or viewers will understand unless he understands the story or topic himself. Sometimes these “dumb” questions help a reporter gain the understanding necessary to inform readers.

THE AUDIENCE REQUIRES IT: Last but not least, journalists strive to inform the uninformed. To more informed news consumers the questions reporters ask may seem stupid, however, not everyone in the audience is as informed. The sad truth is, sometimes the questions have to be watered down because the average American isn’t informed.

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interview” by woodleywonderworks is licensed under CC BY

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  • Matthias Olander

    Oh really, a journalist can’t make assumptions? So THAT’S why they ask an athlete that won or lost how they feel?

    • Franklin Clemens

      Technically, we can only report on how someone says they feel because unless we can crawl inside their heads, we don’t know how they actually feel.

    • JournoBlogger

      Some journalists would actually go a step further on that. Since we have no way of getting inside someone’s head, we have no way of knowing how that person actually feels about something, so we can only report how they said they feel about winning or losing.

  • MoodyAve

    Re: ‘A journalist can’t report news in a way readers or viewers will understand unless he understands the story or topic himself . . . ‘ — First, lose the ‘he’/’him’ language. Second, there is NO excuse to not brief oneself on the main points of any topic these days. Authoritative on-line sources abound. The issue is inadequate preparation and more fundamentally: shallow general knowledge and a preoccupation with popular culture and skating through college and early adulthood. I can make allowances for callow youth; I cannot excuse this behavior in 40-plus ‘media personalities.’

    • JournoBlogger

      Not all journalism involves information that can be found from an authoritative online source. More often than not, your best sources of information are going to be the people you have access to. They may be experts in their fields, government officials, or other types of authoritative sources. It’s OK to ask questions, even if they come across as dumb, so that you can make sure you have a good grasp on the topic. Also, it helps verify information you may already know. It is possible to do the right amount of background prep and research and then find out when you talk to a source that your own research didn’t give you an adequate understanding.

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