It struck me today how fortunate I was to have been a journalist.
Real journalists ask questions, lots of questions, and most of their time is spent listening to the answers — getting the responses right but also thinking about the responses. Is it a real answer to the question? What new questions does the answer raise? Thought upon thought, all while listening and trying to understand.
Then, after all the asking and listening is done, you try to make sense of what you learned, fitting it in with what you’ve learned from others and also letting it stand on its on.
Usually by the time I got to a keyboard, I had shaped in my head what I thought was most important in what had been said and how I could convey it. A one-source story is simple, but it gets more complex as you layer in sources trying to get at broader truth, not just one person’s perspective on what is true.
There are good and bad journalists just as surely as their are good and bad ministers, politicians, cops, plumbers, housewives, etc.
A bad journalist doesn’t really listen. He or she is more interested in finding what he or she wants or expects to hear or even “making” a person say what the writer wants. It happens.
A good journalist listens and shapes the story to the emerging understanding of reality, wherever it might take the reporter. And a resulting story is never the last word; it is part of the word, often the first word, which one hopes will lead to more understanding.
My thoughts surfaced as I read the introduction to Denise Shekerjian’s book, Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born. She wrote about the process of interviewing 40 recipients of the MacArthur Prize. Here’s some of her words about the process:
“In the end, the common themes linking these creative people separated and floated to the surface like cream. . . .
“But some of what I learned was a surprise. . . .
“With these conclusions in hand, the problem then was to devise an artful structure for telling the story. . . .
“Somehow, I had to allow for the untidiness and inconsistencies of it all. And, too, there were the subtleties of reducing an interview to the written page: people should sound the way they really talk. A casual statement, isolated from the whole, shouldn’t be made to stand for an entire formal dogma.”
She reminded me of what it’s like to listen, to really listen, to listen for understanding, to listen for honest sharing. That’s what good journalists do; that’s what all of us could benefit by doing.