19 Dec 2007

Have you stopped beating your wife yet?

“Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” is the textbook example of a deadly question. It’s based on a premise and phrased in such a way that there’s no suitable answer it. It also highlights one of the tricky ways journalists can frame questions during an interview.

In media circles, there are seven acknowledged types of deadly questions. These are designed to trick, trap or elicit a particular response that “generates a good quote.” (No wonder journalism is rated amongst the sleazier professions. I think that politicians and used-car salesmen still come out worse in the sleaze stakes though).

Most media spokespeople, particularly those facing close scrutiny, usually do some Q & A preparation. But a good media interview is more than knowing the answers. Getting familiar with some of the tricks of the trade employed by journalists during an interview will help you sidestep some of the most common pitfalls.

My favorite deadly question is, “Can you guarantee ........?” A 100 percent, ironclad guarantee about anything is always unlikely. Therefore the respondent can’t typically provide one. This opens the door to speculation and provides a basis for challenging their earlier statements.

It also provides a way to diminish their credibility. On the off chance a spokesperson is foolish enough to guarantee something, they become extremely accountable. Should (or rather, when) circumstances change, you can bet on journalistic follow-up to puncture their credibility.

So how to answer this question? Guarantee something that you can control and is realistic.

Here’s an example:
Q: Can you guarantee there will be no job loses?
A: What I can guarantee is that we will make every possible effort to ensure all jobs are retained.

More on this later!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good issue!
You should mark this as editorial as well!