Asking Better Questions for Better Answers
How to Ask Questions to Get Better Answers
Jim Wolf, Visiting professor, School of Journalism & Communication,
Shanghai International Studies University
Reporting is not just about asking important questions. It's about listening closely to the answers -- and following up on them.
Here are 10 tried and true tips on how to ask better questions.
1. Keep asking. Make sure that you understand completely anything that you may end up writing about. It's much better to have too much information than not enough. If in doubt, leave it out of your report.
2. Key off of something the speaker already has said. For instance, read back a quote: "You just said that SISU’s School of Journalism & Communication has become China’s most innovative training ground for future newsroom professionals. How so? What makes it #1 – and how do you measure "most innovative training ground?"
3. If you're unsure of what the speaker said, say so. For instance, it's perfectly good to start by saying: "If I understood you correctly, you said SISU’s School of Journalism & Communication has become China's most innovative training ground for future newsroom professionals.” Then fire away with follow-up questions of the type above, drilling down for more information. Drilling down, digging deeper = good journalism.
4. Ask "why" questions that invite the speaker to open up and talk. If you stick to yes and no-type questions, you typically won't get enough information to inform your readers about the significance of a given event. One good trick: ask the speaker to describe how he or she came to a given decision about a given matter. You need to seek the “why” of an event to report it in context, a focus of journalism that is balanced and fair.
5. Reporters should always be thinking in terms of at least one important question sparked by what the speaker has been saying --- and one follow-up. The follow-up question may change, flowing as it should from what the speaker said in reply to the first question.
6. Try to make your questions short and sharp. That provides the basis for a follow-up question. Think about how you'll word the question. Don't "speechify" before asking and don't say "I have a question." Just ask.
6. Don't hesitate to seek reaction to the big news of the day -- whatever this might be. For instance, If the government were to announce that it would devalue the RMB against major currencies, this likely would overshadow other national news of the day. A reporter could usefully sound out a businessman, a garbage man or a woman in the street (also known to journalists as “vox pop,” or popular opinion).
7. Make sure that you have the answers to the most basic questions -- those that start with "who," "what," "when, "where" and "how," along with the most searching questions, “why?” or “why not?” or, another good one: “Why now?”
8. The sharper the question, the more professional. You may often unlock significant information simply by asking “If so, why? If not, why not?” This sets the stage for follow-ups that go deeper. Break up the questions into bite-size chunks. You may also usefully ask an initial question and quickly add: "I have a follow-up.” This boosts your chance of hanging on to the floor in a scrum.
9. It's also good to say, "Can you please clarify what you mean by ..." or "Would you please elaborate on ...." or just ask for examples. This gets the subject talking about a point in which you’re particularly interested and often adds details -- or at least more quotable information -- than the initial formulation.
10. Be specific in your question. In this way, you can always say, if necessary, that the speaker declined to comment, for instance, on a specific matter -- in itself a way of talking about the matter at hand. This is what happens when reporters are in proximity of newsmakers and simply shout questions.