Larry Brooks and How Not to Ask Questions

Posted April 16, 2011

There was a time when we learned that there’s no such thing as a bad question. I disagree. In journalism, it’s one thing to ask a question to gain knowledge or to get a quote, but it’s another to ask a leading question, then argue because you didn’t get the answer you were looking for.

The latest episode involves The New York Post’s Larry Brooks and New York Rangers coach John Tortorella. It’s true that these two have a history of not playing nicely together, and that Tortorella can be harsh, but this still stands as a clear example of how not to ask questions at a press conference.

The initial question is fair, even if the series is just 1-0 and though it’s clear that Brooks is fishing for something. Tortorella gave him an answer and that’s where it should have ended.

But when Brooks didn’t get the answer he wanted, he tried for a ‘gotcha’ moment by bringing up the final game of the regular season (which the Rangers needed to win). As if he really expect Tortorella to change his mind. Instead, it led to frustration and confusion. Tortorella’s answer seemed to completely spoil Brooks’s story. Maybe Brooks already had the headline written: “Tortorella Says Rangers’ Backs Are Against a Wall.” Perhaps he had an entire article about backs against walls, the history of backs and walls, and the one thing missing was a quote from Torts.

It’s common for journalists, particularly in sports, to ask obvious questions, usually beginning with ‘How important is it to… (kill the penalty, play good defense, win the game). These questions are designed to engage the coach or player in discussion and to get quotes to fill an article. Typically, the subject complies, no matter how obvious the answer. It rarely ends with the two accusing each other of screwing up the day.

Press access is a privilege, not a right. If journalists like Brooks can’t quit making fools of themselves with bad questions and even worse reactions, then snubs among interviewees may become more commonplace. Then how else will we be able to find out how important it is to kill the penalties?