The dreaded ‘talk about’ question; Why it is bad journalism

Today is media day at the Super Bowl, one of the worst days of the year if you are a serious sports reporter. Some of the lowest forms of journalism will be on display.

That includes the dreaded “talk about…” question. The over-under of how many times a variation of that opener will be used today has to be 2.4 million.

Bryan Curtis at Grantland wrote an interesting examination of the laziest way to ask what really isn’t a question.

Talk about the most insipid thing you hear in locker rooms.

What? You wanted me to ask a question? A passive-aggressive command wasn’t enough? Let me try again. What makes sports reporters venture the same cowering, deflated non-question in press conferences across the country? I refer, of course, to the Talk About.

Talk about the mind-set of this team. Talk about what it means to you to win in the playoffs. “I hear it every single day, and every night, at every game,” said Roy Firestone, who hosted Up Close on ESPN for 13 years. “Somewhere, it’s a Talk About. People should be crazy about this.” True, the Talk About is but one of many reporterly grunts, as Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky has noted. But through its sheer repetition, Talk About has become the quasi-official question of the postgame press conference, and a sign of its crack-up. What “How do you feel?” is to the crime beat, Talk About is to sportswriting.

Marcus Mariota got hit with six Talk Abouts in a single press conference before the national championship game. At his postgame presser, Urban Meyer got four. One was: “Could you talk about the future of the program and just how bright it is?” (Meyer, of course, was glad to.) The week before, the question that begat Meyer’s stunned “Oregon won by 40?!” exclamation was also a Talk About.

Last year, my colleague, Malcolm Moran, head of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana, wrote a fine piece about the plague.

When reporters across all platforms – print, broadcast and digital hybrids — pass those lanyards attached to credentials over their heads, they should do it with the understanding that “talk about…” is not a question. It’s a command. At the very least, it’s lazy and rude. It displays no thought, conveys no respect, offers no genuine invitation to some form of information, insight, emotion, enlightenment or dialogue. The command reflects the worst of 21st Century Mad Libs journalism, no initiative required, just the insertion of some phrase behind the official designated soundbite cue: Talk about X.

Have the industries of journalism and mass communications become so dehumanized, so indifferent, that we can’t take the time, just a few seconds, to pose a well-framed question? No wonder Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks has left skid marks as soon as the National Football League Fine-O-Meter said he can leave media sessions with his paycheck intact.

The longer I have taught college-age journalists how to develop their craft, the more I have realized that additional time has to be spent discussing the art of asking the question. The selection of the topic. The proper, antiseptic wording. The awareness needed to follow up if necessary.

Both stories should be must reading for current and future sports journalists.

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