At the Nieman Foundation’s fourth Watchdog Project Conference, held in the fall of 2001 at Harvard University, the topic was “How to Ask Probing Questions.” The Watchdog Project was established in 1998 with funds provided by Murrey Marder, a retired chief diplomatic correspondent of The Washington Post and a 1950 Nieman Fellow. Its purpose is to reinvigorate the news media’s sense of responsibility to monitor people and institutions that hold power. At other conferences, participants explored the status of watchdog journalism, reporters’ relationships with sources, and the 2000 presidential and congressional elections.
In his talk at the Watchdog Project Conference, Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, said, “If there is a central message to leave from my vantage point, it’s not what question we ask. It’s the fact that we ask at all…. I know that sounds ridiculously basic, but so often I’ve seen hundreds of stories that are incredibly important, and they are never attempted.” Lewis went on to describe reporting projects by the center in which lots of questions were asked about campaign financing, about political conflicts of interest, about the chemical industry, and a myriad of other topics that didn’t normally receive this heightened level of scrutiny. In a companion article written after the conference, Lewis examines how reporters’ access to information—both on battlefields and in this country—has been curtailed since the events of September 11. As Lewis writes, “The generally unspoken reality is that the war on terrorism has given the Bush administration phenomenal cover to do what all political appointees attempt to do—withhold inconvenient information from the public.”
In a panel discussion moderated by Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman, New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston, and Amanda Bennett, formerly managing editor/projects of The Oregonian and now editor and senior vice president of The Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, spoke about the importance of asking good questions, not only of sources but also of themselves as they determine how best to approach investigative reporting projects. Bennett oversaw reporting for The Oregonian’s series detailing abuses by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and Johnston’s reporting exposed loopholes and inequities in the U.S. tax code and was instrumental in bringing about reforms. As Bennett said, “If you can focus the question, you can get a lot more bang for your buck. You can get things past these reluctant editors. You can get things going. You can make a bigger impact if you’re asking the right question.”
In a session led by Luz Santana and Dan Rothstein, who founded and co-direct The Right Question Project based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, they shared a method of brainstorming questions that developed out of their work helping low- and moderate-income families frame questions to ask public officials. Journalists responded to the exercise.
M.L. Stein, who co-authored the book, “Talk Straight, Listen Carefully: The Art of Interviewing,” describes strategies for a successful interview. He says the thing reporters need—more than anything else—is to be knowledgeable about the topic, and they can do that by being well prepared.