The Five Reasons Reporters Ask Tough Questions

I’ve conducted hundreds of media training workshops over the past decade, so few questions surprise me anymore. But one recent trainee asked a question I hadn’t heard before, one you would more commonly hear in an acting class: “What’s their motivation?”

In method acting, actors seek to understand what motivates their characters, which helps inform the choices they make in their roles. Similarly, in an effort to understand what reporters are seeking, our trainee wanted to understand what motivates their tough questions.

With a nod to Stanislavski, today’s article looks at the five reasons reporters ask tough questions. 

1. They Want The Truth: According to The Elements of Journalism, journalism’s first obligation is to tell the truth. Journalists often see themselves as truth-seekers, and they ask tough questions in an effort to get the facts.

2. They Want The Whole Truth: Sources who tell the truth often tell the version of the truth they want you to hear. But reporters are less interested in the public party line than what sources are privately telling their colleagues. That means that reporters may have to ask challenging questions, play the “nice guy,” play dumb, or use an extreme journalistic tactic to learn the rest of the story.

3. They Want to Represent the Underdog: The media are often referred to as the “Fourth Estate,” because they’re supposed to act as a check on power for the first three estates (in the U.S., those estates are the judiciary, executive, and legislative branches of government). Many reporters are motivated by a sense that they’re supposed to hold power accountable and be a voice for the voiceless. Reporters in this camp likely agree with the old reporter’s adage: “Afflict the powerful and comfort the powerless.”

4. Personal Glory: The first three motivations are rather noble. But it would be dishonest to exclude the personal motivations that sometimes lead reporters to ask tough questions. Anyone who’s worked for the media (or in PR) long enough knows that some reporters are on a “Pulitzer quest,” doing whatever they have to in order to earn an award and the recognition of their peers. But they may also be motivated by other personal factors – the appreciation of their bosses, career advancement, personal ego, insecurity, etc.

5. Ratings: In a deeply competitive media age, journalists want to attract as many eyeballs to their stories as possible. Sometimes, tough “gotcha” questions are more about showmanship than substance, intended more to create headlines for the host than to inform an audience. Since tough questions often go viral, reporters may ask them in order to create a “media moment.”

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