How do you feel?
April 2, 2004 12:56 PM   Subscribe

Why do reporters ask "How do you feel"? I've wondered about this for years (sometimes yelling at the TV); I'm inspired to ask the question by a sentence in this NY Times story about the families of the contractors killed in Iraq Wednesday: "He would not discuss the details of his brother's death or how the attack — in which at least two of the four bodies were dragged through the streets and hung from a bridge in the city of Falluja, west of Baghdad — made him feel." Well, how do you think it made him feel? I understand why reporters have to ask probing questions of grieving families, but this particular one seems so pointless and so ubiquitous I wonder if any reporters in the group could explain it to me.
posted by languagehat to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm not a reporter but I've wondered this myself. The cynic in me suggests that perhaps a good breakdown makes good TV, on the other hand, what else is there to ask relatives? They tend not to be eyewitnesses and will often only have as much info as the reporter themselves. Choices are perhaps limited.
posted by biffa at 1:02 PM on April 2, 2004

I think it's to avoid putting words in someone's mouth and to avoid assuming anything.

For example in this case, the families could have resopnded:

"I'm sad my loved one is gone"
"I'm sad he's gone, but I undestand that these poor people were just venting their frustration at the occupation of their homeland by foreign troops"
"I'm so sad and angry, it's just like those godless Muslims to do something like this!"

All completely different answers, but all valid given the question asked. But if all the reporter had asked was, "Are you sad?", the response would just have been, "Yes." Leaving the question open-ended allows the responder to express themselves more freely.
posted by falconred at 1:17 PM on April 2, 2004

While I'm not a reporter either, I do work in a parallel field, and my take on it is that of a Joseph Campbell mono-mythical sort of narrative story telling device; the journalists want to create an emotional connection for the viewers.

My gripe is not what the journalists are asking the relatives, but more why they are hounding the relatives in the first place. News is, at times, a very parasitical scourge in their attempts to be the first to 'get the story.'

Of course, we as a society, reward and reinforce through viewership this exact behavior. How are we as consumers any less jaded than the reporters when we permit this to occur?
posted by jazzkat11 at 1:21 PM on April 2, 2004

Several of my closest friends are reporters, and although I don't want to portray them as unfeeling people, they have related to me that around the office, they use the term "GLO," as in: "I'll be back around 4, I'm going to interview a GLO."

Grieving Loved One.
posted by scarabic at 1:42 PM on April 2, 2004

This always makes me cringe and think "Well how do you *think* they feel?" And no, I don't know why they do it, although I presume it's something to do with what jazzkat11 said; in which case reporters would probably say if they didn't do it, somebody else would, and grab the ratings.
posted by carter at 1:42 PM on April 2, 2004

What falconred said. Reporters have to ask questions with obvious answers to get the interview subject to express an idea in their own words.

I find it funny that the original question was about a newspaper article, but most of the responses seem to be about TV journalism, which has its own reasons for the questions it asks that are quite different from those in print media.
posted by jjg at 1:47 PM on April 2, 2004

"How do you feel"?

The same as you. With my fingers.

Of course, they're just trying to get an emotional reaction, because that's what sells. If it bleeds, it leads! (And that includes a bleeding heart).
posted by shepd at 2:14 PM on April 2, 2004

The worst thing I ever saw was a local Bay Area woman, who lost 7 relatives in a plane crash. Husband, mother, and 5 kids. The plane went down on the east coast somewhere, and as she was on her way to - yes- fly back there to ID bodies or whatever she needed to do, no fewer than 3 camera crews hit her on the sidewalk. I don't think she even spoke english, actually. She just looked at the ground and pushed meekly through them. And they ran that footage.

Bringing the nations headlines home to the local people, I'm sure is what they'd call it.
posted by scarabic at 2:32 PM on April 2, 2004

Best answer: As an ex-journalist, though no big-timer or anything, I'll take a shot at this.

1. It's a starting point. People, particularly when they are in emotional turmoil, may have problems expressing themselves. It helps get them started. Plus, it's an open-ended question. It's not leading at all, and it saves the reporter from having to ask, "Do you feel angry? Do you feel sad? Does your tummy hurt?" etc. Most people are bad interview subjects even when not emotionally overcome, so they have to be lead down a path by a skilled reporter to where the subject might actually say something useful, without the reporter putting words in the subject's mouth (as mentioned above).

2. It's easy to edit out the question so that the comment by the GLO (nice new term, thanks!) looks spontaneous or unsolicited. This can punch-up a report: quick interjections of emotion can really give a subtext hard to convey without the journalist editorializing.

3. As also mentioned above, it seems obvious that the GLO is sad/angry/upset/vengeful etc., but in reality, people are very surprising, or at least, often have more interesting things to say than something simple like "I'm upset they killed my dog." Look at some of these Google News hits for "how do you feel" + "I feel". The subjects tend to respond to the "I feel" question in explanatory, personal ways. Which leads to:

4. Asking how someone feels makes a response personal, and thus, supposedly, more interesting to read or hear. If you just said, "Tell me your thoughts on the killings in Fallujah" you would get a different response than if you asked, "How do you feel about the killings in Fallujah?" Why is a personal response important? Because, frankly, GLOs and other subjects usually don't know nuthin about the horrific event, even if they were there. They are often completely without any real information, except that it happened. But they still have to be talked to. So what can they possibly say? How they feel...

I hate the question, myself. I find it irritating to read or hear because I know it's a shortcut to what the journalist is really trying to get from the subject. I know that when they get a crap answer from "How do you feel?" a good journalist will start over, take a different tack—the long way—to get the information they're after. But I appreciate that time is short, that the question does often work, and that a good journalist is not looking for a simple answer to accept at face value, after which they can leave. "How do you feel" not only establishes a personal connection between the GLO and the viewing/reading public, but between the GLO and the journalist. It is an entry point into more complex and sensitive issues that they may not want to ask about directly, such as, How will you pay the bills now that the family's breadwinner is dead? Isn't that your dead grandchild in the photo on the mantelpiece? Where will you be in two weeks, now that your house has burned down? Is there anything good that might come of this?
posted by Mo Nickels at 2:43 PM on April 2, 2004

My worst day as a journalist was back when I was a newspaper reporter, and was supposed to ask a guy how he felt now that his mom's dead body had been dug up in her other son's backyard. Fortunately they just brushed me off and I didn't have to ask how they "felt."

I think it's a stupid and pompous question...there are more tasteful ways of getting a response from people who might want to get a message out.
posted by inksyndicate at 2:56 PM on April 2, 2004

I've always thought that "How do you feel..." was the sign of a lazy interviewer. It's just about the simplest thing to ask and requires no thought or effort on the part of the reporter.

A good interviewer, or one with a good producer, will ask informed, perhaps leading, questions that will illuminate the interviewee's position and their issue for the audience.
posted by bonehead at 3:20 PM on April 2, 2004

Yeah, it sounds bad, especially after we have all heard moron TV reporters yelling it at crying people, but as many have said above, it's a good open ended way of getting some usable response.

As a young reporter, my worst days were having to go knock on the doors of people whose kids had just been killed or had just killed someone. But what I discovered is that while, sure, some people saw me as a carrion bird and slammed the door, many more than you'd think were desperate to talk about their loved one. Often the reporter at the door is the only person who wants to hear them talk about the dead kid - everyone else just wants to distract them.

(We never called them GLOs (like it!) but really, you have to understand that reporters just like cops have to have sick senses of humor and a callous outer shell or we would go insane. Facing, say, a litter of body parts on a sidewalk, you have a choice of freaking out or making a sick joke. I still have psychic scars from holding grieving peoples' hands, but I cover them with flipness.)

And personally, I would LOVE to know what a woman whose dead son has just been dug up in her other son's yard has to say about the matter.

Final thought: somehow, I had never made the connection before between being callous and a callous. Dopey me.
posted by CunningLinguist at 3:32 PM on April 2, 2004 [1 favorite]

As you know, the concept of the suction pump is centuries old. Well, really, that's all this is. Except that instead of sucking water, I'm sucking life. I've just sucked one year of your life away. I might one day go as high as five, but I really don't know what that would do to you. So, let's just start with what we have. What did this do to you? Tell me. And remember, this is for posterity, so be honest -- how do you feel?
posted by th3ph17 at 4:28 PM on April 2, 2004

Response by poster: First, thanks to the reporters and ex-reporters who've answered—you've been very helpful. have to understand that reporters just like cops have to have sick senses of humor and a callous outer shell or we would go insane.

I do understand this (the same goes for doctors), and I have nothing against black humor. And I understand that blunt leading questions can be necessary to get at truths that might not come out otherwise. I guess there's one thing I don't understand and one thing that pisses me off beyond the obvious (pain caused the grieving).

1) I don't understand why it's so important to get at the personal reactions of the grieving. Sure, if you start with "How do you feel?" you may eventually get some nice quotes, especially if you're the kind of good interviewer bonehead talks about. But even if you get a young widow to say "I feel as if my heart has been ripped from my chest and burned to ashes, and I'm not sure I'll be able to give my son what he needs, I'm not even sure if I want to go on living," and it's a great moment in heart-tugging journalism—so what? People's hearts will be tugged for a moment, then they'll turn the page or an ad will come on and they'll forget it. How is it worth the pain caused the widow? (It's a separate matter if they're desperate to talk, in CunningLinguist's words.)

2) It pisses me off royally that reporters are willing to use blunt instruments on the poor and grieving, but treat the rich and powerful with kid gloves. I understand the obvious reasons for it (the poor and grieving aren't going to make the newspaper/network regret it), but it pisses me off. I think they should show the young widow as much deference as they show cabinet members. [/utopian rant]
posted by languagehat at 6:05 PM on April 2, 2004

Tragedy of the week stories are essentially human interest or community journalism. The are not covered by journalists to tell their audiences something important about the world, they are followed to create a community and a nurture the emotional void created by an impersonal culture. (If one recieves information on their community via a newspaper of television set, they are by definition in an impersonal culture.) There is no information to convey more complex than the nature of the tragedy and the emotional states of those involved because the whole point is to convey the emotional state of a part of the community. Even the fact that someone might be dead is not as important as how that person died, and how the rest of the community plans to cope.
posted by raaka at 6:51 PM on April 2, 2004

Print reporters at least are trained not to be afraid of stupid sounding questions. If we're afraid to ask stupid things, we may be afraid to expose our ignorance to get to the true heart of how things work. Maybe that has something to do with it?

For a print reporter, especially, there are simple questions that would show how a person is coping much better. Maybe, "How have your routines been altered by this event?"

I know it's hip to hate the media right now, but please remember that for every stupid "how do you feel" moment in the New York Times there are 5,000 interviews where the reporter gets it right. I'm not making excuses for TV or radio.

I think they should show the young widow as much deference as they show cabinet members.

There's at least one of us out here that agrees with you. Journalsim is a harsh, cutthroat business and despite the obvious importance of honesty in writing to most (not all) successful reporters, it's hard to try to live a good and ethical life. Maybe the view is different from the top of the field, but that's how it feels down here.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:18 PM on April 2, 2004

Well, personally, I find it much easier to be harsh/intrusive with cabinet ministers than with nobodies. But cabinet ministers tend to have people to keep you away from them.

Also, I agree that "I'm not even sure if I want to go on living" from the mom may not add any substantive information to a story about a dead kid, but it surely adds emotional impact and hopefully makes you turn the page a beat slower.
We all get inured to tragedy and reminding people that one death brings horrendous pain to many people might make you take it a little more seriously. It's the same principle behind not letting anyone film the caskets coming back from Iraq.

When I was doing most of my knocking on GOL doors, it was the height of the crack epidemic and there was a new blood-splashed teenager lying on the sidewalk every night. By covering them all and trying to humanize them all, you could argue we eventually prodded the public to demand more cops and more after school services etc...
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:55 AM on April 3, 2004

"some people saw me as a carrion bird" You were one, regardless of whether or not some people were happy to talk to you. This proves is: "And personally, I would LOVE to know what a woman whose dead son has just been dug up in her other son's yard has to say about the matter."

Having seen this kind of behavior repeatedly over the years, one of my long-running fantasies has been to see some tiny little old lady jump up and use her handbag to beat the living bejeebus out of some reporter who has assaulted her with this question. All while screaming "how does that make you feel, you fucking parasite?!"

[snaps out of reverie] One of my lifelong resolutions is never to be dragged into the impersonal culture that raaka talked about... I just hope I never wind up in a situation where the question could be asked...
posted by Irontom at 10:58 AM on April 4, 2004

[T]he first story I covered ... was about a young veteran who had taken a job running an old-fashioned elevator in an office building. The elevator door on the first floor was ornamental iron lace. Iron ivy snaked in and out of the holes. There was an iron twig with two iron lovebirds perched upon it.

This veteran decided to take his car into the basement, and he closed the door and started down, but his wedding ring was caught in all the ornaments. So he was hoisted into the air and the floor of the car went down, dropped out from under him, and the top of the car squashed him. So it goes.

So I phoned this in, and the woman who was going to cut the stencil asked me, "What did his wife say?"

"She doesn't know yet," I said. "It just happened."

"Call her up and get a statement."


"Tell her you're Captain Finn of the Police Department. Say you have some sad news. Give her the news, and see what she says."

So I did. She said about what you would expect her to say. There was a baby. And so on.
-- Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:00 AM on April 5, 2004

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