One of the most enjoyable aspects of journalism is the opportunity to talk to a broad spectrum of people. Not only talk, but ask them questions. And hear them answer. Or not.
It can be fascinating – and frustrating – when a source either can’t or won’t answer your questions. Rarely will he outright admit that – although I have been hung up on a few times. More typical is that he agrees to the interview but then engages you in a game of rhetorical gymnastics. It doesn’t take long into the interview before any good journalist can smell the rat. Here are a variety of ways people I’ve interviewed have avoided answering my questions:
The one-track mind: There’s the source that agrees to the interview, but ignores your questions and launches into promoting his agenda. Regardless of what question you ask, he’ll somehow bring it back around to the idea he wants to promote.
The weak-in-the-knees source: He’ll answer your questions, not with a yes or a no, but with a “maybe” or “it depends.” He doesn’t want to express any strong opinion or ultimate truth, for fear of offending somebody.
The motor-mouth: After your first question, the source is off on his soapbox, talking his agenda, and you can’t get another question in before your time is up.
The down-the-rabbit-hole source: These are sources who won’t or can’t dumb it down enough for the average Jane to understand. You ask how something works, and before you know it you’re deep in a PowerPoint presentation with complicated graphs and acronyms that make your head spin. I sometimes suspect that engineers secretly relish subjecting journalists to this treatment.
The back-asswords source: This is the guy who will not say something outright, but backs into it with a lot of double-negatives and passive construction. When you rephrase what he’s essentially saying in direct, active language, what he’s said becomes too bold and blatant, and he won’t admit that’s what he means. He can truthfully say, “that’s not what I said,” even if parsing through the meandering construction would show that’s what he means.
This recent exchange with the head of a technology industry trade association illustrates several of the above methods:
Journalist: “The employment numbers look bad. This industry has lost 100,000 jobs in the last five years, and the government predicts that it will lose another 146,000 in the next decade. Do you agree with those government numbers?”
Source: Assuming that the U.S. government takes some action that allows this industry to be competitive, then we’ll maintain our position, we won’t lose any more jobs.
Journalist: So you’re saying that you disagree with those government statistics?
Source: No, I’m saying that we can remain competitive.
Journalist: But that’s assuming that the government will change its policies. Is there any evidence that the government is going to change its policies?
Source: There’s always hope.
Journalist: But given a lack of any changes, then you would agree that the industry will lose 146,000 jobs?
Source: Assuming that the government has its statistics right.
Journalist: Do you think the statistics are wrong?
Source: I’m saying that this industry will not lose those jobs if we have the right policies in place so we can remain competitive.
Journalist : Aaargh . . . . . !
Frustrating, and fascinating.