Press conferences illustrate that point very well. At President Obama's press conference last night, none of the questioners jumped out as the second coming of Helen Thomas - wait, the first coming of Helen Thomas is still here. There were several examples of the worst practice that today's media stars engage in: asking multiple questions at once. Fortunately for us, Obama can not only remember the various questions raised even after speaking at length about one of them, but he actually tries to address them all and very often makes the questions more coherent in the process. But unfortunately for journalism, his skill enables the shoddy questions and lets the press off the hook.
Luckily, there is a simple solution. Require that each journalist ask only one direct question, but allow a follow up responding to the answer. The first part would be easy, it just takes discipline from the speaker to cut off second questions or at least only address the first question asked. But the second part would require the media to actually commit journalism. They would need to understand the subject matter, listen to what the answer was, and know how to:
- refocus the question if it wasn't addressed,
- find the weak spot and press that point further,
- relate the answer to another aspect of the issue, or
- probe deeper into the heart of the matter.
By the way, the "gotcha" journalism of Tim Russert and the other big Sunday talkers does not count as a question and follow-up. Russert would often put up a quote, basically ask, "did you say that?" wait for the answer from the subject and put up another quote. Then repeat. The hardest follow up question Russert would pose to his "are you running for president?" question was "really, are you running for president?"