Panel Discusssion: Important Questions Happen Before Reporting Begins
'Once we got that question in our minds, all of a sudden everything fell into place.’
Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman moderated a discussion featuring New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston and Amanda Bennett, editor of The Lexington Herald-Leader, about why questions matter and how they help guide reporting. Each of these journalists has won at least one Pulitzer Prize—Goodman for commentary, Johnston for beat reporting, and Bennett for public service and national reporting. Bennett and Johnston shared insights from their work on recent Pulitzer Prize-winning stories. As managing editor at The Oregonian Bennett oversaw reporting for a series detailing abuses by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and at The New York Times Johnston’s reporting exposed loopholes and inequities in the U.S. tax code and was instrumental in bringing about reforms. Edited excerpts follow.
Ellen Goodman: I thought we’d start with Amanda and David talking a little bit about what the right questions were that started their investigation and that informed it right to the end and to talk about what the right question is for the writer, for the reporter, for the reader, and for the editor, which are all different constituencies, as we all know. I’d also like to throw in a beginning and an end question, in terms of the beginning and the end of your investigations. The beginning question would be "What is the question you ask yourself when you decide that a story is important?" Way at the other end, "What is the question you wish you’d asked?"
Amanda Bennett: The question was enormously, enormously important in framing the immigration and naturalization story. In listening to the previous speakers, it occurs to me that a lot of this comes back to the right question. Because when you’re working at a paper where there are limited resources, 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. That was so critically important with the immigration and naturalization story because we were in Portland, Oregon. When you think about immigration stories, you don’t naturally think about Portland. You think of Los Angeles, of Miami, you think of Texas, you think of the border.
Strange immigration stories started popping up in Portland, like a boatload of smuggled Chinese teenagers who showed up and then got stuck off in jail someplace. Then we wound up with a strange situation with a Korean businessman who was stopped at the airport and hustled off. Stories just kept popping up, and we kept looking at them, and we’re saying, "What does this mean? What does it mean?" We couldn’t come up with anything. Portland and immigration. "What does this mean to us?"
The conversations kept going on over a long period. It wasn’t that we said, "I know. Let’s go do a project on immigration." These conversations were going on around a wide variety of different subjects in the newsroom because all kinds of things were happening. We would hold each one of them up to the light and say, "What does this mean? Does this have any bigger meaning for us?" We’d go to some of these meetings scratching our heads and saying, "We don’t know what this means. It doesn’t hook together in any way that we can make sense of."
Then at one point a Chinese businesswoman coming into Portland got stopped for what they called a passport violation. It turned out the laminate had peeled off her passport page so they thought it was a forgery, and she was arrested, put in jail, strip searched, and held until they determined that her passport was valid and they said "You can go." They didn’t even say "Sorry."
The beat reporter did that story, and at that point we got together again and said, "What does this mean?" and I said, "This is about how they treat people. This isn’t a border issue. This isn’t an immigration issue. This isn’t a smuggling issue. This is about how the INS treats people."
Once we got that question in our minds, all of a sudden everything fell into place. A big, amorphous agency and a story that went all across the country and took thousands of pages of documents and could have gone anyplace, all of a sudden it got framed in a way we could understand: How does the INS treat people? And it became our story, because they were treating people badly at our airport, and they were treating people badly in our communities. So we started from there and took it out. Every question got framed from that original question.
It became, then, what is the culture of the INS that enables them to treat people this way? In what different ways do they treat people? It turned out they were very inefficient and very inept. So we did a whole thing on looking at the way they lost hundreds of thousands of files and trapped people away from their families simply by their inefficiencies. That was a way they treated people badly. Then we got into the prisons issue. They would take people who were seeking asylum, throw them in prison, and they would forget where they were. I mean, literally, they would forget where they were. So then that became a piece of how they treated people badly.
Every single one of those things emanated from focusing on the correct question. But the correct question didn’t come from a bunch of editors sitting in a room saying, "I know, let’s do a big project on this." It came from asking questions over and over and over again for beat reporters. Some of the questions you’ll never see the result of because we just never could come up with anything, or it didn’t mean anything significant, or it was just an event, or it wasn’t anything important.
Every big investigative project—and we did a ton of them at The Oregonian, a ton of meaningful, significant investigative projects—all came from stuff that was going on and asking that question. What does this mean? That’s the other question. What does it mean? Does this connect to our readers in any way? Does this connect to us?
By framing that question at the outset, it made the whole job so much easier.
Then I don’t think there is a question that we wish we had asked so much, but at the very end there was another very important set of questioning that I think was the right question. We used the scientific method—we did basic reporting and established a thesis statement from our basic reporting. Our thesis statement was the INS treats people badly. We weren’t going to go see how does the INS treat people; we established a thesis statement—"the INS treats people badly"—and we went out looking for that. At every checkpoint along the way we would come back every week and say, "Is our reporting backing up that thesis or do we need to alter that thesis?"
That’s how you use the scientific method. You can’t just go mooching all over the place. You have to set your target. But honesty and dispassionateness require that you keep checking that thesis. At any moment we were trying to check was our reporting backing up the thesis, and did we have to alter our target?
At the very last week of the project, the INS would not answer us. They would not talk to us. Finally they got on the phone and did a conference call for about three or four hours in which they gave vague general answers. So the last week of the project we spent saying, "Now we’re the INS. If they won’t defend themselves, what are the questions we need to ask of ourselves to defend them for them? What have we missed? What have we not looked for because we were so intent on our goal? What would the INS say if they were a vigorous defender of themselves?" So we went around back and asked the question from the other side of the perspective.
The really depressing thing was that we made an active attempt to find INS supporters, people whom we believed from the outset would give us a defense of the INS. The really depressing thing is they all turned out to support our points and turned out to be critical of the INS. One of the senior reporters, a very experienced investigative reporter, said at the end of our defense of the INS project, "I’ve been an investigative reporter for 20 years. I have never been in a situation where 100 percent of the people we talk to support our thesis." Generally in any investigative project, he said, 20 percent are going to say you’re out to lunch. This did not happen to us, even though we actively solicited people on the basis of our belief that they would be sympathetic to the INS’s position.
Everything was questions all the way through. It was always framing the right question. That was fundamental to everything.
Goodman: In the wake of September 11 there are all kinds of questions about not just the incivility and stupidity of the INS, but also about how while they were treating good people badly, they were letting bad people in.
Bennett: That’s the wonderful irony of this: While they’re treating good people badly and throwing people in jail, the INS is not very effective at doing what they’re supposed to be doing, which is keeping bad people out. That was the other thing—they were framed in a kind of hostile anti-other mentality. They weren’t in the real law enforcement mentality. I’ve left The Oregonian now, but the people there are using their expertise that they’ve built on this project. They are now working that piece of it showing how they were not effective at an extremely important mission, which is keeping the bad guys out.
David Cay Johnston: I especially love the idea of the thesis. We have a thesis, and we’ll keep testing against it and abandon it if it doesn’t work.
I came to cover tax policy for The New York Times because I had a fundamental question, which is: What is this system about? Never in my entire life did I feel in all the stories I read that I really saw good, continuing newspaper coverage of taxes, even though every one of us pays taxes, and I was very frustrated by this. Our whole system depends on taxes, whether it’s educating children, or enforcing your rights under a contract, or military defense of the country. I had covered the estate tax system and begun to learn some of the principles of it. The first thing I learned was most of the reporters covering this, like most reporters covering most subjects, engaged in "he said" journalism: "da, da, da, da, comma," he said. So what they ended up doing was accurately quoting people, whether they knew what they were writing about or not.
On the underlying question of asking questions, I’d like to lay out to you some principles about ways to ask questions that I think can inform your reporting, or if you’re an editor, inform the way you manage your reporters.
• Different people have to be approached in different ways; there is no simple rule about this. There are people who you have hit-and-run relationships with; you’re going to see once for 10 minutes of your life and there are people who may be life-long sources. You have to treat people differently based on the circumstances.
• The single most important thing you can do to get people to give you good answers is to listen to the verbs they use and to use them in the questions that you phrase to them. When someone telling you a story says, "Well, then we ambled across the street to Joe’s Bar" and you come back to that question somewhere later in the interview, you don’t say, "When you went to Joe’s Bar, when you walked to Joe’s Bar." You say, "Why don’t we go back to when you were ambling across the street to Joe’s Bar?" People pay attention to you if they hear their verbs repeated to them. They connect with you in a way that they don’t otherwise, if you use their verbs. You will find people will give you more intimate answers to your questions in anything other than a hit-and-run interview.
• In a public hit-and-run setting, it’s terrific to use the "why" question. It’s the only place that one should ever use it. We have no other choice. Because if you say, "Now why did you pick that jacket today?" what you’ll get is a defensive answer, "What’s wrong with my tie or my blouse?" and you will often get a short, focused answer that makes for great quotes, but it doesn’t really inform your reporting.
• A better way to approach a question is, "So tell me the reasoning that went into that decision. What was it that led you to see this this way? Tell me the reasons behind that." You ask people not to justify—which is what a "why" question does—but to explain. You are signaling, on a subtle level to people, that you want to understand what they have to say. Try to ask questions in a way that is neutral because you really don’t know what the other person thinks, even if they are politicians with long records. Instead of asking "Why did you cut the budget?" you can say to them, "Tell me the decisions that went into what you did to the budget." You can hone in later on the cut aspect of it, but you want to start out with how did you get to where you are so that you understand the principles behind their thinking.
• Next, you need to learn, I would say to every journalist I’ve ever known, to hold the silence. When you ask a question and the person doesn’t answer, it’s very hard. I have a little trick. I will sit there and quietly count to myself in my head, with my tongue quietly tapping against the roof of my, mouth to 120. Two minutes is about as long as I can take it. You look at someone, you look away from them to give them some relief, but you look back at them, and you just sit there. Don’t fidget, just sit there quietly. If you then have to resume the conversation because they haven’t said anything, try to go back to the same question in a little bit different way.
• When people are being interviewed and you’re asking questions, it’s not about you. I think one of the reasons that there is a broad popular contempt that surveys show about journalists is that they see the talent on TV, which is their idea of journalism, when they ask questions, it’s about them. It’s not about the person the questions are being asked about. It’s not about you. It’s about the questions. It’s about the other party.
• On the other hand, a little contradiction to that, when I’m dealing with someone who isn’t talking about some dry policy issue, I often exchange little facts about my life with people that turn out to get them to open up. I was interviewing a guy one time and he was saying, "You wouldn’t understand this at all," but he starts talking about prison. I’d say, "Well no, actually I have, one of my grown sons went to prison for a while because of a stupid prank he pulled in college." "He did?" "Yes." This guy then opened up and told me a great deal more than I think he would have otherwise.
• The degree to which you have prepared for an interview will control the quality of the information you get out of it. When I came to The New York Times I thought I knew taxes. Then I started writing about it, discovering how little I knew. I basically went to school for a couple of years, reading court cases and decisions and interviewing people to understand it, so that now when I talk to people, I can talk tax, which is a whole other language. It’s like French or mathematics, it’s a different language. I can talk tax to people and then translate back into English. You need to know who your subject is, whether you’re a celebrity journalist interviewing Tom Cruise and you need to know what details will get something out of his life, knowing a fact about his dog, or you’re writing about the Pentagon strategy relative to the attack, responding to the attack of September 11. You need to have knowledge of what it is that you’re writing about.
• You can subtly signal your knowledge. Someone says, "The first thing that happens is it goes into the administrative law judge system." You say, "All right, so you have an ALJ hearing." The person realizes you know something about this. They say, "You go to court," you say, "U.S. district court or some other venue?" The lawyer immediately knows you have some knowledge of the legal system. • I always try to avoid leading the witness, because when you do that, you may guide towards whatever you wanted your story to be, but you may miss totally something about who this person is, or what they want to say.
• At the end of every interview I do, I ask people, "What do you want to tell me that I didn’t ask you?" A lot of people just go blank at that, and I let it sort of sit there for a while, and I’ll come back and say, "Okay," and sometimes talk about something back in the interview. If you let that go for a while, people often will open up and tell you something you had no idea was there, over here in right field.
• All of this depends on putting people at ease, at creating a sense of comfort. One of the little phrases I’ve used over the years is that good interviewing skills are good dating skills because you’re trying to get someone else to essentially open up and be intimate with you. On some level, that’s what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to get someone to communicate with you.
• I call people back and tell them what I’m going to quote them as saying, unless they’re in a public forum. If you’re the President of the United States and you say something stupid, or the mayor of New York City in a public forum, we quote you. But if you’re sitting in an interview and you mess up your words, you use the wrong word tense, unless it’s relevant to the story, I’m a believer that the job here is not "gotcha." It’s not to make you look stupid. In fact, I want you to call me back even if I beat you up in the paper and talk to me in the future.
• I encourage people to call me after stories, and I sometimes call people after stories and say, "Okay, tell me about that." Not people who are regularly in the public sphere, not people who are professional liars or congenital liars, but people who generally don’t have contacts with media. A great deal of my career has been dealing with people who it may be the only time they’re ever in the newspaper in their life.
Finally, I want to remind you of a little story about Sy Hersh. Many years ago he broke the story of the illegal bombing campaign in North Vietnam. He focused on a particular general who was in charge of the air command in Vietnam. The night before the story was going to run Hersh called the general up and began reading him the story. He got to a point where the story said the general ordered the bombing of bridges, railroad yards, etc., etc., and went on. The general said, "Wait a minute, you forgot about POL." And Hersh said, "What?" "POL, Petroleum oil and lubrication dumps." Sy said, "Hold on and I’ll put them in."
Now why did the general do that? Because just as you and I care mostly what our peers think about our work, this general knew that every military person of any consequence in the world would read this story, and he doesn’t want them to think, "That dummy, he didn’t think to bomb the petroleum oil and lubrication dumps," which are a fundamental military target.
I generally try to lay out to people what I’ve done. "Here is what we’re working on, here is what we’re doing." I lay out all of my cards. I’ll often hand people documents. I don’t believe in blind-siding people. We’re not talking about a hit-and- run press conference here. I’m talking about a story with any length to it. I’ll start off with something broad and simple that allows someone to explicate about who they are. Because as time goes by, as people talk to you, they tend to relax. I often will ask somebody or their handlers how much time we have, because that will influence it. The best sign in the world that you’re going to get good answers is when somebody who was supposed to have an hour says, "Go away," when the secretary comes in the room. But I don’t do things at the last moment either. If I know I have an hour with you, probably half an hour to 40 minutes, I will get to the hard issues we’ve got to deal with, because I want you to be able to go through the nuances and come back about the fine points of it.
Goodman: Amanda, you’ve been an editor on these stories, so you don’t have the option of asking the direct question. How do you interact with the reporter, as the story is going on, to make sure that the questions that you think are crucial are getting dealt with?
Bennett: I’m presuming that I’m working with reporters who are listening to David and following his advice. My responsibility is to ask the questions at the other level, because to my mind a great reporter goes out and immerses him or herself in the details and asks all of those questions and gets every single thing, and needs kind of the left-brain person. The editor is the left-brain person who asks the big, overarching questions and keeps them focused on what they’re doing. So I’m not so much focused on whether they are in every individual interview asking the correct questions of their sources. I hope that as experienced reporters they’re learning those skills themselves.
Goodman: Let’s say, for example, you’re faced with a host of state agencies and you’re getting stories that five of them have a little problem here and a little problem here. How do you make the decision as to which ones are most meaningful for your community? Do you have an overarching sense of how to determine what’s important at this moment?
Johnston: Well, I’ve been an editor, although not at the level Amanda has been, and one of the things I learned as an editor is that you are limited by the team you are given to play with and their skills. You can make the most or the least out of those skills and personalities you have. But, most importantly, I think you have to ask the question of what’s most important. You have to set priorities. I have had editors say to me, and I’m glad they did on occasion, "You know, that’s true. I’m sure you can prove that. [But] it’s not big enough. It’s not important enough. Let’s get something more important." And I think an editor’s job is to manage those resources to get the highest return out of them and to ask reporters before turning something down, "Are you framing this the right way to me?" Make sure that if you feel this is real important, go back and think about how to present this. Is it important? Then next is, is it worth the practical effort to get it? There is a great tax story that I know about that I am never going to go do, and the reason is that it will be a year’s work for a one-day story that is not that significant. I absolutely know it’s there, I’ve just made a decision: I’m not going to do this because all the other things would get passed over. Every time you decide to do a story, you are passing up other stories, and you’ve got to weigh that.
Bennett: At The Oregonian, everybody who wanted to do a project had to go through Project Olympics. The Project Olympics was how important is this story and how hard is it to get. So you’ve got two scores, one for the degree of difficulty, one for the execution. There was a line at which those scores crossed. If it was going to be an absolutely out of this world, unbelievable story, but impossible to get, I don’t think we’re going to do that. If it was going to be a really mediocre story, but really easy to get, I’m not going to do that one either. So there is a line at which it has to have terrific impact and be getable.
Johnston: I’ve been a judge in a number of investigative reporting contests, and I see a lot of incredibly great work. But I also see a lot where some editor didn’t ask the question, "Why are we going after this little two-bit operation?" Now in some cases you could have made it an important point, made a larger point through it, but it came off as beating up on some little guy. I think that’s a question editors especially need to ask of reporters.
There is another, one other thing I need to bring up. A lot of times a subject comes at us that we had no idea of, like the INS treating people horribly in Portland and, therefore, presumably around the country. Readers aren’t thinking about that. It’s not on their agenda. If they suddenly just get hit with a project, it may not resonate or strike them because they don’t see it. One thing to think about when doing a big project is whether there are news stories that you can do along the way that start dropping this into the public record. Readers have some hint something is going on, and then they see this. It doesn’t come out of nowhere. It doesn’t slap them in the face; it has some context.
Bennett: People are putting tons and tons of time and effort and reporters’ time into these kinds of investigations. Some of them are fabulous and some of them are not. Yet it’s not that the people don’t have the time or the energy or the resources. It’s just are they asking the right question and framing the right question? Is this worth the time and energy, and am I going to get traction on it? Am I going to educate my readers? Am I going to show them things they didn’t know before they read it? With so many you read the first page, you read the first headline, and you already know what the six-day series is going to say. You don’t know anything new at the end of it that you didn’t know at the beginning of it. Had the question been asked correctly, the story could have enlightened and enchanted people and educated them.
Johnston: Amanda began by saying that they like to work against a posit. Here is an idea. Is it true or not? There are a lot of editors who don’t like that idea because they think it shows your bias. If you have the intellectual integrity to work against an idea though and abandon it the minute the facts don’t fit it, you go the other way, that is fine.
Once I set out to do a story based on a tip a prosecutor gave me when I was at the Los Angeles Times about three young black men who went out one night to kill the first white guy they could find just for the hell of it, and what happens? This case had never been reported because the victim lingered in the hospital for a number of days. Deep into my story, after I’ve had the widow write down her nightmares for me and everything else for one of these opus Times pieces, I meet the accused killer. I ask him some questions. He gives me answers that don’t make any sense. Finally I said, "Tony, I read the trial transcript. You don’t have any defense. I don’t want to hear all of this. I want to know the reason you did this."
"I didn’t do this and nobody will believe me," he told me.
I said, "Whoa, wait a minute. Cold blooded, racially motivated killers who lead gangs don’t talk like this." Ultimately, I found out the real killer was another client of his lawyer. I went right in to an editor and said, "You know that posit I’ve been working against? Well, black is white. This kid didn’t do it."
You have to do that. You have to ask the question all the time. Are things really as they appear to be? There have been some big investigations that I have read about in which somebody didn’t ask that question and big mistakes happened. So you always need to ask yourself that question, "Are things really as I think they are?"
Bennett: I’ve got to say it’s a very difficult editor’s responsibility, and I was fortunate to be in a place that allowed me to do this. You’ve got to be willing to toss the story. Pull the plug on months’ worth of reporting. Pulling the plug at no penalty to the reporter. Because you can’t have honest reporting and integrity in your reporting if you’re not willing to throw it away if the story is not there. And the only way you find out the story is not there is you follow it as far as you need to until you find it out.
Amanda Bennett is editor of the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader and a recently elected Pulitzer Prize board member.
Ellen Goodman, a 1974 Nieman Fellow, is an associate editor of The Boston Globe, where she has worked since 1967, and a nationally syndicated columnist.
David Cay Johnston is a reporter for The New York Times covering tax inequities, tax loopholes, and the IRS, for which he earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2001.