Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

Officials won’t answer your question? Ask again

COMMENTARY | October 25, 2005

Follow the lead of Robert Siegel, who repeatedly asked FEMA head Chertoff how it was possible he didn’t know about the people in the New Orleans Convention Center.

By Ethan S. Burger and Geoffrey K. James




In early September, Robert Siegel of NPR’s "All Things Considered" interviewed Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff on the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Siegel asked a rather simple question about the plight of the people sheltered in the New Orleans Convention Center with little food or water. Chertoff said he had no knowledge of the situation. Siegel continued to ask how this was possible; Chertoff repeated that he had no information on the subject.


NPR then switched to a reporter at the Convention Center describing the conditions there. Several minutes later, Siegel reported that Chertoff’s secretary had called to confirm that, indeed, some New Orleans residents were being temporarily sheltered at the Convention Center, but without sufficient supplies of food and water.


This interview is worth noting chiefly because of Siegel’s refusal to accept a non-answer in response to a legitimate question. (For audio of the interview, click here.) Such persistent interviewing is a rarity. Public officials seem to dodge more questions than they answer, and reporters let them get away with it. 


Thus, much of today’s reporting seems perfunctory and uninformative. On controversial issues, the driving force appears to be a desire for so-called “balance,” that is, providing divergent views an equal amount of exposure without questioning the underlying merits of those views.


By merely repeating sound bites and conveying canned information, journalists become accomplices in the obfuscation of important issues. They abdicate the duty inherent in the vital mission of the Fourth Estate. This has had particularly a deleterious impact since a single political party has come to dominate Washington.  The same situation may also exist at the state or local level in different parts of the country.


By way of a corrective, reporters need to do what Siegel did. That would be a first step in meeting higher standards and for making those who exercise governmental power more accountable. Public officials are fiduciaries for the American people – and it’s the job of the press to treat them as such.


A second step might be that in an interview situation, if a journalist believed that s/he did not have their question answered in good faith, then they might repeat the question rather than moving to another question, as did Robert Siegel. Similarly, during press conferences, if one journalist poses a question that is not directly answered by the government official, the individual given the next opportunity to ask a question, might repeat the prior incompletely answered question, or yield to the individual who asked the prior question. 


The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.