Reporting 101: Do More Fine Listening

At the start of his good Washington novel, Shining City, author Tom Rosenstiel writes about the power of “fine listening.” Here he’s describing Peter Rena, a Washington “fixer,” but he also could be talking about journalism:

The man who taught Rena interrogation in the Army, Tommy Kee, called it the power of silence. “People get terrified when there are gaps, Pete, and you don’t fill them up. They take it as a sign of personal failure.” Tommy didn’t believe in intimidation or fire ants, sleep deprivation or water techniques—”all the enhanced interrogation bullshit.” He believed in what he called “fine listening”—looking for the parts that didn’t fit, “Taking time and taking notes,” asking a few right questions, then letting people expose the parts of themselves they don’t mean to. “Learn to control silence and you can control almost anyone.”

Almost all the good writers I worked with at the Washingtonian also were good interviewers and reporters—we rarely published pieces that were heavy on attitude and opinion, light on reporting.

One of our longtime writers—good at explanatory pieces—did a lot of research before he started interviewing. He liked to say he already knew the answers to most the questions he asked. He said that enabled him to ask better follow-up questions and to get interview subjects to stop generalizing or trying to con him.

Another writer—he did great narrative pieces, the kind that win awards—said his secret was interviewing the main players two or three times. He said you’d be surprised at what you get the second or third time you explore an emotional situation that changed someone’s life.

What most good reporters seem to have in common is a willingness to ask dumb questions. The temptation for some writers, especially younger ones, is to talk too much, to try to show how smart they are. The foundation of good reporting is, as Rosenstiel writes, fine listening.


  1. Richard Mattersdorff says

    A Judge admonished me many years ago, “Don’t fill the silence, Mr. Mattersdorff.” Good lesson.

  2. Barbara Matusow Nelson says

    One of the best keys to developing rapport with a subject is research–lots of it. The more you learn about them in advance, the more intelligent your questions are bound to be. You don’t have to parade your knowledge. It will be evident anyhow. I’ve interviewed people–generally VIP’s– who were offended if I appeared uninformed about them.

    I envy young writers today. It’s so easy to go online and read up on anybody or anything now. A big change from what it was in my day.

  3. Dick Victory says

    For exacting information, I wouldn’t underestimate the persuasive power of those fire ants. I’m sure my Southern soul bro Ken will back me up on this.

  4. Ken DeCell says

    Yep, fire ants work every time.

    I also found that, in certain circumstances, earnestly asking for help—”You know, I’m having trouble understanding this, and I really need your help”—works, too, especially if you keep saying it.

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