Tag Archives: journalism

Listen well to get at the truth


An article from the Harvard Business Review courtesy of Niki (Veronica) Fielding’s  new newsletter Owlthena, validated one of my favorite approaches to reporting: Keep prepared questions to a minimum and just ‘follow the trail’ of where the conversation leads.

It works only when there is no time limit, and when you have the freedom to circle back to the subject again, but it’s pretty exciting to start at square one as if you know almost nothing. When you let one question lead to another, both you and your subject may be surprised at the discoveries.

HBR says: Follow-up questions seem to have special power. They signal to your conversation partner that you are listening, care, and want to know more. People interacting with a partner who asks lots of follow-up questions tend to feel respected and heard.

It also works for me to say, at the beginning, anything can be off the record:

HBR: People also tend to be more forthcoming when given an escape hatch or “out” in a conversation. For example, if they are told that they can change their answers at any point, they tend to open up more—even though they rarely end up making changes. 

The article came to me in Niki’s new Owlthena newsletter, “What’s Hot Wednesday,” an assembly of business studies that I would not have seen. The one from HBR was by Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John. (Feminist thought: is it a coincidence that this intensive study on listening was done by women?)

One caution about this approach: Many busy people don’t want to give you the time to meander down uncharted lanes. Keep the prepared questions in your pocket.




This is called journalism: Andrea Mitchell

Joe Pompeo offers daily comment on the media in his column for Politico 

Especially apropos for International Women’s Day, he saysandrea mitchell “Let’s hear it for ‘unruly’ Andrea Mitchell.” Bold face mine.

MUST WATCH: In which Andrea Mitchell does her job by asking the Secretary of State questions because that’s what member of the press corps covering him are supposed to do, and then Bill O’Reilly’s website characterizes the scene as, “Unruly Andrea Mitchell escorted from press conf; The NBC News correspondent and MSNBC host shouts question after question at Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, then seems proud as a peacock at her display.”

Alternate takes: “For the record, this is called journalism, and she did this on the Clinton campaign and during the prior administration too.” [Nick Riccardi] “1)

Ya can’t call it a “press conf” if no questions are taken 2)

We should all be as ‘unruly’ as Andrea Mitchell when public officials dodge.” [Matt Viser]

“She persisted, one might say, and on women’s day of all days” [ Maggie Haberman]

“Does anybody know if Secretary Tillerson can speak? Maybe he has some terrible disability? Good to see @mitchellreports checking on him.” [Nicholas Kristof]

This makes me wish I weren’t retired, to get a chance to be unruly again.

Headlines must hold his feet to the fire


From the Washington Post Plum Line:  The Wall Street Journal editor’s nonchalance “suggests a lack of preparedness for what we may be facing.

Here’s another from Greg Sargent’s Plum Line: If the headline does not convey the fact that Trump’s claim is in question or open to doubt, based on the known facts, then it is insufficiently informative.

For instance, the Bloomberg headline

“Trump seeks credit for 5,000 Sprint jobs already touted” is better than

the New York Times headline

“Trump Takes Credit for Sprint Plan to Add 5,000 Jobs in U.S.”

What about MY headline? In the movie “All the Way” Martin Luther King uses that idiom to describe President LBJ: “This president is going to have to deliver, or we will hold his feet to the fire.”

Start noticing headlines!



Jargon is power.

When I was a dance critic, in the ’70s and ’80s, my job was to translate jargon so that non-dancers would understand.

When I was a freelance reporter, during the same time period, I had to use jargon to convince big city editors to believe I knew what I was doing.

When I was a business writer, 1986 to 2006 plus, my job was to translate all kinds of business topics so that non-MBAs would understand.

It’s all about keeping it simple, says John Lanchester in an article in the current New Yorker, entitled Money Talks: Learning the language of finance.


Adopt the jargon of the field you want to enter. Like a patois, you are believable when — to an editor — the first thing you ask is “are you on deadline?”

Don’t accept the jargon
of the field you don’t know about. If you see it, the author is lazy.

Full disclosure: Many an editor has blue penciled my own less-than-clear copy.

McPhee Shines His Flashligiht: Stephen Ornes quotes the redoubtable John Mcphee in a December 6 blog post about how science writers can fashion their opening sentence. About how in a 2010 interview in the Paris Review McPhee says the right lead shines a flashlight into a dark well etc. etc.

McPhee has been using that metaphor for long time. I quoted him on it at least 20 years ago. It’s still about the best one around.

Anna Quindlen: Humanizing Healthcare

anna quindlen

Anna Quindlen made a speech to healthcare professionals about how doctors should treat patients and their families. Her 83-year-old father had recently died from burns over 40 percent of his body. She praised his caregivers.

As you would imagine, her words are potent. “They put a human face, a series of human faces, on my father’s care.” Her speech is online at HumanizingMedicine.org, and read it now because it will be taken off the web in December.

In her comments on medicine Quindlen talks about journalism. Newspapers used to be faceless dispensers of information, and readers “had their back fences to chew over their tragedies, their disappointments, and their dreams.”  Now newspapers use social media to facilitate those discussions.

She likens the power relationships inherent in medicine with the power that journalists have. When interviewed, you have every good reason to wonder whether I will get your story right — or wrong.  But doctors have power over our very lives.

And so she makes the case for empowered patients, patients and family members who are armed with knowledge, who want to be treated as individuals. “People want the press to see them . . . as a person. They want the doctors and nurses to see them as something more than files. . . We are part of a society that has suddenly discovered that it has no human face and that is terrified and repelled by that fact. ”

I learned of Quindlen’s speech from  another of my favorite writers.