As a way of encouraging thoughts about how to improve the questioning process that journalists use, the founders of the Right Question Project, a nonprofit organization based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, presented an approach that stimulated discussion and ideas. In their work at the Right Question Project, co-directors Luz Santana and Dan Rothstein usually assist low- and moderate-income families in framing questions for their encounters with officials at the public schools, welfare agencies, the health care system, and other agencies of government.
With journalists, Santana and Rothstein presented a similar question formulation technique, which Rothstein described as “a process to help people move as quickly as possible through a wide range of questions. You’re going to be brainstorming questions, prioritizing those brainstorm questions, then branching off from the priority questions. You’re going to be brainstorming again, and then prioritizing again. At the end of the process you’re going to see the range of questions you have and what you now want to focus on. So it’s designed to help jump-start a critical thinking process.”
What follows are observations reporters made after they experimented with this method and found out what questions rose to the surface.
David Cay Johnston:
One thing that does not come up in this process is it’s about asking questions. It’s not about gathering information, which in many cases is a way to answer questions, not talking about them. If you get the statistical abstract or the budget of the United States or some other document, then the answer is readily available. So there is no question that we have.
I have learned over the years the more precise the question, the more likely we will get a useful answer. Yet this exercise drove all of us to a broader question, because we wanted to be sure we were grabbing the meaning of the numbers we were given. To do that, you had to ask how this affects our place in the world. That’s actually a terrible question to ask, as a journalist, of a source, because that’s too open-ended. They will say “Well, it makes us strong. Our economy is strong. Go away.” So in a way our choice would be to draw more meaning and be sure we were forcing these numbers, because we have stories that our readers or our viewers wanted. But we were not using the questioning process to make our sources play our game. We were not leading an agenda.
I’d like to emphasize what David said. If we had had an opportunity to go to the statistical abstract or some other source, to educate ourselves before we ask questions, then we would have asked precise questions that would not be easily evaded, the kind of questions Ellen talked about.
The one thing I really like about having all these different kinds of questions is that we get a reflection of how arbitrary some of the questions are that we ask when we do our reporting. During the last few weeks, I have watched European papers as well as the Americans, and it was very interesting to see how that happens within the cultural concepts and how people keep asking the same questions within their context and how that differs from country to country. I think that was true with us, with the internationals asking slightly different questions.
A great deal depends on whether you’re trying to ask questions of someone who is anxious to produce information or to withhold information. And your whole approach has to shift according to the person involved and what position he’s in, but basically whether he is, in effect, cooperative or hostile. The main concern, of course, of many of us, especially in the watchdog process, is that so many sources are inherently hostile. If they are a government source, if it’s a crisis, their objective is to withhold information. You ask one of these general questions, and it’s very easy to get a generalized answer that will tell you nothing. So it would be interesting to try to concentrate on it from the other direction: How do you extract information from people whose main objective is to withhold information from you?
For me it just reinforced a process I go through in my work. Before you write anything, you sit down and say, “Why am I writing this? Why is this important, or interesting, or useful, or entertaining to my audience?” Then you decide what really is the message you’re conveying. What’s the issue you’re treating? What are the questions that your audience has? And you pinpoint those as much as you can before you do the research and writing. This is what we normally go through. It helps clarify that there are so many different angles, so many different directions you can go in, that it’s important, even more important therefore, before you start writing, to decide how can this piece of writing be most useful to the audience and, therefore, how you can play a role as a journalist best in society.
We need to recognize that there are other ways to look at the same information. That what I see when I look at a document and what Rami sees can be very different with the same information, and we can both be correct. And we need to pay attention when we work as reporters and editors to how other people have interpreted things, to learn about what we have missed and not paid attention to.
In a real situation, I think you’d start out by asking yourself two questions. One is, who are the people in a position to know something about this information? The second is, how should I tailor my questions for each of those sources? Because you won’t ask them the same thing, depending on the range of information they may possess, and the knowledge, and the expertise they have about this information. Once you decide who your prime sources are, then you have to frame a series of somewhat different questions to get at the heart of what it is you want to know.
I tried to imagine this process in a newsroom, and my fear about it was that the questions, the discussion would be very self-reinforcing. We had a group of very like-minded questioners, journalists, and we tended to reinforce each other’s answers. So that when we heard from some of the other groups, we found they had very different ideas about questions to ask. So I started thinking what newsrooms can do to somehow bring into their institutional behavior input about what questions to ask. Should other people be sitting at the table when journalists are brain-storming key questions?
I thought this actually has reinforced something that I find kind of goes counter to what Michel was just saying, which is I’m glad I work alone. When you have to come to consensus on what questions you’re going to ask, I think it takes the edge off the questions. When you’re going to write a story, you go in with your own perspective, regardless of what we say. And if you’re going in there trying to figure out what the group perspective is, you don’t really come up with much. So I think going in alone, coming up with questions on your own, we all had an idea of what we wanted the story to be like that was going to come out of this thing, and we’re all going after that. So the questions end up being a little less focused.
When we started talking about process, I had a moment of déjà vu back to my brief foray out of the world of print into the world of broadcast. In the early 1980’s I left print briefly to go to work at CBS News and was assigned at one point to work with a producer at “60 Minutes.” My assignment was to figure out what questions we should be preparing for the correspondent to be asking in this particular story, and I was given the basic information for it. This was really my first moment to shine, and I thought, “I’m ready for this. I know how to ask questions.” So I did this exercise and tried to prioritize what the questions should be. Well, the problem, it turns out, is that I was doing it from the perspective of someone seeking information. Because I was told that while my questions might work for print, when you were asking questions for broadcast the idea wasn’t to get information, it was to see the reaction of the person who you were asking the question of. My questions were totally unfocused to what the demands were of the broadcast media. So that’s something we haven’t even touched on here, the array of different circumstances and the array of different means of communication by which questions are asked to elicit something. And it’s not always the same thing that you want to elicit with questions.
The second thing is to think about the difference that we see as an audience between those presidential debates in which journalists are the questioners and the ones in which the public are the questioners; how different questions are, and how often, at least in my memory, the public’s reaction is that they have liked the ones in which the public asked the questions as opposed to the ones in which the journalists asked the questions. So it’s a different frame of reference for asking the question in terms of what you want from it.
The last four years I have been reporting from overseas, and I noticed that a lot of journalists tend to shop at their embassies first to do their backgrounders and do other things. The information kind of flows still from the government. You’re still getting a tunnel vision of what it is and that can happen in the states or anywhere. But it’s not until you go away from that tunnel vision and get intimate with those people that the story is most effective on a very personal level and things begin to widen out. You begin to see the gaps between what the government wants you to know or think or write and what really is. If you tracked a lot of American foreign policy in the last 30 years, you’d see that what was coming out of the embassy, whether maliciously or just by incompetence, was not what was happening at the ground level. Many times journalists have to seek it out away from the offices of power.
I’d like to talk about limits that as journalists we impose on ourselves. Public officials, elected officials were candidates before they became elected officials. The last presidential campaign was an absolutely stunning example of self-imposed limits, self-imposed by the political reporters and editors who covered it. What they said basically was that the issues are the issues the candidates say are the issues. If Al Gore and George Bush said, “I’m for capital punishment because it deters homicides,” no one asked, “Where is your evidence?” If Al Gore and George Bush said, “I’m for a drug benefit for the elderly,” although a different one, no one said, “What would you do about the 44 million Americans who have no health insurance? What would you do about the widening chasm between rich and poor in this country?” My point is that we were ill-served by the political press in making that glib assumption that the only issues were the issues the candidates said were the issues.
People who know me pretty well know that I am really enamored about high technology—the Internet, laptops, all of that sort of thing. And I think one of the things that we just saw here was a pretty stunning demonstration that the process that we engage in, asking questions, is such a supremely human endeavor that there will be no hardware, no software, that could ever replace the jobs that we do, at least not for many, many, many generations. When you think about all the different types of questions that came out, all of the permutations on those questions, that really was a statement of the human component in this process. At least our jobs as reporters are safe from technology. We’re not in the position of printers, which has been pretty much wiped out by pagination and all of this other technology. So it just reminded me and made me feel really good about this human endeavor that we’re so committed to.
- Jeffrey Fleishman, a 2002 Nieman Fellow, is a foreign correspondent for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
- Stefanie Friedhoff, a 2001 Nieman Fellow, is a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based science writer and correspondent for German newspapers and magazines.
- Bob Giles, a 1966 Nieman Fellow, is Curator of the Nieman Foundation. Ellen Hume is a media analyst and former executive director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University.
- David Cay Johnston is a reporter for The New York Times covering tax inequities, tax loopholes, and the IRS, for which he earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2001.
- Rami Khouri, a 2002 Nieman Fellow, is an Amman, Jordan-based syndicated columnist and freelance TV and radio host.
- Melissa Ludtke, a 1992 Nieman Fellow, is editor of Nieman Reports.
- Murrey Marder, benefactor of the Watchdog Project and 1950 Nieman Fellow, is the retired chief diplomatic correspondent of The Washington Post after 39 years at that paper.
- Michel Marriott, a 2002 Nieman Fellow, is a technology reporter for The New York Times.
- Morton Mintz, a 1964 Nieman Fellow, worked at The Washington Post for nearly 30 years, focusing particularly on corporate misconduct.
- Matthew Schofield, a 2002 Nieman Fellow, is the senior writer for The Kansas City Star specializing in narrative journalism.