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 we cannot put words in a source’s mouth. The source has to say it. 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 they 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 the journalist understands the story or topic. 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.