Wednesday, December 07, 2016

The hypothetical media question, and how to answer it

"What if," asked the faculty member in one of my media training workshops, "you get a hypothetical question from a reporter?"

"Is that a hypothetical question about a hypothetical question?" I asked in return.

Hypothetical questions may be fine for your wide-ranging personal conversations, but as George H.W. Bush noted, they don't work so well in your public statements and media interviews. And of course, reporters love to pose hypothetical questions.

Another scientist, during one of my presentations on working well with the media, suggested that we can blame reporters' "misquoting" for mistakes that appear to be those of the interviewee. But in my experience, it's overstepping out loud by the interviewee--going well beyond what's known, proven, or just safe to say--that gets quoted, and then decried as "misquoting." Hypothetical questions set you up well for making statements that you can't support, creating the right conditions, as the saying goes, for letting your mouth write a check that your ass can't cash.

Based on a hypothesis, such a question poses "a supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation." So it might be heard as a "what if..." question, or one that starts with "Suppose..." The situation posed could be one for today (as in, "If that kind of crime isn't happening here now, what if it did?") or in the future.

These are tempting, seemingly innocent, pie-in-the-sky kinds of questions, aren't they? The sly suggestion is "You know so much, put your imagination to work and tell us what might be?"

But no matter how it's framed, a hypothetical question also might wind up with you being quoted as if the hypothesis is hardened fact. This is particularly dangerous for a scientist trying to describe published work that proves what is, but can trip up any profession.

In most cases, it's far better for you to say, "I don't want to speculate" or "I wish I could tell you" or "I don't have any data on that," than to spin an answer out of thin air. Don't let the invitation of a hypothetical question let you get "beyond where you want to be" in your next media interview.

Photo by Ziglar Vault

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