Sunday, October 07, 2007

The art of asking

It's a cliche in American journalism that there's no such thing as a stupid question.

My Algerian colleagues do not seem to agree.

The other day I responded Of course! when a reporter asked for help coming up with questions for an upcoming interview with Sami Yucef, a Muslim from UK in Algiers for a concert.

Ask him if he’s fasting, I said immediately.

Oh no, I can’t, the reporter responded. He is a straight Muslim. It would be an insult to ask that.
Ask him why tickets to his concert are so expensive when he says he sings for common people, I tried.

No, he doesn't have anything to do with setting prices, she told me.

Normally, coming up with interview questions is like a brainstorming session where you throw out lots of ideas and suggestions trying to generate queries that will provoke original thought and pithy quotes. But journalists, here, I've found treat interview something like quizzes in which they are graded for the quality of their questions. Their interview queries are crafted and stiff and usually way too long, like mini lectures. They are guarded. Reporters present their question and record an answer and followups-- even something like "What do you mean by that?" are rare. The idea of asking a question to which you already know the answer to hear what your subject might just say in his own words is very foreign. So is the idea that a reporter can ask anything, not rudely, not insistently, but still, nothing is out of bounds. Here every question is weighed for propriety and possible offense.

As it turned out, some 60 reporters came to interview Sami. 60! Each was limited to three questions each. My colleague asked her three favorite questions and no follow ups and is writing a story based on that. Rules here allow you to write stories based on questions other reporters pose to which you hear the answers, but she regards that as unethical.

No comments:

Blog Archive