A Question of Humility

Like a good meal, the best journalism depends on having the right ingredients. Gifted cooks can make macaroni cheese taste pretty good, but they can’t produce a real banquet without having the best fixings to work with. It’s why so much of today’s go-with-what-we’ve-got instant “news” is just fast food, a few morsels to be gobbled down, rather than something truly nourishing.

A skilled writer with only the bare facts to work with may be able to capture your attention for a moment or two, but even they can do only so much. It’s Pot Noodles, not Pulitzer. Their work would be so much more compelling if they had rich detail. It’s all about having a full set of paints: imagine if Van Gogh had no blue for The Starry Night.

So, whenever I’ve taught on writing, I’ve always spent plenty of time on preparation, sometimes frustrating those who want to jump into the nuts and bolts of putting words on paper. But if you’re going to do much more than rehash existing material, solid journalism usually requires talking to people, and there is a real art to asking good questions.

Here’s a few things I have learned over the years:

If you don’t know the answer, it’s not a dumb question. Don’t pretend you understand something if you don’t. It’s a simple choice: risk having your interview subject think you are foolish when you ask them to explain, or risk having a whole bunch more people think you are foolish when they read what you have written and it’s clear you don’t really know what you are talking about.

Sure, you need to have done your homework ahead of time to eliminate as much ignorance as possible, but they are the authority regarding the topic—that’s why you’re asking them in the first place! It’s okay not to know. And most people are happy to be “the expert” for you. Some (politicians or anyone with an agenda or something to hide) will use the sneery “you don’t know that?” approach to try to knock you off your stride—and that’s information of its own.

There are dumb ways to ask a question. Unless you’re a TV journalist looking for good theater, there’s no advantage to ticking your subject off. Don’t get into a

personal argument with them. Rather than asking them to defend A or B, which sets the two of you in opposition to each other, ask them what they would say to someone who would criticize them for…? At the very least, save the tough questions to the end, so if you get thrown out or they walk out you have at least got something.

Ask them what you missed. For years I avoided this closing question on the basis that it made me look amateurish, like I didn’t know what I was doing. More recently I have started to include it, having realized that it actually makes me seem more professional, I believe.

It’s a two-parter: Is there anything from our conversation you would like to revisit, or is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you think I should have?

This does three things. First, it allows for the fact that I may have missed something that I should have asked: no one is perfect, after all (and, again, they are the “expert”). Second, it gives the interviewee a chance to evaluate the conversation and in one sense “sign off” on your exchange. They may not like or agree with what you subsequently write, but they can’t claim later that you didn’t hear them out. It’s a bit of subtle self defense.

Finally, it also is a token measure of humility that the best journalism requires. As “truth tellers,” it’s important to acknowledge that much as we may want to think we are unbiased and impartial, we all have blind spots and prejudices that can affect the way we see and interpret things. The first step to countering that is to ask someone else if we missed something.

EPA member Andy Butcher is a freelance writer and reporter, residing in Santa Rosa Beach, Fla. He is a veteran magazine and newspaper editor with major stints as director of Youth With a Mission Press & Media Services, senior writer at Charisma magazine and editor of Christian Retailing magazine. He serves EPA as a contest judge and has also served on the board of directors.

Posted May 28, 2020