Students who are new to journalism often reach for the phrase “when asked about” (or a similar phrase such as “on the subject of”) as a default transition, which draws attention away from the source’s words.
In movies and books, fictional characters who are journalists will use “when asked about” far more than actual journalists would use it in their daily work. It’s shorthand for “Hello, I’m a fictional journalist who’s only here to advance the plot.” But just as most real French people today don’t say “sacrebleu!” and most real scientists don’t stare at tubes of blue liquid, most journalists don’t use “when asked about” as a default transition.
On those rare occasions when a professional journalist does use a phrase like “when asked about,” the journalist is carefully telling the reader, “I’m bending over backwards to make sure you don’t think I’m giving you the wrong idea about this quote, which could be misinterpreted.” By doing so the journalist is signaling that the situation is complicated and the stakes are high, and this is a last resort.
It’s awkward to see “when asked about” in a routine story about a new restaurant opening (unless the owner just got out of jail after serving a prison term for poisoning customers at his previous restaurant, and he picks up a knife and starts screaming at you “when asked about” his prior conviction), or a community member who won an award (unless the person’s spouse was the chair of the committee that selected the winners, and the winner declines to answer your question “when asked about” the apparent conflict of interest).
If you crossed out “when asked about” and instead wrote “when invited to respond to a question about,” or “on the topic of,” the problem doesn’t go away. It’s still an awkward transition that unnecessarily calls attention to the writer’s work. (Usually a reporter should be an invisible observer — except in a book or movie review, or an opinion column, where the reader expects to encounter the author’s opinions.)
|When asked about the habit he would most like his students to break, journalism teacher Dennis Jerz eagerly said, “When I see the phrase ‘when asked about,’ I look for things to hurl.” Clearly we can see just how much he really hates the phrase. (45 words, with a lot of fluff)|
|We would expect the gossipy Rita Skeeter from Harry Potter to write this way; it’s also how a daytime TV talk show host or a radio talk show host might talk. But it’s very wordy. Let’s cut it down to the essentials.|
|When asked about the habit he would most like his students to break, journalism teacher Dennis Jerz eagerly said, “When I see the phrase ‘when asked about,’ I look for things to hurl.” Clearly we can see just how much he really hates the phrase.|
|Journalism teacher Dennis Jerz said, “When I see the phrase ‘when asked about,’ I look for things to hurl.” (19 useful words)|
We mostly only encounter the phrase “when asked about” in news stories, so when students first start doing journalism, they tend to gravitate towards that phrase in order to signal to the world, “I am doing journalism now.”
The phrase “when asked about” is useful in a very specific situation that I’ll get to in a bit, when it’s used without a good reason it’s a lazy transition that emphasizes the reporter’s questions instead of the source’s answers. Because that’s the opposite of what we expect in a news story, the result can be comic.
When asked how he was doing today, Smith said, “I’m fine, how are you.”
When asked whether he wanted to talk about the bloody bandage on his head, Smith said, “Not really, no.”
When asked whether he would like the reporter to leave now, Smith said, “Yes.”
Even if you avoid those specific words “when asked about,” variations such as “Commenting on topic X” or “On the subject of Y” are clunky transitions that break, rather than preserve, the flow of a story.
If the quote is, “I’ve always thought mustard was great but I prefer cheese,” I might give you the wrong impression if I were to leave out “when asked whether he likes cheese or mustard” or “after an aide dripped mustard on the podium” or “after a protester threw a packet of mustard at his feet.”
The idea is you are acknowledging the precise context in which the topic came up, in response to a specific stimulus that is part of your news story. If you left out the introduction you might give the false impression that the source organized a live press conference in order to share her opinions about mustard.
But that sort of thing is very rare. Don’t default to “when asked about” (and similar phrases). Use it selectively, only when a quote would give the wrong impression if it weren’t contextualized.
When Asking the Question Is Part of the News
Very rarely is the asking of the question part of the news, but when it is, a good reporter will work it into the story.
Here is an example showing when leaving out the question would convey an inaccurate picture. (It’s a fake story — I made it up.)
Obama Shares Bizarre Bunny Wish
United States president Barack Obama stunned a Paris crowd when he expressed a desire to be transformed into a small furry animal.
“I would like to be a fuzzy bunny,” said Obama upon arriving at the Paris Convention Hall, where hundreds of European educators and financiers gathered for a United Nations conference on childhood poverty.
Obama also expressed dissatisfaction with his ears.
“I have big ears, but they’re not floppy and fuzzy.”
|Sounds pretty bizarre, right? Don’t worry, I’ve also made up a transcript of what really happened, on the sidewalk outside the Paris Convention Hall, as Obama was rushing from his limo into the front lobby:|
Reporter: Mr. President! Mr. President!
Obama: There’s time for just one question today, folks. Yes?
Reporter: Mr. President, if you had to choose between being a giant robot with laser beam eyes, or a fuzzy little bunny with floppy ears, what would you be?
Obama: (Laughing.) Those are my only two choices?
Obama. Well, then. Lasers robots can be scary. Too scary for children. It’s hard to do my job and help people if they’re scared of you. So okay then. I would like to be a fuzzy bunny. I’ve been told I have big ears, but they’re not floppy and fuzzy. When it comes to listening to solutions to the problems faced by the world’s children, I’m all ears. (Laughs.)
Other reporters: Mr. President! Mr. President!
Obama: Sorry, sorry. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to hop to it.
There are no lies in the “Bizarre Bunny Wish” story, but there are important omissions. The casual reader might assume the bunny statement was part of Obama’s prepared speech.
Here are several ways you might introduce this odd detail, if for some reason you felt it was newsworthy.
Barack Obama let his playful side show when a grade-school reporter asked him to pick whether he would rather be a “giant robot” or a “fuzzy little bunny.”
Quipping that being a “scary” robot would make it harder to do his job, the president chose the bunny. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to hop to it,” he said, before disappearing into the convention hall.
|You might instead try the more stark:|
|Offered the choice of being a robot or a bunny, Barack Obama chose the bunny. “I’ve been told I have big ears, but they’re not floppy and fuzzy. When it comes to listening to solutions to the problems faced by the world’s children, I’m all ears,” he told reporters as he arrived at an economic summit in Paris.|
But if it turns out that the context in which the question was asked reveals something about the answer, and you’re looking for some “color” to humanize a routine event, you might want to play up this little incident.
|On the steps outside the convention hall, Obama took a question from Pierre Clouseau, 7.|
Clouseau, with a pencil perched behind his ear, shouted in perfect English: “Mr. President, if you had to choose between being a giant robot with laser beam eyes, or a fuzzy little bunny with floppy ears, what would you be?”
“I would like to be a fuzzy bunny. I’ve been told I have big ears, but they’re not floppy and fuzzy,” the president quipped.
When a 2-year-old was mauled to death by wild dogs at the Pittsburgh Zoo in 2012, a zoo official who is probably more used to delivering cheerful news about frolicking polar bears and baby elephants faced some unusually aggressive questions from a reporter. She is quoted as saying “There is no such thing as a failproof exhibit,” which, out of context, could be seen as harsh or dismissive of the tragic loss of a human life.
In order to avoid the potential misunderstanding, a journalist is ethically obligated to be proactive, describing the situation, so that the readers can put the quote in its proper context.
|One reporter asked Baker whether she took responsibility for not creating a fail-proof exhibit.|
“Life is full of risk,” she said. “There’s no failproof part of risk in life. We do everything we possibly can and evaluate it every day. The safety not only of our visitors but our staff as well. We work with wild animals, we work with dangerous animals every day.”
The reporter interrupted and pressed her: Do you take responsibility for not creating a failproof exhibit?
“There is no such thing as a failproof exhibit,” she said.
|The LA Times did not include the reporter’s question as a lazy way of introducing what happened next; rather, details about the way the question was asked provide important context — the zoo spokesperson was being pushed to make an extreme statement, and she pushed back a little. (Good for her! She’s doing her job.)|
This is a real-world example of a rare case when it is appropriate to mention the reporter’s question in order to help the reader understand the response. (See also “The Invisible Observer.”)