October 6, 2004

With everyone else busy analyzing and grading the answers Dick Cheney and John Edwards gave in Thursday night’s one-and-only vice-presidential debate, let’s focus on a topic of greater value to journalists who take a professional interest in these high-profile job interviews: How were the questions?

In one respect, crafting a good question may not matter a lot when interview subjects have a message to get across, no matter what they’re asked. For politicians, spokespeople, and others armed with talking points, it may be a case of damn the questions, full spin ahead!

Even so, the presidential debate season does provide a rich and real-time opportunity for anyone interested in improving their interviewing skills. As a voter, I listened avidly to the answers the candidates gave in Cleveland. As an interviewer, I also kept my ears tuned to the questions and judged them based on a taxonomy I learned from John Sawatsky, a Canadian journalist and interviewing expert.

Questions can be either open-ended or closed, Sawatsky says. They can launch a conversation or stop one dead in its tracks. Open-ended questions green light a conversation. Beginning with “how” or “what” or why,” they invite explanation, encourage amplification.

Closed-ended questions flash a red light. The subject can say “yes” or “no” and stop the interview dead in its tracks.

Sawatsky identifies other question types, among them the double-barreled question, which fires multiple queries, and the statement masquerading as a question. He also warns about the danger of overloading a question with exposition at the front and back, and morphing a question into an editorial.

But the open-ended and closed varieties dominate most exchanges between an interviewer and interviewee, and that was the case Tuesday night.

Of the 20 or so questions that moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS divided between the candidates, half waved green lights, about the same ratio as the first presidential debate, moderated by her boss, Jim Lehrer. Among the open-ended questions Ifill asked:

  • “What is a global test if it’s not a global veto?”

  • “What can you tell the people of Cleveland, or people of cities like Cleveland, that your administration will do to better their lives?”

  • “Senator Kerry said in a recent interview that he absolutely will not raise taxes on anyone under — who earns under $200,000 a year. How can he guarantee that and also cut the deficit in half, as he’s promised?”

  • On AIDS, especially among black women: “What should the government’s role be in helping to end the growth of this epidemic?”

  • “What qualifies you to be a heartbeat away (from the Presidency)?”

  • “Why are you different from your opponent?”

  • “What’s wrong with a little flip-flop every now and then?”

  • “How will you set out, Mr. Vice President, in a way that you weren’t able to in these past four years, to bridge that divide?”

Even in the debate’s fishbowl environment, these questions showed how an interviewer can steer a conversation while making the subject do the hard work of paddling, providing the information and opinion that is the raw material of news.For politicians, spokespeople, and others armed with talking points, it may be a case of damn the questions, full spin ahead! 

Open-ended questions force subjects, even those with a platform to push, to provide explanations. And while the format made room for lots of posturing, the precision of such questions demand concrete specific answers, limiting wiggle room.

Unfortunately, too many of the questions echoed the interviewing technique favored by the Washington press corps — closed-ended questions that may sound tough but actually let subjects off easy. They include:

  • “Does that make your effort or your plan to internationalize this (Iraq) effort kind of naïve?”

  • “Are you trying to have it both ways?”

  • “Are you willing to say that John Edwards, sitting here, has been part of the problem?”

  • “Do you feel personally attacked when Vice President Cheney talks about liability reform and tort reform and the president talks about having a trial lawyer on the ticket?”

There are times, of course, when an unequivocal answer is needed and only a closed-ended question will do. Such was the case when Ifill asked Cheney, “Are you saying it would be a dangerous thing to have John Kerry as president?”

Other questions were weakened by front-loaded information or by tacking on additional questions or self-consious and distracting chatter. On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Edwards was asked, “What would your administration do? First of all, do you agree that the United States is absent? Maybe you don’t. But what would your administration do to try to resolve that conflict?”

Closed-ended questions allowed the candidates to play dodgeball with issues. Double-barreled ones allow them to choose the question they want to answer. Pick one. Whatever question you ask, hone it until it’s as precise and concise as you can make it. Then let your subject do the work.

Of course, interviews rarely make prime-time; Sawatsky’s principles are more effective with the routine interviewing most reporters do with local officials and regular folks than the carefully stage-managed public theater of a national political debate. Both Ifill and Lehrer are experienced hands who rise to the challenge of the form’s limitations. But even a good question can be stonewalled or sidestepped. 

An interview is like a highway with exit and entrance ramps that allows subjects to zoom away or stay on track. A red-light question, “Does that mean…?” can, with a quick rewrite, be turned green. “What does it mean that…?” asks a candidate to explain rather than merely agree or disagree.  

If the questioners in the upcoming debates want to serve the public interest, they will make sure the questions they ask are best equipped to produce, rather than suppress, the vital information voters need on Election Day.

We’ll be listening.

With these interviewing principles in mind, pose a question for the upcoming debates. ]

UPDATE: Chip has written an op-ed piece published in Tuesday’s The New York Times. It focuses on the quality of the questions citizens asked at Friday night’s debate.

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Christopher “Chip” Scanlan (@chipscanlan) is a writer and writing coach who formerly directed the writing programs and the National Writer’s Workshops at Poynter where he…
Chip Scanlan

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