Love at Work: Malcolm Gladwell on Reporting

journalist

What does it look like to glorify God at work?

Our answers will be as diverse as our jobs. I’m trying to figure it out as a college professor, but what I learn can’t be adopted verbatim by my friends who work for engineering firms.

Yet I’ve found it helpful to think through the principles by listening to people in different careers. So, while I know little about journalism, I can learn from someone like Malcolm Gladwell.

A Short Bio

Malcolm Gladwell is a writer for The New Yorker and the author of some mega-selling books. (My favorites of his are The Tipping Point and Outliers, though I haven’t read David and Goliath.) He has recently gotten into podcasting, releasing the first season of Revisionist History this summer.

I don’t know whether Malcolm Gladwell is a Christian. In a 2013 interview he said he would call himself a Christian but that he wasn’t part of any church or group at the time. He was raised in the Mennonite tradition.

Gladwell on Reporting

I listened to an interview with Malcolm Gladwell on a recent episode of the Longform podcast. He was promoting Revisionist History.

In an earlier appearance on the same show (back in 2013), Gladwell discussed some of his foundational commitments as a reporter. (These quotes begin around the 44-minute mark of this podcast.)

Gladwell: I try to follow the rule: if I write about you, I do not want you ever to regret having talked to me. In cases where I think the person will regret having talked to me, I usually don’t do the story or don’t use the person’s interview or don’t use the parts I think they’ll regret having said.

Gladwell clarified his position in the 2016 interview. (These quotes start at 6:40.)

Gladwell: The great temptation of a journalist is—you go in, talk to someone, and they say something in an unguarded moment, that they probably shouldn’t have said. And those kinds of statements fall into two categories. They say something that they didn’t mean. Or they say something that they did mean but didn’t intend to disclose. And when I’m writing, I’ve always tried very hard to identify those moments and never to use them.

He acknowledges this is a point of departure between him and other journalists. (These quotes are from the 2013 interview.)

Gladwell: I really object to this notion of journalism as a kind of…if they said it, you print it. NO. If they said it, you think long and hard about whether it’s necessary. And you think long and hard about the sense in which they were speaking, and you think long and hard about whether if you asked them that question again they would answer the same way. And if you don’t think they would answer it the same way a second time, you can’t use it. It’s not a game of gotcha.

Evan Ratliff (interviewer): And would you ask them again?

Gladwell: Absolutely. I can’t tell you how many times I call someone up and I say, “Well you said this. Did you really mean that?” And they’ll send me back an email and they’ll rephrase it and I’ll use the rephrase. Most people who do not explain themselves for a living aren’t expert at it. […]

Gladwell: Most people spend 95% of their time talking to people who are by definition generous listeners. Your wife is a generous listener. She knows what you mean. She’s not taking the worst possible interpretation of what you say. They’re not governing their speech in the way that you would if you’re Obama…If you’re talking to someone who is naive in that sense…you have to protect them. That’s part of the deal.

Did you catch that? Gladwell strives to be a generous listener when he interviews people for his job. He doesn’t play gotcha, he doesn’t use quotations offered in an unguarded moment.

He is practicing the Golden Rule. He is practicing love.

The Golden Rule at Work

Glorifying God at work means much more than praying for the conversion of our coworkers and customers. We need to think about doing good works and blessing others in ways that honor Christ.

I’m grateful for Malcolm Gladwell’s simple yet profound application of the Golden Rule to his work as a reporter. If you’re learning how to honor God with your job, that’s as good a place to start as any.


Disclosure: the links to Amazon.com in this blog post are affiliate links, meaning that I get a small percentage of any purchase you make on Amazon if you make that purchase after clicking through this link.

Photo Credit: United States Mission Geneva (2011), Creative Commons License

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2 thoughts on “Love at Work: Malcolm Gladwell on Reporting

  1. Nice. I’ve come to really love Gladwell through the podcast. I hadn’t read his books, but had read an essay or two, when Leanne said I *had to* listen to Revisionist History. As always, she was right. 🙂

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