Questions about Questions

December 8, 2009

The news that Melinda Duckett’s family has brought a wrongful death suit against CNN and its host Nancy Grace has me thinking anew about the power of questions and the responsibility of those who ask questions. In 2006, Melinda Duckett's son Trenton disappeared. As in most such cases, a parent—in this case twenty-one-year-old Melinda—immediately became a suspect. The suit alleges that Grace's aggressive, accusatory on-air questioning triggered Melinda's suicide the next day. Grace contends that her questioning simply revealed the truth of Duckett's guilt, which she was trying to hide. CNN says it is sorry about the tragedy but supports the public's right to know.

Reading about this, I ponder the ethics of questioning. How—if at all—should people in the public eye take responsibility for the effects of their questions? How should we, in our private and work lives? What is the boundary between the responsibility of the one who answers and the responsibility of the one who asks? A few years ago, our friend (and journalist and author) Leslie Whitaker wrote an interesting article in the American Journalism Review about how, instead of being removed and objective, sometimes journalists can actually reinforce the conflicts that they cover through the content and manner of questioning. At the Public Conversations Project we've certainly seen how provocative, accusatory, and "gotcha" questions can inflame opponents and sustain conflict. On an individual level, I know that certain questions would send me spinning.

So what are we to do? How do we craft and pose our questions in an ethical manner? What should we keep in mind? What kind of responsibility should we—and the media—take for the impact of the questions we ask?