Gotcha questions and when they meet their match

There’s a growing tendency for journalists to ask ‘gotcha’ questions’. But what happens when they receive a gotcha’ answer?

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany

If you work in and around the media you’ll have noticed the incredible rise in prominence of the ‘gotcha’ question.

These questions aren’t necessarily aimed at probing for more information, but rather embarrassing the person answering questions.

Their prominence has risen sharply since social media has been around, because now a lot of what people have said is recorded and can be dragged out of the past at a convenient moment.

If you want to see a good montage of these questions in action, watch this.

The reason this springs to mind is that there’s a new gotcha question doing the rounds on social media today.  But there’s a twist.

Newly-appointed White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, was asked about an answer she had given in an interview earlier this year regarding Covid-19.  The journalist’s goal was clearly to embarrass the Ms McEnany, which would then naturally be the subject of an article he was planning on writing.

But this was one prepared press secretary!  Not only did she bat away the question, but she had her own gotcha list prepared.  She proceeded to rattle off a number of stories various media outlets had run with ‘controversial’ assertions regarding Covid-19.

After smugly concluding her answer, Ms McEnany walked off the podium to the cry of one of the journalists saying: “You were prepared for that!”

Let’s overlook the hilarity of a journalist being upset that a PR person was actually prepared for their question and try to objectively analyse this though.  Was this an effective tactic?

The answer, like so many things these days, is: well, that depends.

I reckon that if you’re a Trump supporter this will be a glorious moment.  They’ll definitely forward this clip to all their friends while berating the ‘lamestream’ media.

However, if you’re a Trump detractor, you’ll see this as more obfuscation from an Administration that isn’t being honest with the American people.

The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.  Personally, I reckon the question, in isolation, isn’t great.  If it was part of an extended line of questioning that was built upon after a series of questions which sought to examine whether the Trump Administration handled the outbreak of Covid-19 effectively, then it would be appropriate.

But, as a standalone question at a press conference it looked like a cheap gotcha moment.

But now let’s try to analyse the answer.  While likely to go viral among Trump supporters, I doubt this will in any way bring any ‘undecideds’ to Trump’s side.  It’s hardly something that will engender trust in the Administration.  Rather than defending Trump’s record in any way, it does what Trump does all the time: attack the opposition.

It all depends on what your goal is when answering questions from journalists.  If your goal is to activate your political base and fuel them into a rage that will make them vote for Trump in November, then the answer was probably the right one.

However, if your goal is to build credibility and win new people to your cause, answering gotcha with gotcha isn’t the right approach.

But in this highly volatile and partisan atmosphere, it’s likely that the people who love Trump will love the answer, and those that hate Trump will hate the answer.

Perhaps the best take on all of this is: thank goodness I live in Australia.