How Many Questions Should A Reporter Ask?

How Many Questions Should A Reporter Ask?

Asking good questions is one of the most critical skills for any journalist or reporter. The questions you ask determine the quality of information you obtain, which directly impacts the stories you write and publish. As the old adage goes, “There’s no such thing as a bad question.” However, thoughtfully crafted questions lead to more insightful answers and better reporting.

In this comprehensive guide, we will explore best practices, strategies, and real-world examples to help any journalist or reporter conduct better interviews and ask better questions.

Why Questions Matter

As a reporter, the questions you ask are your most important tool for uncovering the truth and obtaining the necessary facts to tell a compelling story. Well-crafted questions demonstrate your expertise on a topic, ability to listen, and care for your interview subject’s perspective. More importantly, good questions reveal the heart of an issue and elicit unexpected or surprising answers that result in impactful stories.

On the other hand, poorly worded questions indicate laziness, closed-mindedness, or lack of preparation on the reporter’s part. They can limit the flow of information or unintentionally guide an interview subject toward canned talking points. As a result, the stories suffer, along with your credibility and rapport with sources.

The bottom line: The questions you ask as a reporter directly impact your ability to do your job well. Mastering this skill separates good journalists from great ones.

How Many Questions Should You Ask?

There is no magic number for how many questions a reporter should ask during an interview. The approach that works best is to:

  • Thoroughly research your topic and subject ahead of time
  • Prepare 8-10 open-ended base questions that get to the heart of the story
  • Be ready with 5-10 potential follow-up questions for each base question
  • Remain flexible and let the conversation guide you toward what’s most relevant

The number can vary widely depending on context. A short interview with a minor source may only require asking 3-5 questions. A long-form profile could involve asking 50+ questions of a primary subject.

The key is to remain nimble, actively listen, and follow interesting tangents via good follow-up questions. Quality matters far more than quantity when it comes to crafting interview questions.

Best Practices for Crafting Interview Questions

The best interview questions act as a gateway into untold stories and unexpected insights that make for compelling reporting. Here are some best practices to craft better journalist questions:

Do Your Homework

  • Research the topic, relevant organizations/people, and subject background thoroughly before conducting interviews. This allows you to craft informed questions that demonstrate expertise.
  • Scan for recent news articles, documents, or reports related to the topic and note any unresolved points or unanswered questions to address in your interview.
  • Identify key themes, events, policies, or ideas related to the topic that warrant exploration through targeted questions.

Start with the Basics

  • Open with simpler questions that establish basic facts, context, and chronology before diving into more complex territory. E.g. “Briefly describe your role” or “Walk me through the sequence of events.”
  • Ask defining questions upfront to clarify key terms, events, policies, or ideas integral to the story. E.g. “How do you define that?” or “What specifically happened during that incident?”

Be Open-Ended

  • Craft open-ended questions that encourage interview subjects to provide detailed responses vs. yes/no answers. E.g. “What motivated that decision?” rather than “Did you make that decision?”
  • Use “what”, “why”, “how” question stems to uncover meaning and explanation. E.g. “Why was that policy implemented?”

Go Off-Script

  • Be ready to go “off-script” from prepared questions through active listening and good follow-up questions.
  • Drill down by asking “Can you elaborate on that point?” or “Can you provide a specific example?” to get illustrative anecdotes and quotes.

Close Strong

  • Save 1-2 thoughtful questions for the end that provide perspective or tie back to a key theme. E.g. “What lessons were learned?”
  • End by asking, “What question should I have asked that I didn’t?” This gives the interview subject a chance to raise overlooked points.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Even experienced reporters fall into traps when interviewing subjects. Be mindful of these common mistakes:

Poorly Phrased Questions

  • Avoid complex multi-part questions that confuse rather than clarify. Stick to simple, direct, and concise inquiries.
  • Don’t use insider jargon or assume knowledge that interview subjects may not possess. Re-phrase questions with clear, everyday language.

Closed-Ended Questions

  • Repeated yes/no and short-answer questions limit valuable insights from subjects.
  • Overuse of closed-ended questions suggests laziness and inhibits investigative journalism.

Biased Framing

  • Beware of loaded, biased, or confrontational questions that influence answers by making presumptions. Maintain journalistic neutrality.
  • Leading questions diminish source credibility and the accuracy of the reporting.

Lack of Flexibility

  • Failing to pick up on interesting tangents from answers with good follow-up questions leads to missed story opportunities.
  • Over-adherence to scripted questions inhibits the natural flow of conversation vital to surfacing unexpected insights.

Best Question Types for Journalists

Varying your question types as an interviewer is key to producing captivating stories. Different question formats serve distinct purposes:

Open-Ended Questions

Open-ended questions encourage expansive responses that provide crucial details, context, and backstory. They act as a gateway to rich storytelling. For example:

  • “Walk me through what exactly happened leading up to that event.”
  • “Describe what was going through your mind when you heard the news.”
  • “Explain the rationale behind instituting that policy.”

Probing Follow-Up Questions

Probing follow-up questions help clarify or expand upon previous answers to extract layered detail and understanding. For example:

  • “Earlier you mentioned the negotiations were tense. Can you provide a specific example of a tense exchange?”
  • “You stated the policy was controversial internally. Can you elaborate on the disagreements among leadership?”

Definitional Questions

Definitional questions that clarify key terms and ideas are foundational to establishing shared understanding between reporter and subject. For example:

  • “How do you define ‘fair’ in that context?”
  • “What exactly do you mean when you use the phrase ‘equitable outcome’?”

Bridging Questions

Bridging questions seamlessly guide the conversation from one idea to another important area of inquiry. For example:

  • “Shifting gears, I’d like to better understand the policy revision process…”
  • “Now that we have discussed the procedural changes, what was the community response when the new guidelines were announced?”

Perspective Questions

Perspective questions gather personal reactions, thoughts, concerns and interpretations unique to the interviewee’s point of view:

  • “From your perspective, what’s the most pressing issue leadership needs to address?”
  • “In your view, what was the biggest barrier that stalled negotiations?”

Real-World Examples of Impactful Reporter Questions

Examining examples of great journalist questions provides concrete inspiration for crafting compelling inquiries:

In an interview about the rapid growth of eSports, technology reporter Nick Statt asks Twitch CEO Emmett Shear:

“What is resonating culturally that makes competitive gaming and streaming so popular so quickly?”

This timely open-ended question elicits crucial cultural context and big-picture insight around the exploding eSports phenomenon.

In an interview with Mark Zuckerberg, Recode’s Kara Swisher asks the Facebook CEO:

“What responsibility do you think a technology leader has in terms of what’s happening now in the world?”

Her probing follow-up question pushes Zuckerberg to grapple with difficult questions around Facebook’s role in enabling threats to democracy.

In an interview with comedian/actress Tiffany Haddish, New York Times journalist Caity Weaver asks:

“What is something about you that you think would surprise people?”

Her creativity and light touch gives Haddish freedom to reveal unexpected personal details, leading to viral storytelling gold.

Key Takeaways: Principles for Asking Better Journalist Questions

The questions you formulate directly determine the quality of reporting possible. By mastering a few core principles, any journalist or reporter can elevate their interviewing technique:

  • Thoroughly research each topic and interview subject to craft informed questions
  • Start with simpler questions that establish basic facts before building complexity
  • Ask open-ended questions to encourage detailed, expansive responses
  • Listen actively and drill down with good probing follow-up questions
  • Use definitional and bridging questions to clarify terms and guide discussion
  • Incorporate perspective questions to obtain crucial context
  • Remain flexible to explore unexpected tangents without over-adherence to scripted questions
  • Evaluate and iterate on questions over time to continually improve technique

The ability to ask thoughtful questions signals journalistic excellence. It demonstrates care for your subject, deep topic expertise, and commitment to uncovering unknown stories. By implementing the tips outlined here, reporters build the skill sets that lead to high-impact interviewing and world-class reporting.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you prepare questions for a journalist interview?

  • Thoroughly research the topic, relevant organizations, interview subject background, and recent related news/reports
  • Outline 8-10 open-ended base questions that get to the heart of the story
  • Prepare 5-10 potential probing follow-up questions for each base question
  • Remain flexible to let conversation guide question path rather than over-adhering to scripted questions

What makes a good journalist question?

Good journalist questions are:

  • Open-ended to encourage detailed responses vs. yes/no answers
  • Clear, concise, and easy to understand
  • Free from insider jargon and presumptions about interviewee knowledge
  • Neutral in framing to avoid bias that influences answers
  • Backed by thorough research demonstrating topic and subject expertise
  • Followed up by probing questions that clarify and expand on answers

How do you start a journalist interview?

  • Open with simpler questions that establish basic facts, context, chronology, and definitions integral to the story
  • Ask interview subjects to briefly summarize their background, role, and relevance to the story
  • Ease into more complex questions after foundational understanding is established

How do you end a journalist interview?

  • Save 1-2 thoughtful questions for the end that provide perspective or tie back to a key theme
  • Allow time for interview subjects to raise anything overlooked that they deem important
  • Thank interviewees for their time and insights provided

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