Open or Closed? That is the question.

I should start by apologising to all pedants: I’m about to bring something to your attention (if you haven’t noted it already) that will drive you crazy once you do start noticing it and then realise how prevalent the wretched habit is becoming.

I was taught at school, as were my two children, about the difference between making a statement and asking a question. I was also enlightened about the difference between open and closed (or open-ended and closed-ended) questions.

For those who weren’t lectured on the subject or who need reminding, an open question is one that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” or with a specific piece of information. It gives the person answering the question scope to give the information that seems to them to be appropriate. A closed question on the other hand is one that provides a set of answers from which the respondent must choose (e.g. “yes” or “no”). Such questions rarely invite comment and are generally not though of as having much probative value.  So you would think that television reporters and correspondents, many having obtained qualifications in journalism or having studied the English language, would not make statements, be particularly adept at avoiding closed questions and would predominantly use the open type in their interviews. Sadly that isn’t the case.

Watch any post-sporting event interview and listen to the alleged questions that are asked. “So you’ve just run a personal best, beaten your big rival at this distance and thrilled this capacity crowd. That must make you feel good” The athlete would be perfectly within his or her rights here to look the failed inquisitor in the eye and say: “Sorry – was that a question?”

If they don’t make their own statement the question is almost invariably a closed one: “So was bowling a hat-trick against Australia the greatest moment of your career to date?” In my view the cricketer here should merely answer “Yes” but in both cases they are usually kind enough to elaborate and offer detail that most definitely was not asked for.

Now I realise that it is easy to pick on sports presenters as many of them are ex-sportsmen or women who have probably not obtained qualifications in journalism. However there are plenty of examples of non-questions (i.e. statements) and closed questions that come from the supposedly better qualified political and foreign correspondents. Whatever the level of expertise, shouldn’t the television companies be training interviewers in the basics before letting them loose in front of the cameras?

It isn’t only when interviewing people that they do it. The other night the BBC news was reporting on the Philpott sentencing. For reasons best known to themselves they had a reporter in Derby. She was not in the road where the fire actually took place but in some unnamed street in the city centre. In the studio the newscaster introduced the piece by saying: “Over now to our reporter in Derby. Everyone there must be monitoring the events at Nottingham Crown Court very closely. There must be a general feeling there of relief now the three defendants have all been convicted and sent to prison.” 

Now I feel that the people of Derby probably weren’t taking any more interest in the sentencing than the rest of the country and I would question the validity of having a reporter there in the first place but the BBC clearly thought it added value to their coverage. If the reporter had been in the very street that the fire took place interviewing those that lived near the address or speaking to friends and relatives I could have perhaps seen more value in having someone there but I digress.

My point here is that if the poor woman who had been despatched to Derby had anything of any value to say (and I accept that is a moot point in itself), the newscaster at Broadcasting House had just stolen most of it in introducing her. Couldn’t she have just said: “Tell us how the people of Derby have reacted to the sentencing”?

I once read an article about Michael Parkinson who is surely one of the best interviewers ever to have graced our screens. He claimed that he got some of the best results from the people he interviewed by not asking a follow-up question. When his interviewee finished answering an initial question he would merely pause to see if they would expand further. He truly was a master of his art.

5 thoughts on “Open or Closed? That is the question.

  1. I agree with this and there are some interesting points that we could all consider in our working lives. The only slight point I would make is around cutting too much slack to ex-sportsmen. They more than anyone should appreciate the importance of being professional and dedicated. If they set themselves up as professional journalists and go straight in at the top of their new profession based largely on the cult of personality and their past sporting achievements they too should study the English language and take qualifications, or at least do their best to learn from skilled people around them (whom they very likely have greater access to than up and coming journalists who were not sports stars). It’s lazy to rely solely on their unique insights and experiences because there aremany sportsmen and women that have these.I remember when Scott Loach made it to the England bench Adrian Chiles and Andy Townsend were very rude about him and joked that they didn’t know who he was and couldn’t pick him out. Excuse me? As professional journalists I thought it was their job to find about these things and explain them to the audience. If I was that bad at my job (no comments please) I’d be loath to admit it to millions of viewers let alone take pride in the fact. I wouldn’t have minded so much if Townsend had been less of a journeyman in his own football career.

  2. The closed questions by interviewers inevitably lead to the answer that riles me more than anything! Presented with a closed question to which the answer should be “Yes”, why do so many people feel the need to say “Very much so”!

  3. I told by people who have met him that Ray Wilkins is a very nice bloke but he is worst for ‘very much so’. I think other footballers copy him. They have developed their own sub-language I’m sure.

    • I was thinking about this a bit whilst watching the news and sport. It is true that journalists don’t ask questions, they just make statements with a rising tone. I’m wondering if this is not deliberate particularly with sports press. If the interviewee agrees then that becomes his statement and the headline. If he disagrees then that also becomes news. The interviewee is always vulnerable when the full context isn’t known. so the press can get reports of Colin Warnock ruling himself out of the Barcelona job and such like.

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