The 7 habits of successful journalists — starting with curiosity

Curiosity scepticism persistence empathy creativity discipline passion

Are good reporters born — or made? Can you teach the curiosity that all good journalists possess? The persistence of the best reporting? The creativity of the most compelling stories? Every so often I hear a journalist say that you can’t — that those quaities are ‘innate’ or “can’t be taught”…

This line of thought — a line which lacks the very curiosity and persistence that journalists are expected to aspire to — bothers me.

And it’s bothered me for some time.

Over the last year I’ve been thinking about these qualities a lot, what they might be, how educators teach them, and how they could be developed in journalism students and trainees more explicitly.

Today, then, I’m publishing the first in a series of posts exploring 7 habits that we often attribute to the best journalism, and to good journalists — and identifying ways that those habits are and can be encouraged and developed.

The 7 qualities are:

  1. Curiosity (including imagination)
  2. Scepticism
  3. Persistence/tenacity
  4. Empathy
  5. Creativity
  6. Discipline
  7. Passion

The first 4 habits relate primarily to newsgathering: they are qualities that help journalists to see stories where others do not, to succeed in obtaining the information required to report them, and treat that information appropriately.

The other 3 habits relate more to the communication of the resulting stories: ensuring that the right story is told in the most effective way, or ways.

And no habit exists in isolation: from empathy tempering tenacity to discipline and creativity complementing each other, I’ve noticed that these habits need to be taught not just in isolation, but in their relationship to each other.

In this first post, then, what about that most fundamental quality for any aspiring journalist: curiosity?

Why good journalism starts with curiosity (and imagination)

“Don’t say you want to see the world and then complain if you’re sent to Djibouti.”

One of the greatest appeals of journalism — the fact that you might be reporting on one thing today and a completely different thing tomorrow — is also often the source of aspiring journalists’ most common complaint: that a subject is not interesting.

The complaint is a symptom of bad habits: a symptom, specifically, of a lack of curiosity.

Good journalism starts with curiosity: a desire to learn about the world, to ask questions about how it works.

It is also a result of an attempt to imagine what the results might be.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Why is good journalism a result of curiosity?

You can classify all journalism into two broad categories: stories that react to events; and stories that proactively reveal or shine a spotlight on things that we need to know.

The second category of stories has its seed in curiosity: proactive journalism cannot exist without curiosity; it begins with a question: “What happens to sportspeople after they retire?“; “What is the council spending its money on?“; “Why don’t we have a cure for cancer?

But reactive reporting would also be much poorer if we were not curious, too.

Take a standard story: a car crash. This might begin with a statement from the local police force that a car crashed on a particular road at 11.15pm and the driver has been arrested.

An incurious reporter might simply publish those facts, and nothing else. There is a term for this process: churnalism: journalism which adds nothing, questions nothing, and merely republishes the information that has been provided from one source.

A curious reporter, however, would want to know more:

  • What type of car was it?
  • How did it crash? Did it leave the road, was it a collision with another car, or with some other obstacle?
  • Why did it crash? Did the driver fall asleep? Were they distracted? Were they under the influence of alcohol or another substance? Was it someone else’s fault? A problem with the road?
  • Who was in the car? Was it just the driver?
  • Was anybody else involved, either as participants or witnesses?
  • Is the driver hurt? Anyone else?
  • What has the driver been arrested for?
  • Have they been charged? Released? When will the police need to decide one way or another?
  • Is it rare or common for crashes to happen on this road?
  • Where on the road did it take place?

You will notice that many of these questions fall into the ‘5 Ws and a H’ often discussed in journalism:

  • What?
  • Who?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • Why?
  • How?

Methodically going through these is just one way to add the habit of curiosity to your reporting.

Curiosity and the interview

Curiosity doesn’t just have a role in news reporting — good interviews also tend to be rooted in curiosity.

This happens in two ways: firstly, in the selection of the interviewee; and secondly, in the questions that are asked.

When selecting interviewees using 4 of the 5 Ws and a H can help generate different ideas for the fifth: “Who”:

  • How does this work? Who can explain?”
  • Why did this happen? Who can explain that?”
  • What makes someone successful at this thing? Let’s find someone who is successful.”
  • Where are things happening with this issue — let’s speak to someone from there.”
  • When was a key moment? Can we find someone who was there at the time?”

Once selected, curiosity plays a key role in forming great questions — and audio or video that is compelling for the audience.

As Srinivas Rao writes in The Art of the Podcast Interview: What I’ve Learned from 700 Episodes:

“When your curiosity about another person is genuine, it’s much easier to ask interesting and provocative questions. But if you’re pretending to be curious about another person because of their perceived status, your questions will always come across stilted and canned. The person I’m trying to entertain most with my interviews is me. The result of that for us is a lineup of guests that ranged from bank robbers to billionaires.”

Methods to develop curiosity

The ‘5 Ws and a H’ approach is just one method to develop a habit of curiosity. Journalists starting out in their careers will list these questions and try to answer them in their reporting.

More experienced journalists might do so without thinking: for them it has become a habit.

But there are other methods too: consider the role of imagination in the car crash example above. The police have provided very little information — but we are already imagining parts of the story as a result.

We might, for example, be already imagining that the driver was drunk. Why? Because the police have arrested the driver: we assume (imagine) that this means they believe that the driver has broken a law.

Furthermore, we imagine that the most likely law in this context is going to be the one regarding drunk driving.

Reading such clues is useful, and important: it helps triggers the questions we might ask — but it can also be dangerous, and limiting. Not because imagination is bad, but because of a failure of imagination.

Consider the following other explanations for why the driver has been arrested:

  • He was under the influence of drugs, not drink
  • He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt
  • The car wasn’t fit for the road
  • He assaulted officers
  • He was wanted for another, unrelated, crime

Here’s another failure of imagination you should have spotted: the explanations above all used the word ‘he’. Where did police say that this person was a man? Nowhere.

The more information provided, the more that our imagination will have to work with — but also the more its scope might be narrowed, and limited.

A particular make of car might lead us to make more assumptions about the events. What if the car was a black Porsche? A brown family saloon? A pink Volkswagen Beetle? A white VW Golf?

(The surgeon’s dilemma is a good illustration of this, and one that I used with students every year to explore cognitive bias)

Tim Harford‘s  book How to Make the World Add Up is a particularly good read when it comes to avoiding assumptions — and he devotes his final chapter to a “golden rule” running through the ten principles he outlines in the book: curiosity.

In the chapter he describes one habit that can be cultivated if you want to build your curiosity: not avoiding news which contradicts your assumptions. “A curious person,” he says,

“Enjoys being surprised and hungers for the unexpected. He or she will not be filtering out surprising news, because it’s far too intriguing. [Scientifically curious people] were happy to grab an article which ran counter to their preconceptions, as long as it seemed surprising and fresh.”

So if you’re tempted to skip a story, think twice.

Another exercise is described in a BBC Academy post:

“One producer in Northern Ireland remembers an editor who used to walk the length of a street and issue the challenge that in a 500-metre stretch he could find more stories than anyone else.

“He took in the amount of litter, standards of parking, number of new cars, what traffic wardens were up to, and so on. All the observations he’d make had the potential to spark a line of enquiry. Yet how often do we pass building sites and never ask ‘what are you building?'”

Curiosity and imagination help us to start asking questions – but there’s a further habit we need to develop when listening to the answers…

In the next part of this series I look at that next habit: scepticism.

Updates and further reading:

Mario Livio “was so curious about curiosity that he wrote a book about it.” You can listen to a podcast interview with Mario here.

George Loewenstein‘s research paper ‘A Psychology of Curiosity: A Review and Reinterpretation‘ (PDF) contains some useful tips on prompting curiosity including the passages below.

5 thoughts on “The 7 habits of successful journalists — starting with curiosity

  1. Pingback: Tendenci@s Nº 58 – 12 de octubre de 2020 | Ismael Nafría

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  3. Pingback: El buen periodismo comienza con la curiosidad – Argentina

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