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THE COLLEGIATE JOURNALIST - - Fall 2006, Volume 36, Issue 1

Effective 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 effectively.

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.

For 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.

Effective note 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 Effective Listening:

  1. Be prepared to really listen.
  2. Maintain strong eye contact, consistent with the source.
  3. Visualize what is being said.
  4. Avoid interrupting.
  5. Wait until the speaker is finished to reach conclusions.
  6. Ask questions only to clarify what was said.
  7. Give relevant feedback.
  8. Avoid internal and external distractions.
  9. Concentrate on the speaker’s words.
  10. 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.

© 2006 Society for Collegiate Journalists
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