Hard Questions Are Not Gotcha Questions

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin told Townhall blogger Hugh Hewitt that she's "surprised that so much has changed since I received my education in journalistic ethics."

She was responding to a prompt by Hewitt that suggested that Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric had both been unfair in their interviews with the Republican nominee for vice president.

Here's the full exchange:

HH: Now Governor, the Gibson and the Couric interview struck many as sort of pop quizzes designed to embarrass you as opposed to interviews. Do you share that opinion? 

Spacer Spacer

SP: Well, I have a degree in journalism also, so it surprises me that so much has changed since I received my education in journalistic ethics all those years ago. But I’m not going to pick a fight with those who buy ink by the barrelful. I’m going to take those shots and those pop quizzes and just say that’s okay, those are good testing grounds. And they can continue on in that mode. That’s good. That makes somebody work even harder. It makes somebody be even clearer and more articulate in their positions. So really I don’t fight it. I invite it.

But it didn't stop there. Couric interviewed Palin and McCain together and noted that Palin endorsed the notion of a cross-border military strike by the U.S. from Afghanistan into Pakistan. Couric pointed out that McCain had criticized Democratic nominee Barack Obama for a similar public signaling that he'd support such an attack.  

How did McCain explain this discrepancy? Here's the exchange:

Couric: Is that something you shouldn't say out loud, Sen. McCain?

John McCain: Of course not. But, look, I understand this day and age of "gotcha" journalism. Is that a pizza place? In a conversation with someone who you didn't hear … the question very well, you don't know the context of the conversation, grab a phrase. Gov. Palin and I agree that you don't announce that you're going to attack another country …

Couric: Are you sorry you said it?

McCain: … and the fact …

Couric: Governor?

McCain: Wait a minute. Before you say, "is she sorry she said it," this was a "gotcha" sound bite that, look …

Really? Really?

What was it about any of those interviews that seemed unfair?

Was it that Couric was pointing out apparent inconsistencies and asking for an explanation? Was it that Couric challenged Palin's assessment of what Americans want in terms of economic policy? Was it that she asked Palin for evidence of McCain's newfound commitment to greater regulation of the financial industry? Was it that both Gibson and Couric pressed Palin to explain her unwavering and enthusiastic support of future Israeli military action? Was it that Gibson asked her about the Bush Doctrine?

I want to say something that might seem obvious, but I have to say it, out loud. Hard questions are not gotcha journalism. Pressing the potential vice president for details that might reveal the depth of her knowledge on the economy or foreign policy is not unethical. If anything, it is the exact opposite of unethical.

This is a job interview. And since most voters don't get the chance to talk to the people running for the highest offices of this country, journalists step in and do that job. If I'm interviewing you to build an addition on my house, I'm going to ask you some detailed questions, such as how you'd handle the electrical wiring or comply with the neighborhood zoning code. I'm going to want to detailed answers, not vague reassurances. Asking the candidate who is applying for the job of vice president of this country how she might respond to an Israeli military strike on an Arab country or what the federal government should do to shore up the economy is completely relevant.

Those are not gotcha questions. That is not a pop quiz. I get interviewed by reporters all the time and I can spot an unfair question. It usually starts with an unreasonable assumption, something that is not based on fact. (Recent example: "Given the fact that most newspapers in this country have endorsed Obama, how can they promise objective coverage? My answer: Most newsrooms have not yet endorsed a candidate in the general election.)

But a question based on misleading information could be the result of simple ignorance. A gotcha question usually takes it a step further and reduces the answer path to two narrow choices. (Example: So basically journalists these days have to sell their souls or lose their jobs?)

And finally, when asking a gotcha question, the interviewer will withhold information from the subject that would be impossible to know and is deliberately designed to trip up the subject. This is not what Gibson was doing when he asked Palin about the Bush Doctrine. She should have known what that was. She's running for vice president.

It's easy to beat up on the media. Political candidates do it all the time. But it's inaccurate for Palin to suggest that "all those years ago" at the University of Idaho her professors trained her differently. Palin graduated in 1987, a year before I graduated from the University of Missouri. I got my first job in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, where I worked alongside many UI grads. They had the same training I had.

We didn't consider it unethical to ask hard questions. We called that doing our job.

  • Profile picture for user kellymcbride

    Kelly McBride

    Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute since 2002 and is now its vice president.


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