The media justifies its public interest credentials by holding the elected officials and the unelected public officials to account on behalf of the public. The media ask questions on behalf of the public when the public lacks the access and resources. The question from a journalist, especially a television or radio journalist will often carry greater weight and urgency because they reflect an audience. However, the audience is not the only factor that differentiates a journalist’s question.
The journalists are employed to ask questions; not just any questions, but good questions. To ask a good question takes research, knowledge, and skills. The journalist needs to know the subject, understand what they are asking and what it means, and, most importantly, phrase it to get an answer. A single question rarely works as well as a series of questions that explore issues raised by previous answers. An interview is the test of a journalist’s skills. If they handle it poorly, the interviewer dominates the interview. If they are overly aggressive, the interviewee becomes noncommittal. In extreme situations, the interviewee leaves the interview. A good interview plans the questions to draw out unexpected answers and reveal things that the interviewee may have wished to avoid.
The interviewee knows that the interview is the test of their skills and their message. If they cannot manage an interview, a miniature live performance, how will they manage it when it before a bigger audience. At the same time, they understand that the interviewer wants to draw out what they wish to either avoid or avoid discussing. The approach does not mean they have something to hide. The difficult question forces an interviewee to provide an answer they would want to avoid. To avoid the “difficult” questions, they often prepare stock answers or find ways to deflect the interview. In extreme cases, they may attack the interviewer and their motives and not answer the question.
In any interview, but particularly those, which are broadcast, political theatre appears. Both parties understand they are acting a part in a political performance because they are playing to an audience. The focus on the performance overshadows questions and answers. The rise of the internet has increased the political theatre. People look for sound bites, images, and single moments to reduce a complex issue to a single point. A well-known example is Romney’s 47% remark. A single statement defined a politician and a campaign. Politicians and their handlers now work to counter that threat. They focus on the theatre, the image, rather than the question, or the answer. When they do focus on the answer, it is on the hope that it creates the single statement needed to define a candidate or an issue.
The focus on theatre means that journalists become less interested and less capable of asking good questions. Their focus on image and appearance comes at the expense of questions skills. Appearance rather than the reality that questions and answers reveal defines our age.