Are you listening?

The subject of today’s lecture was something that all reporters struggle with, and something truly essential to the work that we do as journalists – listening.

Now you might say, “Well isn’t listening supposed to be something you’re good at, seeing as you’re a journalist and all?” And while this is correct, and a lot of what we do as journalists revolves around listening, it’s a skill that often requires a lot of attention. If you fail to listen properly, or get distracted by something while interviewing someone, you risk missing out on important details that might be vital to your reporting.

But as simple as listening might seem, it’s a lot harder than it looks! Imagine sitting in an interview where the person is talking in great detail about a certain legislative matter or an event that just took place. While listening to what they’re saying, you might catch yourself thinking about how you’re going to piece your story together, or how you should ask the next question. But in doing so, you just missed a whole lot of information that might be important for your story. And then you have to make the situation uncomfortable and awkward by asking the source to repeat what they said. This done too often sets you in an unprofessional light.

Another difficult thing about interviewing is that in the process of taking notes, you might miss out on other important details. This happens far too often in reporting.

However, one of the biggest mistakes that I often find myself making in regard to listening is limiting my attention to only what I came to the interview for. I’ll often go into an interview knowing exactly what answers I want to leave there with, and because I go into the meeting with that mentality, I often miss information that could be beneficial. This happened to me recently with my Affordable Care Act story (which also finally got published yesterday! Check it out here.). I was interviewing a source who, because of the work he does with the Missouri Foundation for Health, was well-informed about how the repeal of the act would impact young adults in Missouri. I had my questions, and went into the interview looking for specific answers. I got these answers and put them into my story, but in doing so, I ignored the opportunity to ask him follow up questions that would have further benefited the readers. So a couple weeks later, I found myself having to reach out to him again so that he could once again explain the reasoning behind insurance prices increasing with the elimination of the Affordable Care Act. This was totally embarrassing on my part, but I’m forever thankful that he was understanding and didn’t mind providing the details again.

Something I didn’t know before this lecture was that listening is impacted by the positions in which you pay attention to something, and the way that you listen often determines what you get out of an interaction or an interview. This is best explained by Julian Treasure’s TED talk, which is incredible and definitely worth the listen!

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