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.