It is often the nature of the question that determines the answer. Moreover, no matter what style of question is posed, the authority of the question is conditioned by the power relationship between the questioner and the questioned. People in a submissive position are more inclined to give the expected answer – a school child in front of the schoolmaster, the suspect being questioned by the police, the bullied confronted by the bully.
Journalists, particularly TV and radio ones, use questioning as their prime method of eliciting information and opinion. How they question, how they control the interview, the level of aggression they exhibit, and the authority they bring to the interview, either because of the setting or because of their own status and gravitas, combine to determine how the interviewee will respond.
Senior journalists such as Laurie Oakes and Kerry O’Brien bring such authority and gravitas to an interview that it renders the average interviewee more cautious, more circumspect.
Then we have the political journalists that inhabit Sky News, whom we know are Coalition leaning and therefore likely to give Coalition interviewees a better run than Labor ones. Politicians respond accordingly. Shock jocks such as Alan Jones and Neil Mitchell bring to an interview a capacity to be aggressive, persistent and rude to anyone they dislike, whose views or policies they despise, but are just as able to be sycophantically pleasant to their favourites. We expect them to do what they do, and at times to be unbalanced, unfair and downright rude.
But there are some journalists that we expect to be balanced, unbiased, or at least to hide their biases; those journalists are at our ABC. Yet we are often disappointed. Biases show through particularly in the way they question, and the way they interrupt if the answer does not suit their purpose. Tony Jones habitually interrupts on Lateline
and even on Q&A
. Leigh Sales and Chris Uhlmann are learning fast to do the same. But let’s begin with the nature of the question.
Doctors know how careful they have to be when questioning patients. They are taught that there are several types of question: The open-ended question:
‘Tell me about your headache.’ or ‘How do you feel about the treatment you are having.’ The open question gives the patient the opportunity to say whatever he or she wishes. No words are put into the patient’s mouth. The direct question:
‘Where do you feel your headache?’ or ‘Have you had any side effects from your medication?’ Here the doctor is seeking further information, but leaving it to the patient to fill in the details. The closed question:
‘Is the headache severe?’ or ‘Has the medication given you nausea?’ Here the doctor is seeking the specific information he needs in diagnosis or management. The leading question:
‘The headache is severe is it?’ or ‘The medication made you nauseated?’ Here the doctor is confirming salient features of the situation, but the patient has less freedom in answering, and is less inclined to give an answer at variance from what the doctor is suggesting in the question.
Doctors know that there is a time and place for all these types of question – all are valuable and necessary. But they also know that asked in the wrong sequence, they can result in misleading answers. A closed question asked early in the interview may suggest to the patient the answer the doctor wants to hear, and elicit just that answer. To say early in the interview to a woman complaining of headaches, before the necessary details have been elicited, ‘Don’t you think your husband’s heavy drinking is giving you your headaches?’ is hazardous as it may deflect thinking in that direction so that other causes are overlooked. Alcoholic husbands often do evoke headaches in their spouses, but women so afflicted may also have migraine or even a brain tumour. These more serious complaints need to be considered and excluded before the doctor can be confident about settling on the psychological diagnosis.
Despite the hazard of leading questions early in an interview, TV and radio journalists often use them. Let me illustrate this phenomenon by reference to an interview by Ali Moore of Michael Stutchbury and Peter Hartcher on Lateline
on May 10.
ALI MOORE: Michael Stutchbury, if I can start with you. Is the Government too optimistic here? It's looking for a $25 billion turnaround in just 12 months to make its surplus.
That is a direct question
. Stutchbury answered:
MICHAEL STUTCHBURY, ECONOMICS EDITOR, THE AUSTRALIAN: I think it could happen. I heard Warren Hogan on before and I'd have to say I'd agree with a lot of what he says.
She could have asked an open question: ‘Tell me what you think about the Government’s promise of a surplus in 2012/13?', and left Stutchbury to answer as he saw fit.
To Ali’s question Stutchbury offered a conclusion about the projected surplus and he followed that with explanation of the pros and cons of that possibility.
So far little harm done.
Ali then addressed Peter Hartcher:
ALI MOORE: Peter Hartcher, do you agree, and if you do, do you also agree that those sorts of structural changes that Warren Hogan was talking about are not being made?”
This is a leading question
. Ali is expecting him to agree not just to Stutchbury’s answer, but agree that structural changes are not being made.
She could have asked the same open question of Hartcher as I suggested for Stutchbury: ‘Tell me what you think about the Government’s promise of a surplus in 2012/13?’, so that instead of answering in agreement, or disagreement, he could have answered in whatever way he pleased. But he answered:
PETER HARTCHER: Yes, I do. I agree absolutely that we are not making the most of our situation. I also think that the Government at least, sort of on the Hippocratic principle, has done least amount of harm tonight. There was no spending spree, they've exercised some constraint and the budget will be mildly contractionary and they're setting the budget back on course for surplus….
He agreed, but felt it necessary to qualify his answer. Had an open question been asked he would have been free to answer as he wished, without having to agree or disagree, without having to qualify his agreement.
Then later she asked this closed question
ALI MOORE: But we were promised a tough budget, and what we've actually got is a total of $5 billion
[savings] according to Penny Wong, on my calculations on the budget numbers $3 billion over four years. Is that really tough?
And later still another closed question
ALI MOORE: Michael, that might be the case, but this is the first budget after an election. I mean, if we were ever going to make a tough decision and a nasty cut, wouldn't it be now?
Then, in the context of the Government’s ‘optimistic’ reliance on China for its surplus, she asked:
ALI MOORE: But I guess the question is then what will break that optimism because of the mere political realities of a minority government and a very unpopular minority government.
Here we have a closed question
that expresses her opinion.
Later, in the context of Hartcher suggesting that Abbott had set the agenda – the carbon tax and asylum seekers, Ali used a classic leading question
ALI MOORE: But is that because they weren't brave, they weren't gutsy because of what the polls are saying, because of the political position in Parliament, because they rely on the independents?
PETER HARTCHER: Partly, but I think we also should give them some credit on this angle: this the weakest and most fragile federal government we've had since the last time we had a minority government, which was in the 1940s, yet they've managed to hold their nerve on spending, not hand out tax cuts and bring down a mildly contractionary budget
Forced to answer a leading question
, Hartcher was pushed into a qualified answer where he gave credit to Labor after Ali had demeaned it in her question as not being ‘brave’.
She could have said: ‘Do you think Tony Abbott will use the carbon tax and the asylum seeker issue to fight the Government?’ and given Hartcher the opportunity to answer as he preferred. The whole interview is here
. You may care to view it in its entirety.
In case you think I’m singling out Ali Moore, reflect on some of the questions Tony Jones asked of Andrew Robb on 13 May on Lateline
after Tony Abbott’s Budget speech in reply.
He began with a closed question
TONY JONES: Now there was more detail in Tony Abbott's speech about what the Coalition government - what a Coalition government will undo, rather than what it will do. Are you worried about the overall negative impression that might give?
Later in reference to the carbon tax he asked a leading question
TONY JONES: You can't put it in the budget before you work out the details, can you?
Then another leading question
TONY JONES: But the problem is, I mean, you're reduced, when talking about the carbon tax, to making up your own figures, so that you can justify your argument. I mean, Tony Abbott's hypothetical carbon tax was $26 per tonne, he claims it'll result in 16 coal mine closures, 68,000 lost jobs, but it's all speculation.
Later on the subject of the skills shortage, a direct question
TONY JONES: OK. But do you disagree with the assessment of Skills Australia, who claim that the booming resource economy is going to require an extra 2.4 million workers over the next four years? 2.4 million required new workers.
Later, and getting exasperated at the automaton-like answers Robb was giving, as if programmed to emit whenever he could the spiel his minders had given him, in the context of the temporary suspension of indexation of family benefits, Jones asked another leading question
TONY JONES: But if it is a relatively small number of families in percentage terms that are affected, do you think you might be on the wrong side of the argument?
This was such a painful interview that Jones might be excused for asking mainly direct and closed questions and a few leading ones, as open questions with such a stilted and cagey interviewee might have been fruitless in getting salient information. But these excerpts do illustrate the style of questions that TV journalists ask. The whole excruciating interview is here.
But while Tony Jones might be forgiven for using the questions he did with the wooden and evasive Andrew Robb, Ali Moore does not have the same excuse with two facilitatory interviewees in Michael Stutchbury and Peter Hartcher.
What this piece is contending is that the nature of the questions asked by political journalists has a large influence on the answers that are given. When interviewers inject their own biases and opinions into the questions as they do with leading questions and also with some direct questions, they often predetermine the answer, or at the very least place the interviewee in a position of having to agree, or more uncomfortably, disagree with the questioner. This is a poor questioning style. It cannot elicit the true feelings and opinions of the interviewee, forced as they too often are into the Procrustean bed into which the questioner is trying to wedge them.
In other words, leading questions are a curse because they introduce the questioner’s own views in a way that inhibits the way the question might be answered. While a bold, confident interviewee might disagree without hesitation, one more timid might be inveigled into a softer response, a lesser degree of disagreement, or as we saw in the Ali Moore interview, a felt need to qualify the agreement: ‘I agree, but…’
Open questions have the potential for eliciting genuine opinions free from the pressure that closed or leading questions inflict upon interviewees. Journalists may be disinterested in employing these open questions though as they may not meet their need to pursue a predetermined outcome based on biases or the journalist’s opinion, or the ever present need for gotchas or ‘exclusives’, or as Lindsay Tanner would have it, sheer entertainment.
In my opinion, while there may be a place for direct and closed questions, it ought to be only after open questions have failed to elicit the information or opinion the journalist is seeking, particularly if the interviewee is being evasive or circumlocutory. Leading questions, if they have a place at all in political interviews, ought to be questions of last resort.
Should we press the ABC to encourage the use of open questions instead of the closed and leading questions that are stock in trade of too many of their journalists?
What do you think?