The value of knowing when to shut up

Posted on November 23, 2010 by Janet Coats

As a reporter, I was pretty good at interviewing sources and getting them to tell me things.

But I think I was even better at not interviewing people.

Reporters conduct hundreds of interviews each year on the job. They can range from quick phone calls to check a few facts and extract a quote or two for a story on deadline to hours of questioning over several days time. Interviewing is an art, and I’ve been fortunate to listen to some reporters who were really gifted at asking just the right question in just the right way at just the right time.

I was pretty good at interviewing. But I always loved just listening better.

Interviewing changes the dynamics of the interaction. It quickly becomes reporter and source, even if the conversation starts less formally. The reporter is forming the next question, listening for the quote or the contradiction. And the source, often, is putting himself in the best possible light – after all, we all want to the hero in our own story.

Listening is, to me, a more natural relationship. Instead of interrogating, you are observing. Rather than listening for the quote, you are hearing the flow of conversation, the give and take as people test their own thoughts and weigh them against the thinking of others.

When I was a city hall reporter in Suffolk, Va., for the Virginian-Pilot, I got very good at listening.

One of my best sources was a city councilman who was also a pharmacist. He ran his own pharmacy, and I got into the habit of going to his business on the day after city council meetings to chew over the events of the previous evening.

He had a small table and a few chairs in the corner of the pharmacy, and there was a coffee pot always on. His constituents frequently showed up at the pharmacy for the same reason I did – to chew over the council meeting. I always got the best perspective – and the freshest city hall gossip – by sitting at that table and just listening.

But it wasn’t long before I started showing up on other days, too, times when people came in to talk to their councilman not about the city hall gossip, but about their worries over increasing development and whether they could keep agricultural land and the need to build new schools while worrying over the tax burden that would create.

Listening to those conversations started to shape the way I was covering the beat. I found myself looking for other spots where conversations like this went on – the peanut store near city hall (Suffolk was the home of Planter’s Peanuts), the diner out on the bypass, Friday night football games – all became part of my beat checks. I still hung out at city hall, but more as a way of checking out the stories that were coming to my ears in these other listening posts.

This was how I found the stories that needed doing, the stories that weren’t likely to show up on an agenda. Even better, when they did show up on an agenda, I already knew about them, maybe had written about them, and perhaps helped place them on that agenda through that coverage.

I covered that beat for about 2 ½ years. It is the time I enjoyed most as a reporter; the work I did as a reporter there is the reporting I am most proud of. I don’t think that is a coincidence. It was the connection, the listening, that made the work a joy and that helped to make it relevant.

I learned a valuable lesson about journalism when I learned that reporting isn’t about the next clever question or listening for the pithy quote. As I start to learn more about the entrepreneurial journalists who are starting their own community news and information sites, I see so much of that same connection in the work they are building. I see so many of them who are focused less on the sound of their own voice, and more on the voices of the people they are serving.

It’s a lesson we forgot too often in traditional newsrooms – the value of knowing when to shut up.

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