THE COLLEGIATE JOURNALIST - - Fall 2006, Volume 36, Issue 1
Listening: The First Step to Improving Writing
by Robert Stevenson
Reporters who seek to improve their writing might do well to first improve their
listening. Many reporters who resist such advice probably overlook the subtle,
but significant distinction between hearing and listening. Hearing is to
listening as talking is to public speaking; hearing, like talking, comes
naturally, but listening, like public speaking, takes training and practice. In
journalism, not listening effectively can spell the difference between a good
article and a bad one. To achieve their goal of reporting accurate and objective
information to their readers, reporters must initially be effective listeners.
Misinformation may likely be the result for reporters who fail to listen
Imagine that a reporter is interviewing a local resident for a story about an
upcoming event. The resident notices that the reporter does not appear to really
listen to her responses. If the interviewee is like most people, she will
probably become concerned about the potential accuracy of the reporter’s
subsequent story. Not listening effectively will therefore erode credibility and
may likely result in an interviewee providing only short, carefully worded
responses. The goal of a successful interviewer, to achieve a conversation to
gather quality information, will most likely be only partially achieved at best.
Furthermore, new reporters who have yet to master effective listening skills may
likely and unwittingly, perpetuate propaganda.
Politicians and others who have
public agendas to posit are often skilled in using interviews to bring attention
to their position without actually responding to the reporter’s questions.
Reporters who are too busy preparing for their next question to practice
effective listening skills may overlook this tactic, and the result will likely
be an inaccurate, one-sided article.
Obstacles to effective listening can even
affect seasoned reporters. As one who has covered a beat for a number of years,
a reporter may feel that he’s heard it all before. Upon hearing a source react
to a controversial issue, for example, the veteran journalist, may rush to
judgment and unfairly categorize a response incorrectly. Thus a potential source
might be immediately discounted without being given a legitimate opportunity to
be heard. The resulting article will probably be unfair and incomplete.
the reporter who is assigned to cover a speech or a meeting, other obstacles to
effective listening can emerge. Because people can think four times faster than
a speaker can speak, reporters must learn to compensate for this time
discrepancy. A reporter can use the extra time to jot down observations or make
relevant personal notes in preparation for writing the article.
taking skills can overcome obstacles to effective listening. These skills
include highlighting material the speaker emphasizes, grouping related items,
categorizing information as key points, developing supporting material,
identifying information that needs to be verified, providing anecdotes and
background data, etc. To maximize listening efficiency, reporters must be
determined to resist internal distractions such as hunger or anxiety concerning
an unrelated problem and external stimuli such as noise or the speaker’s
physical appearance (if it is unusual).
Reporters who are gathering information for an article must avoid being
passive listeners. Passive listening is the listening mode associated with
listening for entertainment purposes. A more proactive listening mode is
comprehensive listening. At the comprehensive listening level, a reporter
listens to understand a source, taking into consideration what is being said,
how and why it is being said, and who is saying it. Analytical listening is also
a valid mode for reporters. Analytical listening puts into gear one’s critical
thinking skills and creates a necessity to accept or reject the validity of
information. A reporter who is seeking to determine the honesty of a speaker,
for example, should employ the analytical listening mode.
Ten Steps to
- Be prepared to really listen.
- Maintain strong eye contact, consistent with the source.
- Visualize what is being said.
- Avoid interrupting.
- Wait until the speaker is finished to reach conclusions.
- Ask questions only to clarify what was said.
- Give relevant feedback.
- Avoid internal and external distractions.
- Concentrate on the speaker’s words.
- Restrain your emotions, stay completely objective.
A reporter, who is an active listener, sends important feedback signals
to the speaker. A dazed look might signify to the speaker that the
presentation is too complicated. A sleepy look might indicate that the
presentation is boring. An inquisitive look might cause the speaker to
elaborate. As with any interpersonal communication, feedback is important
for the speaker to assess and perhaps modify his timing, delivery, content,
pace, style, and vocabulary.
Habits that defeat effective listening are
especially difficult for some reporters to overcome. Reporters may find that
when they hear information to which they can relate, they daydream or
interrupt the speaker to share their personal experiences. Also, when
gathering information for stories, reporters are supposed to disregard their
feelings and strive for objectivity. However, reporters will feel strongly
about certain issues. Some reporters may be inclined to argue with a source
as opposed to listening to a point of view contrary to that of the reporter.
This is highly unethical. In daily conversation, these habits may be viewed
as annoying, but for reporters gathering information for stories, these
habits can be downright counterproductive.
Hearing comes naturally for most reporters. Listening, on the other hand,
is a skill that must be honed to be effective. For many reporters, giving
complete and undivided attention to a speaker is considerably more
challenging than first expected. As with any learned skill, practice is the
key to success. In her book “Staying Well With The Gentle Art of Verbal
Self-Defense,” Suzette Haden Elgin suggests first practicing with a
television or radio. Select a program in which a speaker talks
uninterruptedly for about five minutes and listen “hard.” Set aside a few
minutes each day to practice effective listening skills.
Focus on blocking
out all distractions except for what the speaker is saying. At first, most
reporters may lose focus rather quickly. It is important to remember that as
soon as you catch your mind drifting, stop and return your focus to the
speaker. Practice this until you can regularly keep your focus on target for
10 minutes. At this point, the reporter’s practice should involve the same
procedure, but with the speaker actually talking in person.
The rewards reaped by journalists who practice effective listening will
be reduced misunderstandings and improved accuracy of information, quotes,
and the context in which quotes were made. A high quality article requires
high quality information, and effective listening is a significant tool that
helps reporters achieve that goal.
Robert Stevenson is an Associate
Professor of Journalism and Director of Student Publications for the
Department of Mass
Communications and Theater at Lander
University. He received the Lander University Young Faculty
Scholar Award in 2005-06. Stevenson also serves as chair of the Lander
University American Democracy Project.