With the presidential election just weeks away, we are at the height of debate season. This past week was particularly busy with the vice presidential debate and second presidential debate taking place just days apart.
If you’ve watched any of the debates (and ratings show that a lot of us have), you likely heard the moderators state that questions were not shared with the campaigns or candidates in advance. Personally, I’d be upset if they were shared and I don’t think I’m alone. The candidates go into each debate knowing the general topics that will be covered, and anyone hoping to be President of the United States better be prepared to answer whatever questions are posed.
As a voter, I’m interested in hearing authentic, immediate responses, not a set of talking points on which a journalist and candidate essentially collaborate. The latter arrangement would paint a pretty disheartening picture of journalism and politics in this country. It would do a disservice to voters and would essentially function as an extension of a candidate’s marketing efforts rather than journalism.
But promoting candidates—or products, or ideas, or passion projects—isn’t the media’s job.
Its job is to inform in an unbiased way, and providing questions in advance challenges that mission. Despite the fact that presidential debates are very different than the majority of media interviews taking place on college campuses, I am still surprised how many times we are asked by interviewees if they can see questions before they speak with a reporter. Whether the questions are being asked of our next president or an art historian, the basic journalistic tenets remain the same.
And that’s why the answer to whether or not a journalist will provide questions in advance is usually “no.” (Though every once in a while a reporter might send a bulleted list on a benign topic, and email interviews are becoming more common.) Generally speaking, if questions aren’t offered, I don’t recommend asking for them – particularly when dealing with hard news, controversial topics or your core areas of responsibility or expertise.
While doing so may be an earnest attempt to be prepared for an interview, it can also be seen as an insult to journalist integrity, raise red flags about a sensitive topic, and otherwise set an awkward tone for the conversation. It’s also risky to assume that the questions a reporter may provide in advance will be the questions they ultimately ask when the cameras are rolling or the conversation is underway.
General inquiry of the reporter on the focus of the story usually gives enough insight to prepare adequately. And, it’s ok to ask about the angle the reporter is planning to pursue and others they intend to interview. Besides, as we like to remind media training attendees, “the questions don’t matter. The answers do.” In other words, you should approach every interview, on every topic from a crisis or scandal to a personal profile, with a clear sense of the story you want to tell, no matter the question being asked. Remember, it’s not about spin, but ensuring your key points are being communicated.
Your interview preparations should also include anticipation of key questions and practice of how you’ll answer them. This is important for every interview, not just those on controversial subjects. Many times the questions you anticipate will be the ones that are asked.
So, while it can be unnerving not to know what specific questions may be thrown at you, especially for those who are new to the interview process, it’s also what we demand of our free press in this country. The stakes vary, of course, but the issues surrounding providing questions in advance remain the same whether you’re running for political office or sharing news about research.
It’s also worth noting that, in my experience, the vast majority of reporters are fair. They’re not out to get people with tough questions. They’re simply doing their job in the way we’ve asked them to do it. Approaching interactions with reporters with this fact top of mind is a great first step to nailing that next interview. Good luck!