Media Training: Should You Question The Host?

Many of our media training students ask whether it’s ever appropriate to turn the tables on reporters by asking questions of them during an interview.

It depends.

Since not all questions are equal, this article will look at three of the most common types of questions you might ask reporters. And yes – some are more effective than others. 

1. Clarifying Questions

It’s almost always appropriate to ask a clarifying question. If you truly don’t understand the question, don’t take a stab at answering it – ask the reporter what he or she means.

You can also ask clarifying questions to counter broad and somewhat vague charges. For example, imagine the reporter asks, “Your company has been in decline over the past two years. How come?” Answering that question almost immediately puts you on the defensive.

Instead, you might ask, “I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking. Can you be more specific?” The reporter’s reply will usually be more focused, allowing you to address individual topics instead of broader – and more potentially damaging – issues.

2. Rhetorical Questions

I’m a big fan of asking rhetorical questions and answering them – especially when pressed with a  challenging question. Much like a tennis serve, your rhetorical question occurs when you toss up the ball, while your answer represents the moment the racket sends it flying across the net.

Here’s an example: A reporter asks, “You just recalled this product, and your other products are made with similar materials. Are your products dangerous?”

You might answer by saying, “Are our products safe? Absolutely. This recall is the first in our company’s history – and the fact that we notified consumers so quickly is a sign of just how seriously we take safety.” This tactic works nicely, but a little goes a long way here.

3. Challenging Questions

This is where most of our trainees get into trouble. They too often use their rapier wit to challenge the reporter with an adversarial question – and their tactic frequently backfires.

For example, a reporter might say, “What would you say to your critics who say your company’s latest pharmaceutical drug costs too much for the average consumer?”

You might be tempted to say, “Well, don’t you think that’s why Medicare should begin covering the drug so that more people could have access to it?” And that leads to the killer response: “Actually, no. Your profit margin is 300 percent, and if you cut your profit margin even slightly, tens of thousands of sick people could afford your medication. How can you justify that?”

Sure, a few people can pull this off. Odds are you’re not one of them. Unless you’re an extraordinarily seasoned media guest, leave this one out of your bag of tricks.

In the words of the 80s pop group Mike and the Mechanics, all I need is a miracle, all I nee-eeed is you. Won’t you take a moment to sign up for free monthly tips to make you a better media spokesperson and public speaker?

Related: The Three Questions Reporters Always Ask

Related: Five Ways To Avoid Being Misquoted By Reporters