Nine qualities that make a good reporter — from my talk at the University of Georgia

ATHENS, Ga — What makes a good reporter? What makes a good interview?  These are big questions.

I had the privilege to talk before a few sets of Grady College / University of Georgia journalism today about a couple of my favorite topics. And this is really one of my favorite places.  It was 80 degrees in early February, which didn’t hurt.  Prof. Keith Herdon asked me to host and speak at a conference called Newscraft19 at the Cox Institute for Journalism Innovation, Management & Leadership.

I came up with a list of 9 qualities I think every reporter needs – 9 hats every reporter needs to wear — and then had the students talk with each other about which one or two they felt came most naturally.  The diversity of answers was really rather gratifying.  Here’s the list (Courtesy of Ashlyn Webb)

1. Confidant — People seem to want to tell you secrets
2. Listener – You genuinely master the art of full-bodied listening and empathy
3. Librarian/researchers — You have to enjoy digging into the documents, the data, etc.
4. Artist – You must have an eye for the details that tell a story
5. Questioner  – You feel a need to go into deeper levels of understanding about why things are the way they are
6. Romantic – You don’t just criticize; you have faith that things really can be better. You care.
7. Skeptic – The ‘steel rod of skepticism’ must be ready to overrule any other quality you have, question every claim and assertion you make, every person you meet. This, of course, is where fact-checking comes in.
8. Storyteller – What’s the point if you can’t hook people? (I said I considered this my weakest ‘hat’)
9. Deadline Doer – The most important work of a daily paper is that it comes out every day.

Everyone does one of these things well — really well. I encouraged the reporters in the room to find their “superpower” and set about making sure to make the most of that through the rest of their lives. Which led one student to make this story:

Nobody does all these things well.  Few people do many of these things well. But we need all these skills.  And probably more, too.  Happy to hear other ‘hats’ you would add.

In a second session, I demonstrated some interview techniques. Among my favorites:

  • Let the silence linger / wait a beat
  • Say something wrong / invite correction
  • Horse trading / swapping gossip
  • Listening to their sob story / Let people share what they want to share to earn their trust
  • Preparation
  • Above all, empathy. You have to actually care.

UGA photo

After lunch, Nick Chiles spoke about the craft of writing, with a focus on good leads and a strong first three paragraphs.

You can see a collection of Tweets from our discussions here





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About Bob Sullivan 1638 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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