Media training: yes of course I know the answer to the question, but…

I’m interviewing you, I ask you a question. You think: surely he knows the answer to that? And yes I might. So why am I asking?

There are actually a number of reasons a journalist might ask you a question to which we already know the answer. Here are two scenarios.

First we go back a few years, but the principle is up to date. I was working at a trade newspaper for computer dealers, called MicroScope, in the early nineties. At that point personal computing was just kicking off; the Internet wasn’t widespread but it existed and there were very few retailers selling IT.

Oh, and everybody with a ‘build your own computer’ book was going to topple IBM as the market leader. It was no use arguing, they just were. So we’d get calls into the office, very frequently, from someone saying they were starting up a manufacturer and would be charging less, people were stupid for paying over the odds for a name.

We would start with the stupid questions. Were they going to use an operating system, we asked. Would they be including a motherboard (at the time this was the bit into which you inserted the processor, memory and all sorts of other bits).

If the caller sounded unsure, we knew we were talking to a time waster. (The caveat here is that even if they knew a bit more, they might still be a time waster but it was a useful enough initial screening).

A question for an established player

You can see that sanity checking is a reasonable use of the apparently stupid question. It works particularly well for the new company and to assess how realistic or knowledgeable they are even once they’ve mastered the basics of their product. I once media trained someone who believed their service could target “everybody”. But who are you aiming it at, I asked. “Everybody!” they replied, not suspecting that if a company the size of Tesco didn’t market to everybody, five of them were never going to do it.

Another use applies to the more established player. To use an example from the previous paragraph, I’d never seriously expect a director at Tesco not to understand the retail market. I might, though, ask her whether the company proposes to continue operating from retail premises rather than going online. I know perfectly well it’s not going to shut all its stores overnight, so why am I asking the question?

The answer is in the implied rules of journalism. Yes, I know the answer, but I need it in your words. The rules – of news reporting and feature writing at least, opinion columns are another thing – state that my interviewee’s words are worth a lot more than mine. The reader, listener or viewer wants me to explain or summarise but I am not the story. The interviewee is the expert and I am not. So yes, I will ask you a question to which I know the answer. It doesn’t mean I’m stupid, and the occasional incredulous response “Surely you know that?” tells me more about your briefing or your understanding of the interview process than anything else.

Do you need help understanding how journalists work? I can help – call me on 07973 278780.

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