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Admitting ignorance is powerful and liberating

Admitting ignorance is one of the great things about being a journalist.

Well, maybe not ignorance. But it is OK to not know things. Journalists can ask dumb sounding questions without feeling dumb.

People expect it of you and make allowances: although constant questions may explain why surveys show journalists are unpopular.

This was a talking point when the New Zealand government would hold daily press conferences during the early stages of the Covid pandemic. Journalists would ask what appeared to be simple questions with obvious answers.

There’s a good reason for doing that. You may have a good idea what the answer is, but you want to get an official response on the record. Doing that can lead to further questions and greater insight.

Sometimes, the way those simple questions are addressed can be revealing.

Professional ignorance

What’s great about admitting you don’t know?

Society is intolerant when people don’t know things.

This means many adults are reluctant to admit to knowledge gaps. We feel the need to disguise our ignorance.

Disguising a lack of knowledge is a problem for people who work in knowledge industries.That’s understandable. Employers hire knowledge workers for expertise and insight. They may feel cheated when told: “I don’t know” or “I’ll find out”.

Not knowing everything is glorious

Yet no-one knows everything. Not even in a narrow subject area.

Admitting you don’t know is liberating. Being able to ask questions is liberating.

Asking people to explain what they mean when they say something strange or incomprehensible is liberating.

Pretending to understand when you don’t is stifling. And learning new information is hard when you are busy trying to hide your ignorance.

As a journalist, I make a point of asking questions even when I suspect I know the answer. It is the best way of learning new knowledge, even if it makes me sound like an inquisitive child.

The technique often teases out new facts or insights. Sometimes the bleeding obvious is not obvious.

It can often provide fresh insight.

Appearing ignorant doesn’t bother me. Staying ignorant does.