My panic attack in first grade must have been a predictor of what I’d ultimately do for a living. One night I frantically knocked on my parents’ bedroom door, convinced that the following day I would be quizzed on the five w’s: who, what, when, where, and why.
My father, a journalist, patiently reviewed them with me, and the next day I excitedly told my teacher, Mrs. Lowry, that I was ready to go. She said we still had plenty of time to learn the words, but since I had already mastered them, she let me read them off the board in front of the class. I killed it.
As any editor will tell you, the answers to those five w’s make up the opening paragraph, or lede (yes, it’s spelled that way), of a news story. I haven’t stopped using them since. And in a toxic political environment rife with misinformation, it’s never been more important for all of us—reporters and citizens alike—to ask the tough questions at every turn.
Asking questions has shaped who I am as a journalist and a person. Over the course of my career, I’ve asked thousands of them. Some explore the deepest part of the human condition.
When I was invited into the Bardens’ home two days after their son Daniel was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., his parents, Mark and Jackie, sat on their sofa and tried to do the impossible—describe what it’s like to lose a 7-year-old child who was simply going to school.
When, as an anchor on the Today show, I interviewed avowed racist David Duke about his presidential aspirations in 1991, I took a page out of my mentor Tim Russert’s playbook and asked Duke why he once had said, “I think the Jewish people have been a blight, and they probably deserve to go into the ash bin of history.” (He denied ever saying it despite the fact that it was a direct quote.) In this case, the question was more important than the answer because it reminded people who Duke really was.
In 2008, when I asked Sarah Palin which magazines and newspapers she read on a daily basis, I wanted to understand the foundation of her political ideology. It wasn’t a “gotcha” question but an off-the-cuff inquiry while we were shooting B-roll of us walking and talking. Some felt her answer (“All of them, any of them that have been in front of me over all these years”) reflected a distinct lack of curiosity. Perhaps that’s why the exchange got so much attention.
Sometimes asking questions is uncomfortable—especially when a subject obfuscates or just plain stonewalls—but it’s all part of the job. Recently, I asked Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, about the horrific treatment of gays in Chechnya. She repeatedly told me, “This is not my issue.” Undeterred, I continued to challenge her. (I was told by two Russian journalists that the clip went viral because she looked so foolish.) It took me years to develop the confidence, especially during a live television broadcast, to persevere in these situations and even say, “I’m sorry, Mr. President/Prime Minister/CEO, you didn’t answer my question.”
I’ve always tried to step back and ask the big questions too, something that’s often hard for journalists in our increasingly frenzied news cycle. Why are we getting fatter despite the fact we’ve been focused on obesity for decades? Why, if the vast majority of Americans support tougher gun-safety laws, won’t Congress pass them? And how can we understand gender identity beyond binary definitions? Trying to grasp the big picture led me to make documentaries exploring these topics. And an intensely personal question that arose after my 42-year-old husband, Jay, died in 1998 from colon cancer—Why aren’t more people being screened for this highly preventable disease?—became the basis of my nearly 20-year effort to raise awareness about colon cancer and reduce cancer deaths overall.
I’m equally curious in my day-to-day life. When one of my kids asked me how to be more comfortable in social settings, my advice was simple: Ask people about themselves—they’ll be flattered you’re interested. And don’t forget to actually listen to their answers. As LBJ once said, “You aren’t learning anything when you’re talking.”
In our current political climate, people who disagree aren’t even talking to one another, much less listening. It’s as if there are now two Americas. Our only hope of bridging this divide is to approach each person with empathy and genuine openness rather than hardened opinions. At the Aspen Ideas Festival in July, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman talked about the need for reporters to actually like people: “You have to really enjoy hearing the music of their lives, the crazy things they hope, desire, fear, say, think ... because when you like people, they tend to like you back and then they open up, and the heart loosens and the stuff comes out.” That applies to everyone—not just journalists. No matter where we stand politically, we’d all benefit from really hearing one another. And how refreshing, in a selfie-obsessed society, to turn our lenses outward for a change.
I’ve always considered myself a lifelong learner. So not only am I going to continue to ask tough questions, I’m going to try harder to understand people who live, think, and believe differently than I do. And here’s my last question: What about you?
RELATED: The Importance of Asking Questions with Katie Couric
Katie Couric is an award-winning journalist and a best-selling author. She is partnering with National Geographic on a six-part documentary series that will take a deep dive into the revolutionary changes and major social issues of our time.