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ivoh | January 17, 2018

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The value of questions

Bob Steele

Bob Steele

By Bob Steele

I believe in questions.

Questions that lead to more questions. Questions that prompt exploration and examination. Questions that force us to inquire and interrogate. Questions that challenge assumptions and reveal bias. Questions that create doubt and produce clarity.

Why? What’s so special about asking questions? Aren’t we really after answers? Don’t we need more declaratives and imperatives? Shouldn’t we be pronouncing and proclaiming?

Can’t we just be more commanding with our convictions?

Why not use STRONG PERIODS and bold exclamation points?

The period. BANG

The exclamation point! BOOM

The question mark? What’s with punctuation that looks like an upside down hook?

Well, I happen to believe there is a great deal of value in question marks. I champion the query they pose and the reflection they require.

Questions help us to ponder and probe beyond the black and white. Questions prompt us to grapple and search before we take positions. Questions push us to verify rather than assume.
Questions compel us to justify rather than presume.

Indeed, questions – at least good questions – might just lead us to better answers that, in turn, earn a strong period or the bold exclamation point.

Questions have been at the core of my professional journey as a journalist, an ethicist and a professor.

My reporter’s tool bag was filled with who, what, where, when, why and how questions. My ethical decision-making process is grounded in questions about duty and about consequences.

My learning and my teaching are built on the Socratic spirit of inquiry.

My interest in and affinity for questions actually goes back to my youth, though I’m not sure I was cognizant of the lure of queries. Lacking artistic ability, my parochial school doodling involved regular writing of the word WHY on the pages of my notebooks. I scribbled the word. I printed it in block letters. I penned it in cursive when the nuns forced the Palmer Penmanship method on us.

I regularly posed the word Why accompanied by a full-throated question mark – Why? – to my parents and teachers. But most of the time I was asking the question to myself. I was searching.

Questions gave me a pathway to learning important information. Questions opened up new ways to think about old ideas. Questions helped turn over pieces of puzzles.

Certainly the “Why?” question was a valuable tool in my journalistic work. I asked it regularly of those I interviewed to build context in stories I reported. I also asked that “Why?” question a lot when I edited stories of other reporters.

I’m far from alone in recognizing the value of this powerful word, both in the context of journalism and beyond. My DePauw University classmate Jack McWethy believed strongly in the power of the ‘why’ word and he used it rigorously in his years as a principled journalist and superb interviewer.

Jack, who passed away a few years ago, also used the “Why?” word as a linchpin of his commencement address at our alma mater in 2003.

“The word ‘why’ is, in my view, the most powerful word in the English language,” McWethy said. “It is the driving force of my profession, and it’s also the driving force and at the heart of your professors, creative sciences, honest politicians, and of good parents.”

Jack emphasized the societal value of this single word.

“All institutions, all endeavors, all relationships are improved by a good scrubbing using the word ‘why.’ In democracy, it is the question we must all constantly be asking our government and our leaders. It is not unpatriotic to question the government; it is unpatriotic not to.”

Jack practiced what he preached. He modeled the interrogation process as a reporter. And when he and I spent time together, his thoughts were sprinkled with “why” questions, sometimes challenging me to think deeper on an issue and sometimes rhetorically asking himself to explain or explore.

I’ve found the power of questions very useful in my work in journalism ethics. Questions are the underpinnings of the guiding principles I champion. Questions form the pathway to searching for the truth and reporting it as fully as possible. Questions demand stronger verification that produces heightened accuracy. Questions can sharpen journalistic purpose and expose a false premise of newsworthiness.

Questions are the process for examining our obligation to the principle of independence upon which the values of fairness and honesty are built. Questions reveal our own biases. Questions help identify our competing loyalties and expose corrosive conflicts of interest.

Questions offer a means to minimize harm, helping us to balance our professional obligations with our duties to be human. Questions help us develop reasonable alternative actions so we can be fair, respectful and compassionate even as we assertively interview vulnerable people and tell difficult stories with tough-to-swallow details.

Questions challenge us to be accountable for our actions. Questions require us to think hard about the process of making journalistic and ethical decisions and to be prepared to publicly justify what we do and why we do it.

To be sure, there is nothing easy about embracing questions. It takes skill to ask genuine, open- ended questions that prompt reflection and produce better decisions. It takes time to work through a process driven by a series of substantive questions as opposed to a string of snappy, simplistic answers. It takes commitment to resist premature conclusions.

Good questions are an investment with rewards.

A genuine, question-based process surfaces contrasting views and competing values that can produce tolerance and understanding.

Provocative questions stimulate complexity that can create clarity.

Spirited questions challenge egos while prompting humility.

Tough questions confound us while creating a-ha moments.

Good questions can challenge our minds, open our eyes and even touch our hearts. No question about it.

Bob Steele’s piece is from a series of essays on Voices & Values of Journalism that has been created by Images & Voices of Hope with the generous support of the Fetzer Institute and the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University. Our collective intention is to make these essays widely available to journalists, aspiring journalists and anyone interested in the field as part of an emergent curriculum to explore the deep foundation of values that support the important work that journalists do.