Reporting Advice: Shut Up and Listen

When I made the resolution back in January to get out and do more of the kinds of immersive reporting I love this year, I had no idea what that was going to mean. Fast forward four months, and I’m in New York City for the second time in two months deep into reporting on an issue vital to American society right now. (Stay tuned: I’ll reveal exactly what that is soon.)

It’s always interesting to report while on the move, whether that is a nearby town to where you live, or a city 1,000 miles away where you have to move from an AirBNB to a journalist friend’s bedroom to save on costs so you actually end up getting paid for all your efforts. So much about it is logistics: You have to make the call, or send the email, to get to who you want.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from my years of reporting: Always ask. That is, no matter who you want to interview, always try. Of course, anyone can say no, but they often won’t, especially if you clearly have done your homework and you really want to hear what they have to say.

The way I prep for interviews is deep research and a whole lot of thinking. As I prepared for this trip, I read late most every night for two weeks. I organized a binder of research that I shlepped on the plane with me because I have to have a reporting binder with me so I can flip through and highlight. (I also use a laptop, an iPhone and now an iPad, and a recording pen — Livescribe — and a digital tape recorder.) I guess you could say that I have to be low-tech and high-tech.

But none of that replaces the main thing: listening. In fact, just a few days ago on this reporting trip, I sat with someone who was explaining active listening to me as part of my research (that will make sense soon, too). It is key to be fully engaged and not reading off a stilted list of questions. I usually make a list of questions I need to ask, and then I often don’t look at it, except maybe to check to be sure I didn’t forget to ask something.

A good interview, whether with your mom or someone you’ve never met, is a conversation. The listener should be fully present and listening so that additional questions pop up and you can engage the interviewee in a thoughtful dialogue. A good interview is always an intellectual exercise, never just a way to find quotes.

You also nod and encourage the talker with “yes, I can see that,” or “huh, that’s interesting,” or “I see.” That doesn’t mean you’re in agreement; I always make it clear to sources that their point of view won’t be the only one represented; I’m not going to promise something in my story that I have no intention of delivering.

One thing this reporting trip has reminded me is that we can never rely exclusively on our technology. On various interviews, my recording pen, my tape recorder and my memo recorder on my iPhone have not worked for one reason or another.

One trick for a reporter is to stay aware and have backups. These days, I record most interviews in at least two ways, so I can back myself up.

But a recording never takes the place of the main thing in reporting: Shut up and listen. Let them talk. Allow your interview subjects to pause and think in silence. Very often, the best thing someone says is on the other side of an extended bit of silence.

Your stories will be the better for it.

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