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Bill Bennett


When ignorance is clever

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 questions without feeling dumb.

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

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.

It can often provide fresh insight.

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



4 thoughts on “When ignorance is clever

  1. Yup, works for me. I learned this on my first job, in Palmy, as science reporter. Science was never my subject, and Palmy is a very science-oriented city. So I’d say to super-clever professors of science stuff “I’m clever, and I’ve got SC science and 6th form biology, but it’s never been my field. So explain it to me like you’d explain to a clever 15yo.” Worked a treat, every time, and I never once had a complaint that I’d reported something incorrectly.

  2. Yes, admitting ignorance can definitely be seen as a virtue for journalists. But I’m not sure the same thing can be said for editors 😉


    Renai LeMay
    News Editor

  3. Software Developers usually have great confidence in their problem solving ability. But conversely knowing one’s limits, and when to ask for help, is a life skill that developers often lack..

    Knowledge can be quickly attained. Wisdom comes via experience.

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