Why I Ask Difficult Questions – An Open Letter to Sources

As a journalist, I ask a lot of questions.

The questions I ask often dictate the tone of the conversation, so the order in which I ask them can be important when it comes to building rapport. In the fisheries world–the space which I usually cover–many industry groups, businesses and even individual fishermen are suspicious of “the media.” Like any media landscape, within the fisheries media space there are the safe publications (think something like Gloucester Times), the publications which tend to be more critical of the fishing industry (think about Huffington Post) and then the unknowns.

As a freelancer, sometimes a bit like the builder building a house on spec, I’m often the latter. Because I’m frequently the unknown, I get it–I understand why people I interview may initially be stand-offish. Guarded. They’re trying to decide which side I’m on. This is, at least in part, why journalists often start with the easy questions–to build a rapport. Even if we are only ever going to have a 20-minute conversation, getting that conversation off on the right foot benefits both of us. My intent is not to ambush or create a “gotcha” moment later in the interview. We’re getting to know each other. While my job doesn’t always allow for this, it’s the way I like to work.

This next bit is obvious: When a question I ask is self-serving for the interviewee or his or her organization, business or research, I tend to get long-winded, enthusiastic responses. Body language is open. Jokes are forthcoming. Self-deprecation is common. When, however, the question appears critical, opens up a contentious avenue or calls something the interviewee said into question, things can head south pretty quickly. People clam up. Become defensive. Pass the buck.

In the course of my day-to-day, it is virtually impossible for me to not ask a question that could be viewed as a threat. This is true for people on all sides of the story I’m researching. If I am to take my job seriously–and I do take my job seriously–I can’t be on a side. That doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion, but it means that I need to be as objective as I am able in any given situation. I often don’t know where a story I’m researching is headed. I have an idea, but I am open to the twists and turns. It’s essential that my thinking on the subject can be changed. So I ask the hard questions even if I know a particular line of questioning is going to change the tone of the discussion. I need to go there anyway.

And here’s my take-away for interview subjects: I hope you go there with me, both for your sake and mine.

When someone I’m interviewing ignores the questions, says “no comment” or, worst of all, says nothing at all–walks away, hangs up the phone, doesn’t answer an email–I’m in a tough position. Consider it from my perspective: If I asked the question, there’s at least a chance it’s going to be part of the published story. I truly want to understand my source’s position and represent it authentically in my piece. This is true whether I agree with the source or not, as chances are I will have readers who both agree and disagree. If the source doesn’t work with me, I’m going to be left with drawing my own conclusions based on what I know and what others have told me.

As someone who has done time on the other side of the fence as a director of communications for an organization, I do understand there are situations when saying nothing is the best course of action. Heck, sometimes it’s the only course of action, but that decision should come out of a strategic decision about the organization or activity represented. In short, it should be honest. It should never be about anger or spite. It should never be a power play or perceived as a way to flex one’s muscle. It should not be because the question feels like a threat.

The flip side is that I need to hold myself to a similar standard. The questions I ask should be honest and in pursuit of the story’s truth, not a personal agenda. After all, this can’t be personal if I’m going to do my job well. While I believe part of my job when writing an in-depth feature may be building a relationship with a central source, it’s absolutely not my job to build a friendship with that source. Sometimes a source with whom I’ve worked becomes a friend, and some of those friendships last. Given that, during my research, I often spend extended periods traveling through remote corners of the globe and living in very tight quarters with my sources, it would be hard not to talk about each other’s families, share a beer, tell stories, and do all the other things people do in their myriad relationships. This happens, but it’s not the goal in the same way that asking the difficult questions–pushing when it’s uncomfortable for both of us–isn’t an attempt to become an adversary.

Tomorrow I’ll be at the Maine Fisherman’s Forum here in Rockland, Maine. I look forward to many discussions with fishermen, clammers, lobstermen, aquaculturalists, and other related seafood industry participants. It’s likely I’ll ask a lot of questions, and some of them may be perceived as critical of something you believe or a threat to something you do. Let’s talk about it…

…maybe even over a beer. 

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About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
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