The Art Of Framing Good Interview Questions

Most veteran reporters have learned that the best questions elicit the best responses. Keeping some fundamental rules in mind about how to frame a good question can help you get a good response, even if you’re interviewing someone on the fly.

Here’s a long excerpt from David Beard’s “Morning Media Wire” from Poynter, full of great tips.


At a Poynter seminar this week, a Pulitzer-winning journalist told her charges that the Mueller-Trump tussle for information has placed key techniques before all reporters and editors. They are valuable enough to share with all.

Robert Mueller’s legal team knows how to ask questions in a way to glean intent and insight, says Jacqui Banaszynski, who has taught best practices of news thinking for decades in the newsroom or university. Most of the 40-some questions for Trump on interference in the 2016 elections, leaked to New York Times, began with “What” or “How.” Those entry points are less judgmental than “Why,” she told students — and more valuable than the “Where” and “When” questions that Mueller already knows.

Importantly, each question generally asks only a single thing, Banaszynski says, giving the respondent less room to wiggle out of one part of a multi-pronged query.

In annotating the questions, the Times’ Matt Apuzzo noticed the questions were both direct and open-ended. Here’s an example of a question (in bold) and the context from Apuzzo and Michael S. Schmidt:
Notice the Mueller query is not even the classic double-barreled question of Watergate: What did the president know and when did he know it?

Banaszynski says a version of Mueller’s legalistic precision in questioning has been taught to hundreds of journalists by ESPN’s interviewing coach, John Sawatsky, an investigative journalist and professor who has honed questioning for decades.

A Sawatsky profile from 2000 boiled down a key part of the technique to this: “Avoid making a statement during an interview. Avoid asking a question a source can answer with yes or no. Sound conversational, but never engage in conversation.”

Banaszynski emphasizes listening closely to the interviewee and going from there with fresh questions if surprises emerge. “The more you demonstrate you are truly listening, the more you will establish trust,” she writes in a checklist.

That said, don’t be a sucker. “Always ask,” Banaszynski concludes, “how do you know?”


Posted by Tim Morrissey