5 Answers to Why Reporters Ask Tough Questions

I’ve conducted hundreds of media training classes over the past 15 years, so few questions surprise me anymore. Several years ago, however, a trainee asked a question that I had never heard:

“What’s their motivation?”

I had heard actors express a similar question about the characters they were preparing to portray. I had never thought specifically, though, about how motivation informed the choices that reporters made in asking questions and conducting interviews. Our trainee wanted to understand the motivation behind the reporters’ tough questions, to better understand what they sought.

A tablet with "myth," "reality," and other words in a word cloud

Why Reporters Ask Tough Questions

1. They Want The Truth

Journalism’s first obligation is to tell the truth, according to The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. Journalists often see themselves as, and believe their audiences perceive them to be, truth-seekers. Reporters ask tough questions to get the facts. Their motivation is simple – tough questions are what the story demands. Journalists are taught to seek the truth by verifying the facts. Then, they present a fair and accurate account (hopefully!) that provides context and meaning. They hope audiences assess the information and use it to come to reliable assumptions and decisions.

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 is being said privately behind closed doors. That means reporters may ask tough 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 United States, 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. They also feel an obligation to readers and viewers who have sought the truth and failed, and have turned to the media as a last resort. Reporters in this camp likely agree with the old reporter’s adage: “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Business man standing under a spotlight with arms outstretched

4. They Seek Personal Glory

The first three motivations are rather noble. But it would be incomplete to exclude the self-centered motivations that sometimes lead reporters to ask tough questions. Anyone who has worked for the media (or in PR) long enough knows that some reporters are on a “Pulitzer quest.” They do whatever it takes to earn an award and the recognition of their peers. Other factors also may motivate them – the appreciation of their bosses, career advancement, personal ego, insecurity, etc.

5. They Seek Ratings and Readers

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. They are more intended to create headlines for the host or news outlet than to inform an audience. Since tough questions often go viral, reporters may ask them in order to create a “media moment.”

Prepare yourself

Another important motivation, of course, is yours. What are you hoping to get out of the interview? If you want to be prepared for the curve balls, zingers, and pitfalls that may be headed your way, it’s best to do some legwork.

Even if you only have scant time for research, you can look into the work and interview style of the reporter who is interviewing you, as well as the reporter’s news outlet. Do they veer toward the sensational? Do they seem intent on uncovering the truth? Are they champions of the underdog? When you get a better sense of their motivations, it’s easier to predict the questions they’re likely to ask and their overall interview style.