Get Answers to Your Tough Reporter Questions

A photo of a woman surrounded by reporters with microphones and cameras.
Before you grab a microphone, decide the best way to ask tough, yet fair reporter questions. Photo © Digital Vision / Getty Images

Some people make their mark in media by asking tough reporter questions. In days gone by, it was Mike Wallace or Sam Donaldson. These days, you expect hard-hitting reporter questions from people like Bill O'Reilly or Rachel Maddow.

Most reporters will be confronted with situations requiring them to make an aggressive push for information. Know how to prepare yourself so you can be polite, yet persistent in getting the answers you want, especially in a combative news situation.

Uncovering Your Motivation

When a news reporter prepares to ask tough questions in an interview, she should ask herself about her motives. To be fair to the person being interviewed, the motivation should be to get answers, not an argument.

A TV reporter faces an additional challenge. A person who feels ambushed by overly-aggressive reporter questions will often say he's the victim of "caught on camera" journalism that simply seeks to record him squirming when the red light comes on.

If you're accused of unprofessional behavior, plan your response. A politician may claim you have political bias in attacking him. Decide how you will refute that phony defense.

Planning Your Interview

You're just a few hours away from seeing the mayor face-to-face to ask about the city scandal that everyone in town is talking about. That is everyone but him.

Decide now when in the interview to ask the tough questions and how.

Timing is critical in getting information.

If you think you'll have a 20-minute interview, asking about the scandal can wait until after you've asked some harmless questions about the future of the city, his leadership plans and other items that will put him at ease. If you barge into his office demanding a response about the scandal, you might be asked to leave before you even sit down.

It's not worth jeopardizing your long-term relationship with the mayor.

But there are times when the tough questions can't wait. Your shot at talking to the mayor may come as he's walking down the hallway. In that case, you need to get him to stop briefly and ask your question.

If you're doing a live TV interview, you may only get two minutes of airtime. That might allow for one set-up question before you are forced to ask about the scandal.

Visualizing how you want the interview to proceed is key. A TV interview is sometimes easier than one for print, because any politician should know that the camera is recording his every move. If he puts his hand over the lens, that video will be shown endlessly to the town's viewers.

Phrasing What You Want to Ask

Be careful in the wording of your tough questions. That can make all the difference in whether you get answers.

"Did you take bribes?" will immediately put a person on the defensive. If he thinks you won't treat him fairly during the interview or in writing your story, he will be less likely to engage you in conversation.

Instead, you can ask, "Your critics accuse you of taking bribes. What would you say to those people?" removes you personally from the question.

You've asked for the same information but in a less threatening way.

The late Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes established himself as a TV personality for his blunt interviewing skills, which occasionally made him sound more like a district attorney than a journalist. While that put him on the list of the 10 TV legends, it's often much easier to get answers when you take a softer tone.

Defending Yourself from Attacks

The easiest way for a person being interviewed to deflect your tough questions is to attack you. Be persistent in pressing for answers.

One response is for the person to say, "I've answered that question many times. I can't believe you think that's news." Quick research before the inteview will help you say, "You've talked about the scandal, but you haven't said whether you're involved.

That's what I'm asking now."

Here's another response. "You people should be out reporting the real news that goes on in town, instead of just criticizing me. I'm trying to make our city better and you don't care." You can say, "We covered your groundbreaking of the new park just yesterday. This is news because people in town want to know how you're spending their tax dollars."

Now a final common response you may hear. "It's obvious you want me to lose my re-election. You and your lousy paper have always been against me. But the people at home know you're biased. That's why a lot of them stopped subscribing to your horrible news rag." It will be hard to reason with someone who's that upset. If you think he's listening, you can say, "We're not biased. We're giving you the chance to speak. People are talking about this scandal and are hopeful you'll say something about it."

It's crucial that you stay calm, even if you're boiling with rage inside. Getting the answers you seek is more important than venting your personal frustrations.

Ensuring That You're Fair

You've planned out the mechanics of the interview. Now is time to run through a checklist of media ethics to make sure you're being fair to the person who'll be faced with your questions.

Before you set off on an ambush interview, give the person reasonable opportunities to sit down with you in a professional setting. Strive to set up an appointment at the person's office before jabbing a microphone in his face while he's coming out of church.

If the mayor is accused of a scandal, it's likely that everyone in town has jumped to the conclusion that he must be guilty. People like to gossip, especially about those in the public eye. As a journalist, you can't get caught up in that buzz. Remember, the mayor could be the victim of a smear campaign and may be innocent.

Be open-minded in seeking information. Just because you've confirmed the mayor once played golf with a powerful businessman who's accused of bribing him doesn't mean he took a bribe. Perhaps he was assigned to be golf buddies with the business tycoon at a charity golf tournament. Seeking a "smoking gun" can often blind you to facts that contradict your assumptions.

Some reporters can build their entire news careers on conducting compelling interviews. Master the art of asking tough reporter questions so you can join them.