I would not like to send you questions

“Would you like to send me some questions?” Actually no, I would rather not send you questions before I interview you.

I get that some people want to understand a journalists “angle” before they begin, but I also understand how human minds work. There are two things which can go terribly wrong when I send you written questions in advance, namely:

  1. You will infer bias because written communication has no tone of voice or body language, which make up the majority of how we communicate, and thus you will unconsciously insert in that huge gap whatever your past experience suggests is my likely agenda, or, even worse,
  2. important information will never be revealed because you carefully and narrowly answered the questions I presented, likely because being interviewed makes you nervous.

These are two sides of the same coin. If I send questions ahead, I am aware that it’s likely I will learn nothing which isn’t laid out in those questions; I must therefore make them as broad as I possibly can to combat the narrow responses which naturally follow. That can feel overwhelming, and lead folks who are already uncomfortable talking to a reporter to feel defensive and search for clues as to my hidden agenda.

The truth is that my angle, my agenda, is the find out what I need to know to write an accurate story that helps readers understand what’s going on. Journalists are not subject-matter experts, and regularly must bring ourselves up to speed on a completely unfamiliar topic. That isn’t going to happen when we send questions in advance, because we don’t necessarily know enough to know what to ask.

Even asking, “Is there anything you were hoping I would ask that would help me understand this better?” doesn’t help; in well over 90% of interviews I’m told no, there’s nothing more.

What would I rather do? Have a conversation, a form of communication which is much older, and thus suits our species better. My interviews are often spirit-led, and I consciously choose to enter a state of worship when I am conducting one. This is to help me to be fully present and listen with all of myself, to what is said without words. Tone of voice, pauses, volume also communicate. Even those who don’t feel they have strong verbal skills are excellent interview subjects, but I often don’t know what I will ask until I absorb that non-verbal information.

If push comes to shove and my subject won’t budge, I’d rather send one question at a time. Any more presumes I know enough to get into depth, and the result is the kind of superficial treatment of a subject that makes people mistrustful of reporters. It’s an ugly cycle.

Asking for questions in advance is an attempt to control the information that’s revealed. Instead, I suggest that if one does not wish to reveal some tidbit, one simply does not. This is country is not run by some jurisdocracy, a government of attorneys, by attorneys, and for attorneys. Don’t hide behind an attorney’s tricks. The best way not to comment is by uttering the words, “no comment.”

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