To ask or not to ask a reporter to reveal questions before interview

ODM party leader Raila Odinga (left) at his Karen home on August 5, during an exclusive interview with Nation Media Group Editorial Director Mutuma Mathiu. 

Photo credit: Joan Pereruan | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • There are also times when sources may want to know the questions in advance so that they can dig up the specific pieces of information the reporter requires.
  • For complex matters, specific questions may be given in advance to enable the source to prepare adequately for the interview.

This is a sequel to my article, “To show or not to show, the risky question journalists wrestle with” (Daily Nation, July 31, 2020), which tackled the question of whether reporters should share a story with a news source before it is published.

The question now is whether a reporter should share his questions with the subject of an interview before the actual interview. The two questions are related as they revolve around the issues of censorship and professionalism.

This second question is also important because it is common for politicians and other news makers to ask a reporter to send his questions before an interview. This could be a polite request or a veiled condition for granting the interview.

How a reporter handles such requests has important implications for the freedom of the media, integrity of journalism and public trust in the media.

General practice

As is the case with the first question, the NMG editorial policy does not address the second question. However, the general practice is that reporters do not send their questions to sources for review.

There are several reasons for this.

The most important is that sending advance questions gives the news source or subject of the interview an opportunity to attempt to change or shape the questions, and plant questions, including “gimme questions” (easy-to-answer questions). This can amount to a form of censorship.

The reporter, not the news source, owns the questions. The news source should not be allowed to re-make them, no matter how improper or misguided they may appear to be.

The role of the news source is to respond to questions, not to dictate them. If he is unhappy with some questions, he can say so in his responses; he can question the questions, argue, debate with the reporter, decline to respond to them or shape his responses as he wishes.

Another reason for not providing advance questions is that this could destroy spontaneity and creativity and limit the scope of the interview.

Rude and bullylike

Finally, it is condescending for a news source to ask to see a reporter’s questions or to tell a reporter what to ask. It is rude and bullylike.

However, while it is not good professional practice to send questions to a source to preview, there are exceptions where this can be permissible, even desirable. For instance, if the subject matter is not political or contentious, or if it involves an area of expertise such as science, research and technology, the reporter may want to send his questions in advance to make it easier for the source to provide background information and data.

There are also times when sources may want to know the questions in advance so that they can dig up the specific pieces of information the reporter requires.

The reporter should always be willing to give the source an indication of the information he requires so as to enable him to prepare for the interview. This may include the types of questions the reporter plans to ask.

For complex matters, specific questions may be given in advance to enable the source to prepare adequately for the interview. This can be a win-win situation, where the reporter gets comprehensive and accurate information while the source feels he is in control of the message.

Still, those circumstances allowing a reporter to share his questions in advance without compromising the integrity of the interview are not common. Ordinarily, we must conclude, it is a mistake to send advance questions to a news source.

The Public Editor is an independent news ombudsman who handles readers’ complaints on editorial matters including accuracy and journalistic standards. Email: publiceditor@ke.nationmedia.com. Call or text 0721989264.