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Pulitzer winner Priest discusses reporting, national security beat

Dana Priest, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, told students, journalists and professors this week that she wasn’t always a national security expert, and that she honed her reporting skills on the Washington Post’s Metro staff.

She urged the audience of about two dozen people during a brown-bag luncheon talk to focus on three key reporting skills: listening, notetaking, and sourcing.

Too often reporters talk over sources and other journalists, Priest said. Learn to listen, pay attention to body language, and let sources fill space during an interview, she said.

Priest urged reporters to write down everything people say and you observe. You never know what the story is, she says, and it can change during the course of your reporting, she said.

Spend time with sources to create trust. See them in person, develop an empathy for what they do, and understand their culture, Priest said. In contrast to writing for the public, learn the source’s language and use it.

“Cops are a great example because they have so many colorful words for this or that,” she said.

The luncheon was presented by the Madison pro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Priest, whose most recent book is “Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State,” was in Madison to give the UW-Madison Nafziger Lecture.

Priest also offered tips on localizing national security reporting. She said state and local law enforcement agencies are increasingly using military-style techniques to pursue and identify potential criminal activity.

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