Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Listening Skills are Critical to Both Reporting and Reviewing

Michigan State University's J-School does a great job of training journalists—or at least, it did when I went there, I'm not sure what the program is like now. There was an emphasis on always getting facts correct (any factual error—even a typo in a proper noun—meant your grade on that assignment was an immediate 1.0), and a demand that you take a variety of classes so that you could be knowledgeable on a variety of topics. You had to take courses in English, history, economics, plus an emphasis that was different from all of those (mine was Russian). You were limited in how many journalism classes you were allowed to take because they wanted to make sure you had a broad knowledge base. We were also strongly encouraged (it might have been required, I can't remember) to get practical experience through internships and other methods.

Learning to Listen

The one thing that got very little attention was reviewing. While I was assigned book reviews while interning at the Grand Rapids Press, I don't think I ever had a class assignment in which we had to write a review or where we even talked about how to review. Those were skills I had to pick up through practical experience through the course of my career. Looking back, I would now encourage J-schools to make review writing a mandatory course. Why? Because being a good reviewer develops the same skills that are essential to being a good reporter and they are the softer skills that can be hard to teach—the skills of listening, of setting aside one's own ego, and of being patient.

When I first started reviewing, I would try to critique my experience from the very beginning. When I was reviewing a book, I would start taking notes while reading. When I did restaurant reviews, I tried to memorize as much of the menu as I could and would be thinking about what I was going to write from the very first bite. When I started reviewing theater, I would spend half of the show thinking about how I wanted to write the review based on what I was seeing. It was while doing the latter that I finally figured out the flaw in this approach. This "pre-writing" kept me from hearing the story. Because I was mentally engaged in my story, I wasn't hearing the story that was being told to me. I had to learn to discipline my thoughts so that I could be open to what was being performed and to fully experience the work before I started critiquing or figuring out what I was going to write. It is only after a show is over that I let myself begin the process of critiquing—of evaluating how well the story was told and whether the choices made helped or hindered what appeared to be the director's vision. It is afterward that the mental work begins—not during the show. It's also why I almost never take notes during a show—it distracts me and gets me focused on what I think I want to write later and not on the story that is being told to me.

Reviewing Skills Transfer to Reporting

When a few weeks ago I found myself again reporting, I discovered that those skills have made me a better reporter than I used to be (of course, years as a ghost writer and a researcher haven't hurt either). Being objective as a reporter doesn't mean that you don't have an opinion, but it does mean that you have to truly listen to each source you're talking to without pre-judging or pre-writing. It wasn't that I didn't have an opinion on the story that I was covering, but I did have to set that opinion aside and lock it safely away into a compartment of my brain. It meant that every person I spoke to I needed to truly listen to and try my hardest to understand what they were saying, what they wanted to communicate, and to hear their angle of the story. It meant being open and not asking only the questions that would tell the story I thought I wanted to tell. It meant not determining what the story was until after I had the information. It meant giving each person every opportunity to present their information so that when I did write my story, it wasn't a story that reflected my opinions but one that represented the facts as I was able to find. It meant being willing to have my opinions changed by what I learned—to go the extra mile to hear each side of the story before doing the hard work of shifting through each fact and each source's information.

I have my own distinct taste in theater. There are some types of shows that I like more than others. However, if my readers are able to discern my personal taste from what I've written in a review, then I've failed in that review. My personal likes and dislikes are irrelevant. What is important is the informed, disciplined opinion on whether the show accomplished what it was meant to accomplish. Was it a good show? A good script? A good performance? Those are the things that are worthwhile to write about. My likes or dislikes are merely a matter of egoism—which is why, frankly, blogs exist. In a blog, I'll reveal my likes and dislikes. This is one of the main reasons that I insist that what I write in my blog is not a review—because it does not meet professional standards for a review. I hope it is interesting to read and that it might spark a conversation about theater, but it is not a critique in which I am attempting to objectively evaluate the art that I experienced.

The same is true with a story. You don't cover the theater community for any length of time without forming an opinion about what is going on. Years worth of observations, conversations, and events help to inform those opinions. However, when reporting on something that is taking place in the theatrical community, those opinions cannot be what drives the story. Just as in a review you present an opinion supported by specifics, a news story presents events with facts and specifics that explain those events. Yes, reporters still interpret, but the interpretations must be completely divorced from their egos.

Being Respectful

I've noticed that many novice reporters take great glee in being rude to sources—they consider that rudeness is necessary to ask tough questions. They thrive on controversy and scandal. I was never comfortable with rudeness nor do I expect that I ever will be. I used to think that would hinder me as a reporter. Twenty years later, what I've learned is that the opposite is true. I can write a better story when I go in to each interview with an open mind and a willingness for each source to be able to tell his or her story and to be receptive to what I am being told. I need to treat each person I interview with respect and fairness. After the interview is done, I can sit with it, listen to it again, think about it and compare it to other information I have. After the interview is done, I can begin the work of interpretation and reporting knowing that I haven't pre-judged the information that I've received. I can search for the way to make the story as balanced as possible so that multiple sides are presented and given appropriate weight. Does that mean being naïve? Absolutely not. But it does mean that the filter doesn't get applied before the information is received.

I've devolved into a lecture on journalism when really what I intended with this blog entry was to share what has come as a discovery to me—that the approach I learned to effective review writing is an approach that works equally well in the very different product of news writing.

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