Are gnomes in your underwear drawer planning to murder you? (or why rhetorical questions undermine journalism)

When you write for the media, embrace simplicity. When I need to remind myself of this, I go back to a book by William Woo, the first person outside of the Pulitzer family to edit the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, called “Letters from the Editor.” Woo frequently mentions his first editor, a man named Ray Lyle who ran the city desk at the Kansas City Time and who fit the crusty, grumpy editor stereotype perfectly.

Lyle’s edict to his young reporters was simple: “Write what happened.”

I thought of this when I got an alert on my phone today about a special report from one of my favorite publications:

Are all-inclusive resorts in Mexico drugging tourists with tainted alcohol?

My first thought: Good God, I hope not.

My second thought: Don’t ask me. Tell me.

The use of rhetorical questions is a threadbare device that has become all too common in today’s writing. In a quick look through my Twitter feed, I found these from major media outlets:

WSJ

APQuestion

Of course my favorite question headline/promo is this one:

Shoes

The story about the all-inclusive resorts wasn’t done asking questions either. “Extortion?” “Was it robbery?” “Sexual assault?” And then this:

Could it be what the attorney for the Conner family alluded to in his report: All-inclusive resorts using cheap, bootleg booze to cut costs?

The story is an intensely reported piece from a journalist I have long admired. The depth of the digging demonstrates how hard it can be to get at the core issue of a complex international topic with limited access to almost non-existent official reports. However, each rhetorical question undermined what the reporter actually had: A number of people reporting similar incidents, having similar outcomes and finding little in the way of answers.

Journalism is about getting answers for readers and providing them in a simple and straightforward way. This is one of the reasons to avoid rhetorical questions in your writing.

Or to paraphrase Ray Lyle, just tell me what happened.

 

 

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