Reporting on poverty: 'Listening is the most important thing'

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The Guardian’s social affairs correspondent spent two eye-opening weeks in the UK with UN rapporteur Philip Alston

It was past midnight and, as another deadline loomed, the news editor of the Sunday paper I used to work for could no longer mask his frustration at how badly I was fouling up a story. Reporting was simple, he said: pick up the phone, ask a question and write down the answer.

Amid the fatigue of another late shift, it felt sarcastic. But in the following years the simplicity of what he said stayed with me. It was essentially an instruction to listen, the most important thing reporters do. Persuading people to start talking can be hard. Finding the reason to publish what they say – why these people? Does it matter? Why should the readers care? – is not always easy either. But listening is the key, especially when covering social affairs, in which the patterns of people’s lives often emerge slowly.

Double-checking is the stuff of good reporting too. The more people we listen to, the clearer the picture becomes

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