Ask a smart question, get a good answer

I’ve been thinking about questions a lot lately and noticing how frequently people don’t answer the question they’ve been asked. The question zigs, and the answer zags. The crazy thing is that we as journalists sometimes write down the answer to a question we didn’t ask and then wonder later why we have a hole in our story.

(Actual dialogue with reporter):

“Did you ask him why they eliminated the program?”

“I did, and he said… um, hold on. I wrote it down.”


“Um, he didn’t ever actually answer that. He said something about the goals of the new project  instead.”

And now you must call the person back and ask the question again, which would have been easier to do during that first interview, of course.

Sometimes, the trouble is a poorly crafted question. It has starts and stops. Or it has too many parts, and the interviewee isn’t sure which part to answer first and, consequently, doesn’t answer all of the questions masquerading as just one. Or the question is based on a flawed premise.

In honor of Labor Day and as a warm-up for this semester’s many discussions of interviewing, I’ve put together a panel for class tomorrow of students who did internships this past summer, and what they learned (or realized they need to learn quickly) before they graduate and enter the job market for real. I have invited one magazine student, one photo-J student, and two print and digital students (one from sports and another from the news side).

I hope this will be a fun and interesting way for you to work on formulating questions on your feet and, at the same time, give you some insight into the importance of doing internships early and often.

Your assignment for tomorrow: Think about what you want to know about getting the skills you need to land a great internship, doing well at one and getting what you need out of the experience (while making your employer happy so he or she will say nice things about you later). As other people are asking questions tomorrow, focus on what kinds of questions produce the most interesting or useful answers.

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2 Responses to Ask a smart question, get a good answer

  1. Dustin says:

    I’m stuck on two pieces from the final paragraph:

    How would you define a “great internship”?

    Which types of questions produced the most interesting answers from the panel?

  2. Katherine says:

    I think a great internship is one where the student gets to do actual journalism in a stimulating and supportive environment and is actually paid for his or her work, of course (although I have heard of students doing some great unpaid internships — for National Geographic, for example).
    I was interested in how keen students were to know whether they should make the geographic location of the internship a priority. That is, should you try to go where you want to live, or live where you have to work? (This question never goes away, in my experience, though I have learned that if you have a great job, you don’t necessarily have to live in a great place — but it’s nice when you have both.)

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