Listening, journalism and broadcasters
Listening and “the truth”
Revelations have shaken our trust of journalists and broadcasters and led many to question whether they are committed to seeking the truth and fairness or are driven largely by a need to boost circulation and viewing figures. Peter Hudson explores the effectiveness of different journalistic and broadcasting approaches in establishing and reporting the facts.
Surely listening and journalism are essential bedfellows?
In her autobiography, The Kindness of Strangers, Kate Adie, a long standing journalist with the BBC, addressing the whole profession of journalists, writes: ‘Your job is not to influence people but to lay bare the facts’. And, of course, to lay them bare you have to know them and to know them you have to have listened to a range of people.
When I was training to become a psychotherapist and thus learning how to listen, there were two well-known broadcasters who caught my ear because of their use of listening in their radio and TV shows. They are Terry Wogan and Brian Walden. Although they were primarily broadcasters, they were often involved with material similar to that of journalists. They both used the techniques that I was learning on my counselling course: reflecting back, summarising and asking open, non-leading questions. What I noticed, both with Wogan and Walden, as well as in the therapy consulting room, was that the use of these listening techniques got people to say more and often deeper stuff. I would think that that is just what a journalist wants to achieve. A current example of this school of interviewing is Andrew Marr on the BBC.
I was always taught to be wary of sentences starting with ‘Surely . . . .’ and a closer look at the evidence for this debate in journalism bears that out. Who listened to whom, for example, in the Sun’s research giving rise to the infamous headline in November 2015: ‘One in Five Muslims supports jihadis’? The headline hardly deserves detailed examination. But one fact is enough to make the point: in the survey/questionnaire it is supposed to be based on, there was not a single mention of the word jihadis. Who was listening there then? For good journalism to work and be truthful, respondents need to be listened to. This clearly did not happen at the Sun newspaper.
The bullying approach
And then there’s the Paxman school of journalistic interviewing: be tough enough and repetitive enough with your questioning and you’ll get the interviewee to make a slip and thus, ‘spill the beans’. Robin Day can probably be attributed with having invented this way of dealing with politicians on air: under his ‘bullying’ Sir John Nott, Thatcher’s defence secretary, famously pulled off his mic and stormed out of the studio. A current example of this way of interviewing, at least in the UK, is Channel Four’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy, who pushes the boundary of bullying again and does not achieve a good and informative interview. I guess that he might have been ticked off for his last outburst as he’s been much better recently!
Listening or bullying?
As I’ve been preparing for this piece, I’ve asked a few of my friends what they think about bullying versus listening. A surprising number have opted for the hard questioning school, at least when interviewing politicians, believing that they are a wriggly bunch and need pushing hard!
What do you think about this? Does listening lead to better journalism or is a tougher hectoring stance more productive? Or even more cynically perhaps, is Kate Adie wrong in her assertion above? Nowadays journalists have, one way or another, to tow the editorial line which in turn is determined by the need to sell papers and keep the ratings up? Is this a detrimental step on the road of press freedom compromising the integrity of listening?