Al Tompkins posted a fascinating breakdown of White House press corps questions on the Poynter site last week. He maintains, with plenty of justification, that the best and the brightest covering the most important public office in the world blow their big moments when face to face with the president.
Then he tells us about interviewing Alex Haley in 1976, which dates him a bit. Nevertheless, he makes some valuable points.
The key takeaway is an awareness of the difference between open-ended and close-ended questions. Open-ended queries are those that start rather than end conversations. They are best defined by what they are not. “Will you run for president, Mr. Bloomberg?” is a close-ended question. The only acceptable answer is “Yes” or “No,” and then the interviewee is free to go. If, however, you asked, “What would motivate you to run for president?” you can see that the answer would have to be more nuanced.
I realize this isn’t new territory for anyone who has been a journalist for more than a week, but perhaps you haven’t thought about it in this way. Too often (and we’re all guilty from time to time), reporters ask questions only hoping for a sound bite or quote to run as the third graph of the story. We are hardly listening to the answer. Think about the likely response to your question and you are likely to think of a way to ask it that elicits something interesting. …
Another takeaway from Tompkins’ post: Television cameras cause people to orate. He hints at the fact that White House reporters are apt to grandstand when they know they are on camera. That has connotations for all of us as we move toward video and can’t simply edit out our own tomfoolery.