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American Journalism Review
What to Avoid  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October 2000

What to Avoid   

By Susan Paterno
Susan Paterno ( is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

Related reading:
   » The Question Man
   » What to Do

H ERE ARE SOME THINGS Sawatsky advises avoiding while conducting interviews:

Avoid closed-ended questions.
The reporter asks a politician about evidence of his unfaithfulness. "Did you sleep with Ms. Smith?" If he never literally slept with her, he answers truthfully, "No."

Don't make a statement instead of asking a question.
Instead of asking: "It must have been tough in the early years," ask: "What were the early years like?"

Don't ask double-barreled questions or two questions at once.
Example: "Whom did you like interviewing most and what's your most impressive interviewing coup?" Sources will gravitate toward answering questions that make them look best and avoid those whose answers might be less than flattering.

Don't overload questions.
The reporter asks Bill Clinton: "Was Gennifer Flowers your lover for 12 years?" He answers: "That allegation is false." Which allegation is false? That they were lovers, or that the relationship lasted 12 years?

Don't put comments into questions.
Statements limit the journalist's ability to get precise answers. Example: A reporter asks former hostage Terry Anderson about his captivity with others in Lebanon: "What would go through your mind in the quiet times? Because there must have been times when you didn't talk to each other." Anderson answers the comment: "Oh sure there were times when we didn't talk to each other," instead of the tougher question: "What went through your mind?"

Don't use trigger or loaded words in questions.
The reporter begins a question to a member of Congress about a bill she is sponsoring: "Your scheme would allow for a huge windfall to oil companies..." "This is not a scheme," she answers, responding to the loaded word "scheme" instead of the question.

Don't use hyperbole in questions.
Sources nearly always make up for a lack of neutrality by counteracting overblown questions with modest responses. Say the reporter asks: "How does it feel to be Janet Reno, superstar?" "We can predict she'll be very modest," says Sawatsky. Social conditioning "compels [the source] to give arguments for the other side."



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