Why journalists should ask dumb questions

Stephen Baker

Yes, in a post yesterday I complained that journalists often don't bother covering how things work. A couple of comments seconded the motion, accusing us of ignorance and worse. I see I left myself open.

In journalists' defense, one important point: We rarely know as much as the people we interview. Nor should we. Otherwise, why bother interviewing them? Journalism is a great profession in that it allows us to assume the natural human condition, which is a mixture of ignorance and curiosity. Then we're paid to go learn. Some proud journalists pretend they know more than they do. That's a ticket to nowhere. (This is especially true on TV, where journalists feel compelled to project "authority.")

Here are three reasons why it's good for journalists to act just a wee bit ignorant:

1) It's honest.

2) it puts sources at ease, often placing them in the role of teacher. At this point, their mission changes from defending themselves to helping the journalist understand. The information improves markedly.

3) It leads the interview through the basic assumptions, which are often taken for granted--and misunderstood. All too often journalists cover the latest chapters in a story, but without understanding the background or genesis of it. A basic plowing through this background can make the journalist look uninformed. But it often pays off.

I remember covering a briefing with the Mexican finance minister in the late '80s. One reporter for a leading business daily kept asking him the same question about debt-for-equity swaps. She just didn't get it. The rest of us were rolling our eyes as he patiently went through it again and again. It might have been embarrassing for her. But she did what she had to do to figure it out and get it right. She wasn't going to let pride get in the way. She wrote a smart story, and since then, I've noticed, her career has flourished.

Conclusion: Go ahead and criticize journalists for stupid stories, but not for stupid questions.

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