Why you shouldn't ask questions like a White House reporter
Long questions seldom produce great answers. And during President Obama's joint press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Thursday, journalists asked some crazy-long questions.
Julie Davis, a White House correspondent for The New York Times, opened the question-and-answer session with a 224-word inquiry that I dissect below. But she says there's logic behind her questions — even if they aren't the kind most journalists should use in their daily reporting.
"When a foreign leader comes to the White House, they use a two-and-two format for questions," Davis told me. "You get two questions from American journalists and two from foreign journalists, and you can ask a question of each leader."
The reporters who get to ask a question feel some pressure to pry as much out of each leader as they can on a wide variety of topics, Davis said.
"Everybody is depending on you," she said. "I knew for my own purposes that the Supreme Court nomination was a big thing that we all wanted to know about, we just had a big upset on primary election night and another debate and primary election day was coming, plus you have other sorts of world events going on."
And, Davis explained, White House journalists have restricted access to the president. So when they do have an opportunity to ask a question, they cast a wider net than they would if it they were granted a sit-down interview or routine access that allows reporters to drill down on issues.
This wide-ranging strategy was also display in November, when Los Angeles Times reporter Michael Memoli asked Obama and Trudeau a 283-word question when they last appeared before reporters.
In an email to Poynter, Memoli also attributed his lengthy question to Obama's limited availability.
"Because the president has not done more regular full-blown news conferences, reporters enter these limited one-and-one or two-and-two format press availabilities with foreign leaders feeling the need to ask more elaborate, multi-part questions to cover various news developments that he has not commented publicly on," Memoli said. "In my case last November we knew there would be only one chance to ask him a question that day and a few developments overnight that we wanted to hear from him on."
Davis said reporters who cover Obama have learned that if they ask foreign leaders a question that is particularly interesting, Obama will often jump in and respond to that question even after he's already given an answer.
Despite these considerations, I think Davis' question at Thursday's press conference contains several examples of practices journalists should generally avoid. It includes four queries for Obama, two for Trudeau, three observations and one example of editorializing. I've annotated each instance.
Thank you, Mr. President. I want to ask you about the Supreme Court. (1) You’ve already said you’re looking for a highly qualified nominee with impeccable credentials. (2) Can you give us a sense of what other factors you’re considering in making your final choice? (3) How much of this comes down to a gut feeling for you? (4) And does it affect your decision to know that your nominee is very likely to hang out in the public eye without hearings or a vote for a long time, or maybe ever? (5) And, frankly, shouldn’t that be driving your decision if you’re asking someone to put themselves forward for this position as this point?
For Prime Minister Trudeau, I wanted to ask you — (6) we know you’ve been following our presidential campaign here in the U.S. (7) As the president alluded to, you’ve even made a joke about welcoming Americans who might be frightened of a Donald Trump presidency to your country. (8) What do you think the stakes are for you and for the relationship between Canada and the United States if Donald Trump or Ted Cruz were to win the presidency and to succeed President Obama? (9) You obviously see eye-to-eye with him on a lot of issues. (10) What do you think — (11) how would it affect the relationship if one of them were to succeed President Obama?
- A bit of obvious background here that nobody really needs.
- "Can you give us a sense..." is a closed-ended question. Closed-ended questions give the subject a choice to answer yes or no without supplying the information you really want. An open-ended way of asking the question might be "What factors do you consider when choosing a Supreme Court nominee?" As my colleague Chip Scanlan wrote for Poynter, "The best questions are open-ended. They begin with 'How?' 'What?' 'Where?' 'When?' 'Why?' They’re conversations starters and encourage expansive answers that produce an abundance of information needed to produce a complete and accurate story."
- This is really a follow-up question and it is not likely to produce an answer anyway. No Presidential decision with the gravity of a Supreme Court nomination is a gut-feeling. It is a calculation.
- Another closed-ended question. I really like where the question is going if we just sharpen it. "How does the GOP's plan to stall a vote on a nominee affect who you choose?"
- We are wandering into an opinion on this question. The journalist seems to be saying that is the way the President should see things.
- Ok, just ask.
- That's obvious.
- Let's get on with the question.
- The best question she asked. She asks an open-ended question — "what do you think the stakes are?" It would have been even sharper if she had stuck to the Trump question, however. She sets up the scenario with the premise that some people threaten to leave the U.S. if Trump is elected then lumps Cruz in her real question. Some who see a conspiracy behind every question may ask why the journalist asks about Cruz and Trump but not the rest of the pack.
- This is an observation not a question and if it is so obvious why ask it?
- It's a repeat of point nine.
There was so much to choose from in these questions, Obama said nothing new, and Trudeau didn't even address the question about Trump and Cruz except to say, "I have tremendous confidence in the American people, and look forward to working with whomever they choose to send to this White House later this year."
At the same conference, the president noted the length of another question from respected journalist Margaret Brennan of CBS News when she asked three queries at once:
Thank you, Mr. President. (1) Some of your critics have pointed to the incredibly polarized political climate under your administration as contributing to the rise of someone as provocative as Donald Trump. (2) Do you feel responsibility for that, or even some of the protectionist rhetoric from some Democratic candidates? (3) Do you have a timeline for when you might make a presidential endorsement? (4) And to follow on my colleague’s question here, do you feel political heat is constraining your pool of viable Supreme Court nominees? Thank you.
Obama: That's a three-fer.
- This is background that is widely known. Why include it?
- This is a closed-ended question. An open-ended version would be, "How much responsibility do you take for the polarized climate of this election season?"
- Another closed question. An open-ended way to ask the question might be, "How will you decide when or whether to endorse a candidate?"
- "Do you feel political heat," is a closed-ended question. "How much heat are you taking," is another way to ask the question. But the more important question might be to what extent he is "constraining" his nomination.
When to use a closed-ended question
But closed-ended questions do have a purpose. Davis showed us how a good reporter sometimes uses closed-ended questions in October when Vice President Joe Biden was toying with a White House run, peppering him with questions aimed at eliciting a "yes" or "no" answer.
"Mr. Vice President, are you running for president?"
"Have you made your decision yet?"
"Is there still [an] opening in the race for you, sir?"
Ready for my close-up
Televised news conferences present an opportunity for network correspondents to appear smart, connected and confrontational. If their questions are short, punchy and pointed enough, networks may even include them in newscasts to show their journalists are getting answers for viewers.
One recent example of this tactic is from CNN's Jim Acosta, who asked President Obama, “Why can’t we take out these bastards?” in reference to ISIS in November after the Paris terrorist attacks. But he got no useful response from that question because it was preceded by such a long run-up:
This is an organization that you once described as a JV team that evolved into a now occupied territory in Iraq and Syria and is now able to use that safe haven to launch attacks in other parts of the world. How is that not underestimating their capabilities? And how is that contained, quite frankly? And I think a lot of Americans have this frustration that they see that the United States has the greatest military in the world, it has the backing of nearly every other country in the world when it comes to taking on ISIS. I guess the question is, and if you'll forgive the language, is why can't we take out these bastards?"
Imagine if he had just asked, "Mr. President, why can't we take out these bastards?" I am not sure I would use that language in a presidential news conference, but it would have been a difficult question to ignore.
In that same news conference, NBC's Ron Allen asked a series of short but closed-ended questions:
Were you aware that they had the capability of pulling off the kind of attack that they did in Paris? Are you concerned? And do you think they have that same capability to strike in the United States?
And do you think that given all you’ve learned about ISIS over the past year or so, and given all the criticism about your underestimating them, do you think you really understand this enemy well enough to defeat them and to protect the homeland?
The closed-ended nature of the questions prevented Obama from offering much insight. His answers were, essentially, "sure, yes, they might, we're trying."
In an October news conference, Reuters' Julia Edwards asked four questions rolled into one.
Thank you, Mr. President. You just said that you reject President Putin’s approach to Syria and his attacks on moderate opposition forces. You said it was a recipe for disaster. (1) But what are you willing to do to stop President Putin and protect moderate opposition fighters? (2) Would you consider imposing sanctions against Russia? Would you go so far as to equip moderate rebels with anti-aircraft weapons to protect them from Russian air attacks? (3) And how do you respond to critics who say Putin is outsmarting you, that he took a measure of you in Ukraine and he felt he could get away with it?
- What a great question! It is pointed, open-ended and likely to produce some news.
- These closed-ended questions elaborate on the open-ended question before them, but they may allow the president to duck the first question.
- This is a punchy open-ended question, but the answer will overwhelm the substance of what came before it.
Obama laughed at the last question and launched into a long answer about Putin. The rambling answer even included the president asking, "so what was the question again?" He did not answer her key first question or either of her second questions. He does focus on the pithy last question to say Putin is leading Russia into economic decline. Not much news there.
In October, CBS's Major Garrett asked a short but dense four-part question on three topics at a White House press conference:
(1) Mr. President, I wonder if you could tell the country to what degree you were changed or moved by what you discussed in private with Pope Francis? (2) What do you think his visit might have meant for the country long-term? (3) And for Democrats who might already be wondering, is it too late for Joe Biden to decide whether or not to run for President? (4) And lastly, just to clarify, to what degree did Hillary Clinton’s endorsement just yesterday of a no-fly zone put her in a category of embracing a half-baked answer on Syria that borders on mumbo jumbo?
- What a nice question. It would have been even better without the "to what degree" premise. Perhaps, "how did your private meeting with the Pope change or move you?"
- The question is short and specific. The phrase long-term is an interesting choice — as if there is a difference between what it means short-term and long-term.
- This is a closed-ended question that isn't really what we want to know the answer to. We really wanted to know if Obama would back Biden and if he was encouraging him to run.
- There's that "to what degree" question again. It also suggests that Garrett believes Clinton's position is half-baked.
The White House press corps is playing a different game than most journalists play. They're often searching for scraps of news from anonymous sources who won't be named, and when they do get access to the president, they only get a couple of questions in. So the questions tend to be grab bags that the president can pick from with little fear of anybody trying to pin him down.
Journalists: No matter how experienced you are, practice the questions you want answered. I find that closed-ended questions usually work best if I have asked an open-ended question first. The open questions expose the news and the closed ones nail it down.
Know what you're looking for before you ask the question. Are you seeking a fact, a plan, an emotion?
The best way to learn to ask better questions is to study what other journalists ask. Take the best answer you ever got to a question and work backwards to see what produced that response. After "Roots" came out in 1976, I interviewed Alex Haley, and that conversation has shaped the way I asked questions. I asked, "How did you know this story would resonate?" "What did you do to capture what Kunta Kinte must have felt?" "How did you know you were a writer?" The answers we so rich, so personal, that we ran out of film.