Mike Arrington has been taking hit after hit, but in the calm of the storm today he posts a good thought about how to ask questions. He says:
I asked a question that I thought was both interesting and had a high likelihood of actually being answered. You can be a tough guy all day long, but asking Bill “With it’s worldwide dominance why does it take so long to get a new Operating System out of Redmond?” isn’t going to lead to an interesting answer.
I interview companies every day, and there is only so far you can go with the tough stuff. People just shut down or go into PR speak when you go to far.
I’m not concerned about not getting invited back by asking a tough question, I’m concerned that I won’t get an interesting answer.
He's getting some disagreement in comments on this thought, but I agree with him. Too many people want to be Mike Wallace and give that air of "I'm a watchdog, pal, and the public has a right to know." There's no need for that or any other kind of acting. If you have an authentic exchange of questions and information, and act like a human being, you'll get all the info you need.
There are exceptions, but in general, people default toward wanting to disclose. I learned this as a reporter. I learned this further when I started working in PR and began interviewing clients on the raw data you need to create a marketing plan -- probing, smart questions get you a lot farther than nearly anything else.
I also found that to be helpful when coaching clients on how to handle reporters. I believe too many execs feel at the whim of a reporter. To be sure, you need to respect the reporter's orientation, deadlines, etc., but like any other conversation, one with a reporter is just as eligible to be an information exchange than is anything else. If you carefully ask the right questions, you not only can help the reporter better by providing exactly the right information, but you can also avoid some land mines.