The line I use when it comes to interviewing is, “Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer.” However, it dawned on me this week in reading through some students’ analyses of press conferences that some distinctions should exist regarding the specific level of “duh” related to questions journalists ask.
Dumb questions: Journalists fear looking like they don’t know what they’re talking about. I know that I sweated out more than a few interviews with the only thought running through my head being, “Please, don’t think I’m dumb.” Dumb questions, as outlined in Jason Feifer’s article here, aren’t questions that should embarrass you, provided you have prepared well for an interview.
In this sense of the word, these are basic questions that the source has easy answers for on topics that are common in his or her field. In some cases, people avoid asking a source to clarify what an abbreviation means or how a process works for fear of looking dumb (and thus avoiding asking a “dumb question.”).
Feifer is right that you should feel free to ask for clarification and to ask the person to explain things like he or she would to a 5-year-old. I always try to research a topic before I go there, but there are things that will come up that I don’t understand. If the source balks at explaining this or tries to treat you like a dummy, simply explain, “You are the expert at this. This is why I’m asking you these questions. I don’t know this stuff as well as you do and I want to make sure I get it right so we both don’t look dumb.”
Stupid questions: These are the questions that you want to avoid because they are flat-out goofy, incorrectly phrased, rely on misinformation or otherwise make the sources question the size of your brain pan. Here’s a list of the stupidest questions asked in court and it covers a lot of those areas of concern. Perhaps the best one is this:
Q: What happened then?
A: He told me, he says, ‘I have to kill you because you can identify me.’
Q: Did he kill you?
The legendary question of this variety is the one that so many people swear didn’t happen, even as others swear it did. In the lead up to Super Bowl XXII, the press focused on Washington’s Doug Williams, who was poised to be the first African American to start at quarterback in the NFL title game. At one point a reporter was said to have asked Williams, “So, how long have you been a black quarterback?” Despite frequent attempts to debunk this myth, the story lives on as an example of a question that was really, really stupid.
In most cases, you can avoid stupid questions by doing a few things:
- Research your topic well. The more you know about something, the less likely you will be to ask something that sounds really stupid.
- Read your questions aloud to someone else before you ask them of your source. A lot of times, questions sound good in your head but somewhere between your brain and your mouth, a translation issue occurs. This is why it’s always a good idea to ask them aloud. It also doesn’t hurt to have a second person go over them with you to make sure you’re asking what you think you’re asking.
- If you’re not sure how something will sound, try to come up with a better way to ask it. If you can’t get at it that way, at least explain in advance to the source that you’re struggling to come up with a way to ask for some specific information. At least that way it won’t come out of left field.
Idiotic questions: These are the ones you should never ask at any point for any reason. They lack any semblance of decency and they often come across as really asinine. The question that got me rolling on this post was one a sports journalism student brought up that I had missed. A reporter asked Russell Westbrook if fellow basketball player James Harden was worth a “max contract.” In NBA speak, that means “Is he worthy of being one of the highest-paid players in the game?”
It isn’t easy talking about how much money you make, let alone commenting on what you think someone else should make. It’s an idiotic question and Westbrook dealt with it as such.
In other cases, it’s simply a rude question that no one should be expected to answer. Consider this one asked of actress Scarlet Johansson in an interview about her role in “The Avengers” films:
Because nothing says, “serious journalist” like asking an actress if she was “going commando.”
A similarly idiotic question came out when another male journalist decided to ask Anne Hathaway about her body:
(This blog could fill up the entire internet with nothing but idiotic questions male journalists asked of female athletes, actors and celebrities, so we will move on.)
It’s not always just what the question is but how it’s asked that can make it idiotic. Prior to the 1981 Super Bowl, a reporter was asking quarterback Jim Plunkett about his family’s unfortunate health history, including his father’s progressive loss of vision. However, he asked it this way: “Lemme get this straight, Jim. Is it blind mother, deaf father or the other way around?” Think about how you would react if that question were asked of you in that fashion.
When it comes to asking questions, you always want to put your best foot forward. At the very least, you don’t want to step barefoot into a steaming pile of cow dung. Do your research, look at your material, review your questions and ask them out loud before you get to your source. Then, you’ll likely be in better shape to conduct an interview that doesn’t embarrass you or your source or both.