June 2007
Vol. 12 Issue 2

It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know’
Q&A with Steve Cain

Good relations with the news media are vitally important for Purdue Extension in helping promote educational programs and letting people know that Purdue Extension improves peoples' lives through education. An interesting question about maintaining these relations came up in a recent training session.
Question: Even after I’ve done all I can to prepare for an interview, what if the reporter asks me a question and I just don’t know the answer? What do I say?
Answer: It’s OK to say, “I don’t know.”

In fact, as a reporter, I always appreciated people who were truthful and admitted when they didn’t know the answer, more than those who tried to “BS” their way through the answer.
Having said that, however, there are better ways to say, “I don’t know” than just saying it. Here are three options to consider:

  • If you want to address the question, promise to find the answer and get back to the reporter. Find out the reporter’s deadline and get back to him or her before that deadline. Don’t make an empty promise. A reporter may not want to talk to you again if you don’t follow through.
  • If you don’t want to address the question, offer to put the reporter in touch with somebody who can. In this case, be ready to offer credible, reliable sources who can answer the question — don’t just dump the reporter off on somebody’s doorstep. When I was a reporter I hated going on a wild goose chase tracking down people who couldn’t answer a question.
  • When there is no easy answer (such as “When will it rain?” or “When will we have world peace?”), then address the question by saying something like, “We are doing everything we can to answer that question,” then simply and clearly explain how.

In some cases, of course, reporters may just ask an off-topic or irrelevant question. If that happens, then you can say something like, “The important point is . . . ,” then steer back to the subject at hand. This transition helps you manage the interview and stay on topic.
Finally, don’t sell yourself short. I’ve seen experts shy away from answering questions that I knew perfectly well they could answer at a level that would meet the general public’s needs. In many cases, those sources thought their answers wouldn’t be sophisticated enough for their peers. The general public, however, doesn't necessarily require that level of sophistication. After all, a news interview isn’t a thesis dissertation.

Steve Cain, cain@purdue.edu

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