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The art of the question

Can we talk about an epidemic?

Less than a month ago, in the days leading to the Bowl Championship Series National Championship Game, Jameis Winston, the Florida State quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner, heard a media member say, “Talk about the preparation you’ve had out here.”

His teammate, running back Devonta Freeman, who had overcome challenging circumstances during his adolescence, listened to a reporter say, “Can you talk about your childhood? Was it just you and your mom?”

Their head coach, Jimbo Fisher, delivered lengthy opening remarks at a press conference, which were followed by this: “Coach, can you talk a little bit about the focus?”

His opponent, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, began a session and heard, “Talk about the preparations thus far.”

Chris Davis, the defensive back whose 100-yard return of a missed field goal beat Alabama and made him part of Auburn lore, heard this: “Chris, can you talk about Florida State’s wide receiving corps? How do you plan to prepare for them?”

Wait. Was there actually a question in there?

 Ellis Johnson, Auburn’s defensive coordinator, listened to a reporter say, “This question is for Ellis. You have so many moving parts to your 4-2-5 defense. Can you talk about how important the linebackers are in the middle of that scheme?”

Johnson’s good nature prevented him from pointing out that there was just one problem here. There was no question.

When reporters across all platforms – print, broadcast and digital hybrids — pass those lanyards attached to credentials over their heads, they should do it with the understanding that “talk about…” is not a question. It’s a command. At the very least, it’s lazy and rude. It displays no thought, conveys no respect, offers no genuine invitation to some form of information, insight, emotion, enlightenment or dialogue. The command reflects the worst of 21st Century Mad Libs journalism, no initiative required, just the insertion of some phrase behind the official designated soundbite cue: Talk about X.

Have the industries of journalism and mass communications become so dehumanized, so indifferent, that we can’t take the time, just a few seconds, to pose a well-framed question? No wonder Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks has left skid marks as soon as the National Football League Fine-O-Meter said he can leave media sessions with his paycheck intact.

The longer I have taught college-age journalists how to develop their craft, the more I have realized that additional time has to be spent discussing the art of asking the question. The selection of the topic. The proper, antiseptic wording. The awareness needed to follow up if necessary.

My students would point out that I have become somewhat obsessed with this epidemic. But the conversation is important because questions are our currency, the means to engage with subjects and obtain meaningful information. The failure to make a genuine effort marks the beginning of the information breakdown.

So I would add more and more classes on the topic. I did not intend to create a form of torture – OK, maybe just a little – but I found a way to require students to think and ask a question simultaneously. I would find a broadcast-quality microphone, the type handed to reporters at major events. I would show tapes of high-profile press conferences, including Brett Favre’s original tearful farewell to football (almost) in Green Bay and Alex Rodriguez’ awkward post-PED disclosure session at the start of spring training with the New York Yankees in 2009. I would walk around the classroom and hand the microphone to a student, the signal that he or she would soon have to stand, state a name and fictional affiliation, and ask a well-conceived and constructed question. Then the class would evaluate its effectiveness.

At first, the looks in the eyes of the students said, “Get away from me.” One of them affiliated with the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University looked at the microphone and said, “I don’t want it.” I pointed out that was not an option.

I offered possibilities:

Would you describe…

Could you explain…

How did you begin to feel that way?

We would keep it simple and direct and learn from the masters. When former Yankee pitcher Ralph Terry disclosed that his wife had listened to his World Series appearance on the radio while feeding their infant, the late Stan Isaacs of Newsday asked, “Breast or bottle?”

One class at a time, something happened. The students would soon make the discovery that with preparation and thought, this exercise was not difficult at all. Cliches would be discarded. Engagement would become a greater possibility. They were creating a chance for a dialogue to begin.

At the end of a semester at Penn State University, when the final minutes of a class were devoted to the professor asking the group what had been gained, an outstanding student named Kelsey Detweiler said, “I’ll never use the words talk about in a question.” The high five that I initiated was so hard my hand hurt.

I had no idea we were starting a movement. John Tortorella, the coach of the Vancouver Canucks, was coaching the New York Rangers during the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring. His combative sessions with the New York media were known to turn rude, although not to the extent of his unfortunate recent effort to settle a dispute with the Calgary Flames by attempting to barge into their dressing room.

During a press conference last May, Tortorella listened to a media member say, “Talk about coaching in the playoffs.” That was all he needed to hear.

“Ask me a question,” Tortorella said. “Don’t say ‘talk about it.’ Ask me a question, please. I’m not going to talk about it if it isn’t a question.”

Now that’s what I’m talking about. With the wall-to-wall rhetoric of Super Bowl Sunday nearly upon us, and the translator-driven Olympic Winter Games in Sochi right behind, I propose a pledge to eliminate those two unnecessary words.

We can call it the Tortorella Moratorium in honor of our unlikely patron saint, complete with the accompanying incentive for media members worldwide: Don’t make me send him to go knocking on your door.

Malcolm Moran is Director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University.

28 Responses to “The art of the question”

  1. Jerry DiPaola says:

    Nicely done, Malcolm.

    Jerry DiPaola
    Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

  2. Bob herzog says:

    Perfect. “Talk about” has been banned in Zog’s classes. I will try your method. Great column.

  3. Totally agree but this is not a recent phenomena. I can recall sports writers doing this from my days covering the Bucs and the NFL 20 years ago. As well as the statement/question where the writer gives a short speech before posing what he or she think is a question, often prompting the athlete or coach to ask “Is there a question in there somewhere?”

  4. Mark Kunz says:

    Amen! The “talk about…” epidemic has bothered me for years. I try very hard not to fall into that crevice.

  5. Mark Shell says:

    Much ado about nothing. “Talk about” is fine — it’s all communication, and a conversational approach often works best. Don’t like it, don’t do it, but don’t act superior to those who choose to word questions that way.

  6. Stemi says:

    Thank You, this is a s direct result of “reporters” not wanting to ask the wrong question by asking no questions at all. Reporters are so worried about burning bridges, or ticking off players/coaches or even potential leads down the road by them as well. Also, in my opinion, this shows no thought, creativity by modern “journalists” who have no real-world training and are afraid of one word answers, so rather than think about crafting a proper question to get the answer you want, they use “Talk About” as a broad reach in hopes of getting the answer they desire.

  7. kelly says:

    “Can you talk about,” is arguably the worst phrase used by reporters since arguably and reportedly.

  8. Patrick says:

    I agree, this practice is lazy at best. It’s also often used not by writers, but by camera men and women (aka photojournalists) who, in the era of massive budget cuts, often are sent to get sound and video after practices and even games without an on-air “talent” in tow. They’re not trained for this type of work, so when they do it, I always cut them a little mental slack.

    Also, not to continue to defend this action, but I’ve interviewed some athletes and especially coaches/managers who are so arrogant that when you ask them an actual question, they think you are second-guessing their strategy or performance. Maybe “talk about …” emerged from a reluctance to place one’s self into a touchy interviewee’s crosshairs.

  9. Malcolm Moran says:

    Thanks, Jerry.

  10. Malcolm Moran says:

    Thanks, Nick. I can remember 70s-era “questions” when Willis Reed was captain of the Knicks: “Willis, assess the game.” Huh?

  11. Malcolm Moran says:

    Thanks, Mark.
    It’s worth the effort.

  12. Malcolm Moran says:

    Thanks, Kelly. “Arguably” would make for a good column. Arguably, of course.

  13. Malcolm Moran says:

    Thanks, Mark.
    Never said anything about being superior.
    I just said that approach is lazy and rude. I thought I showed some restraint.
    “Conversational” would be: “Could you tell us what was going through your mind when you circled the bases after the walk-off home run?”
    Not “Talk about the home run.”
    We encourage all readers to talk about their opinions.”

  14. Malcolm Moran says:

    Thanks, Stemi. I would offer one other potential cause: Social media overload. There is often not enough time to digest everything going on because of the time spent tweeting. What many reporters fail to realize is that the nature of their questions, whether intended or not, can reveal their level of professionalism. A well-prepared question shows a professional effort. For a beat reporter, especially, that can help create so much credibility.

  15. Malcolm Moran says:

    Thanks, Bob.
    Your students are getting outstanding guidance.
    We might be able to rename this the Tortorella/Zog Moratorium. Rolls off the tongue.
    I hope everyone in the family is doing well.

  16. Malcolm Moran says:

    Thanks, Patrick. In this era of crossing platforms, media members must be prepared to present themselves in a professional way, regardless of the duties.
    And as far as the subjects, we can only control the questions we ask. As long as we hold up our end, the answers are up to them.

  17. Brian Walter says:

    “Ellis Johnson, Auburn’s defensive coordinator, listened to a reporter say, ‘This question is for Ellis. You have so many moving parts to your 4-2-5 defense. Can you talk about how important the linebackers are in the middle of that scheme?’

    “Johnson’s good nature prevented him from pointing out that there was just one problem here. There was no question.”

    Um, that sentence with the question mark at the end? That’s a question.

    That said, this is spot on.

  18. Malcolm Moran says:

    Thanks, Brian. As for the question mark, I agree with you philosophically. The reason it was there is because the exchange was recorded and transcribed by a company called ASAP, which provided the media with transcripts of sessions before and after the BCS Championship Game. I was in attendance and heard those conversations, but that is the way it was recorded for use by the media.

  19. Steve Aschburner says:

    Nice work on the creeping “talk about” rot. Did I miss your similar sermons (sermons are good, BTW) re: questions that can be answered simply “Yes” or “No” and therefore waste everyone’s time? Or the long-winded set-ups to questions that require diagramming and, when they reach their convoluted conclusions, leave the interviewee wondering what was the head and what was the tail of that thing?

  20. john bansch says:

    using the phrase “talk about” is a lazy way to begin a conversation or interrogation. to me, it also is a sign the person with the notebook or mic has little knowledge of the sport. questions should be brief and to the point.

  21. C. Trent Rosecrans says:

    Too often, it feels like the “talk about” person is fishing to find something to fit into a hole they’ve already created in their story instead of trying to actually report and find out something new. it’s more or less a plea for a quote or soundbite that will fit whatever they’ve already decided is the story.

  22. Jerry Kavanagh says:

    Just as bad, Malcolm, are the “reporters” who ask coaches and players, “How big/important is this game?” or “How excited/disappointed/happy/frustrated are you about the game/play/score?”

  23. Steve Aschburner says:

    Right, Jerry. Too many in this business try to get the people we cover to do our jobs for us. If we’re merely asking questions (or issuing the talk-about command) to elicit quotes for a lede/nut graf/quote/transition graf/paraphrase/quote formula, we should have to turn over 25%-33% of our paychecks to those providing a quarter or a third of the words. Need to amend the old saying to be, “The only stupid question is the one you don’t ask OR the one that isn’t really a question.”

  24. Tom Morris says:

    Right on. But, what do I know? I’m just an old fart journalist at 60. . . . And I still use two spaces after the end of a sentence.

  25. Malcolm Moran says:

    Thanks, Steve. All of those things are worth remembering. The thing I stress to students is that they can establish some credibility just by putting some thought into their work and avoiding the things you cited. A young person can gain a lot of respect by doing things the right way.

  26. Malcolm Moran says:

    Thanks, John. Agreed. Whether it’s a cover up for lack of knowledge or lack of preparation, the result is the same. Hope you’re doing well.

  27. Malcolm Moran says:

    Thanks, Jerry. Those things have become part of a formula that somehow became accepted in too many places.

  28. Malcolm Moran says:

    Thanks, Tom.
    Isn’t 60 the new 40?
    The good news is that thanks to the digital world we live in, you’re not wasting paper with all those extra spaces in a long story.

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