One of the most important questions a journalist can ask is a follow-up question.
When a source gives an answer to a question, one of the most important things a reporter can and should do is to ask a follow up question. "Why?" "How do you know that?" "What do you mean by that?" "How's that?" It allows the reporter to move past the cliches, the talking points, the scripted response so many athletes, coaches and executives seem to have. It allows the reporter to provide their readers with deeper, more valuable and nuanced information. It's why I don't encourage my students to go into interviews with a list of questions, because too often that can act as a script rather than a guide. One of the problems with the press-conference-only access reporters have to players and coaches is that it's not easy to ask those follow-up questions in that setting.
Last month, new Buffalo Bills' running back LeSean McCoy told ESPN's Mike Rodak that Eagles' coach Chip Kelly had gotten ride of all the black players "for a reason." The implied reason is, of course, racism. Kelly has denied this, and McCoy hasn't spoken publicly about it since. He's scheduled to speak to reporters this week, and Vic Carucci of the Buffalo News wrote that McCoy absolutely needs to address the issue:
His accusations are serious and their ramifications go well beyond his relationship with one coach or one team.
This story also demonstrates the power of a follow-up question ... or of its absence. Let's go back to the original story from ESPN the Magazine, a Q-and-A between McCoy and Rodak. Here is the full exchange, taken directly from the article:
McCoy:You see how fast he got rid of all the good players. Especially all the good black players. He got rid of them the fastest. That's the truth. There's a reason. ... It's hard to explain with him. But there's a reason he got rid of all the black players -- the good ones -- like that.
Q How many other players have shared that thought with you?
A: Oh, man. People have heard it. I mean ... Stephen A. Smith has talked about it. Other players have talked about it.
We have to take the story and the Q-and-A as presented. We can't assume anything that's not presented on the page. We can't assume that Rodak asked McCoy anything but what is on the screen, in the order it's presented. That's the purpose and goal of the Q-and-A.
Here's the problem: When McCoy says the words "There's a reason he got rid of all the black players - the good ones - like that," the logical next question, the necessary next question, the ONLY next question is "what is that reason?"
That question needs to be asked, and it needs to be presented in the Q-and-A. It's absence is a glaring omission. If McCoy doesn't want to answer it, that's his prerogative. But the question must be asked, and the answer (or lack thereof) must be presented.
Of course, in a way we don't need the question. We know the answer to the question. The implication is crystal clear. But when an accusation like this is being made, it's unfair to do so with such deliberately vague language. We know what McCoy is saying. But he's not really saying it. Which is one of the worst kind of indictment of another person. It's the "I'm not saying, I'm just saying ..." vein of criticism. It's the "Hey, I'm not saying, I'm just raising the question ..." line of criticism that is so insidious. Because it allows one person to tarnish another's reputation without actually saying anything. LeSean McCoy didn't actually call Chip Kelly a racist. But he heavily implied it. And maybe it's true. Maybe it's the real perception that players have. Maybe McCoy's just mad that he got traded.
The point is not to push McCoy to call his former coach at racist. It's to demand clarity from your source.
The point is, McCoy called Kelly a racist without actually calling him a racist.
And Rodak let him do that, let McCoy off the hook by not asking the logical, necessary, and only question that needed to be asked.
The follow-up question.