Good questions for journalists and the rest of us

The art of framing good questions is as important in everyday life to elicit detailed information, as it is in journalism. That thought occurred to me after reading Chip Scanlan’s piece on the website of the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. That piece on “The power of good questions” is here.

So where do sharp questions fit into everyday life? To me, the Right to Information Act, 2005 is a good place to begin. For someone who has been running into a brick wall in Government, the Act provides the sledgehammer with which to remove some of the brickwork and look at what is happening inside.

The problem is that the sledgehammer invariably fails to work because people just cannot put the proper questions to the public information officer concerned. In my view, there is some difference in the way journalists and the citizen should be going about the questioning.

Chip points out, quite correctly, that extremely narrow questions in journalism may actually give the subject the opportunity to evade, dodge or dismiss them with cursory replies. In RTI petitions, however, the trick is to sharpen the questions so well that they act virtually like a trap — the rats in Government are caught by surprise and have nowhere to run but inside. Unlike the hapless four-legged rodents, however, babus in musty government offices are quick to recognise the traps when they see them. And once they do that, they will work overtime to get your problem solved.

Beyond the craft of writing RTI petitions, The Hindu today has a piece by campaigner Aruna Roy and her colleague, about the need to strengthen the process of selecting Information Commissioners for the Central and State Information Commissions which are the sentinels to which harassed petitioners must turn, when they are stonewalled by authority. That piece titled “Towards an informed choice” is here.

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