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GREG HARTON: Why would a reporter ask such a thing?

by Greg Harton | May 23, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

As I watched Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee answer questions from reporters, I thought back to lessons every reporter has to learn.

One of those lessons is that, from time to time, every good reporter has to sound a bit stupid. And they have to be OK with that.

Think about their jobs. Reporters are almost always interviewing people far more knowledgeable than almost anyone else about the subject matter. That's why the person is being interviewed.

A reporter interviewing a NASA engineer about development of a new spacecraft will always know more than virtually any reporter about space exploration and the challenges it presents in designing new ways to travel in space. No matter how smart the reporter is, he or she will, sooner or later, ask a question that exposes their ignorance.

Asking seemingly stupid questions is virtually a requirement of the job. It's bad reporting to leave an important question unasked out of a desire to protect yourself from seeming ignorant.

Why, after all, are they asking the questions? To learn something they don't know. Or perhaps a reporter may know or at least suspect she knows the answer, but the question has to be asked anyway. Why? Because the subject of the interview needs to provide answers, not a reporter who makes assumptions.

From time to time I'll hear from someone who believes "the media" is just chock full of idiots. Their evidence is the kinds of questions reporters ask at press briefings shown on cable news outlets or on C-SPAN.

There are those reporters -- from the ranks of TV news, mostly -- who work for organizations that operate as though they need to make their reporters as well known as the people they cover. That's less about reporting than about marketing and, yes, sometimes their antics are about getting a good video clip of their own work.

But most reporters -- especially print reporters -- aren't like that. They recognize they aren't the story, but for a couple of decades now, the public has gotten to see reporters at work on a daily basis as more and more press briefings are shown live to anyone who wants to tune in. Watching reporters at work is a bit like the old cliché about liking sausage, but not necessarily wanting to see how sausage is made. It can be messy.

Print reporters ask a lot of questions not because it's their job to make the press briefing a great viewing experience. Their job is to collect information then, by deadline, cull through everything they've gathered to write a clear, well-organized story. Sometimes, a response doesn't provide much information, so it's not included. Other times, the question elicits the perfect quote or leads to a revealing piece of information.

At the press conference for Hutchinson and Lee last week, they spoke of the Interstate 40 bridge at Memphis that's been closed more than a week now because of weakened supports discovered during an inspection. A reporter asked Hutchinson something like "How do you make sure nothing like this ever happens again?"

Who can ever guarantee that, I thought, myself slipping into a critical review of a reporter's question. Hutchinson answered.

"First, I think you have to take comfort and have confidence in the fact that this defect was discovered. It was discovered through inspection, and so that should give us all confidence, and immediate action was taken."

Then Gov. Lee: "The process worked, even when there was a slip in that process, the followup provided us with the knowledge we got so we didn't have a catastrophic event out there."

Maybe some thought that a stupid question, but the public needed to hear those answers.


Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Contact him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWAGreg.

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