TOM COYNE: Back In Circulation — The Need To Listen

As a broadcasting instructor, I teach a studio class that offers tips on how to become a better interviewer. Some of the advice is just good common sense. If you’re using a hand held microphone, don’t ever give the mic to your guest because you might not get it back. Avoid asking questions that might only elicit “yes” or “no” responses. And “leading” questions might help you get the answer you’re looking for, but will hurt your credibility later with those who think you’re supporting some kind of agenda.

But I’ve always believed that there is one tip that should stand at the top of the list. BE A GOOD LISTENER.

Many years ago, I was a rookie broadcaster at KXMD-TV in Williston, N.D. To say we were working with a “skeleton crew” was putting it mildly. One morning, our News Director/News Anchor/Cameraperson/Noon Show Host called in sick. Suddenly, the guy who was Sports Director/Sports Anchor/Weathercaster/Commercial Reader/Field Photographer had just inherited four more jobs. That guy was me.

I had less than two hours to prepare for an interview with a local author scheduled to appear on our Noon Show. I recall getting a biographical sheet and a brief synopsis on the book. That was helpful, but remember, I also had several other duties just bestowed upon me. So I scrambled to compile a list of reasonably appropriate questions I could use to fill a 10-minute interview.

Needless to say, it didn’t go well. The biggest mistake I made that day was failing to listen. I was so worried about “dead air.” That’s the phrase broadcasters use to describe those awkwardly long moments of silence between questions. When I played back the tape, I found the guest frequently saying, “Well, as I said before…” It seems I had been so busy talking, that I hadn’t noticed my rapid-fire questions had already been answered earlier.

Today, we have Google, Wikipedia and endless other sources to help us be better prepared in those situations. Improved technology also has allowed us to access greater information within seconds. But getting it fast seldom assures getting it right. Too much information often requires sorting out fact from opinion. And when push comes to shove, we tend to gravitate toward places we feel most comfortable. This applies to all of us.

This past week, there were a couple of tragic stories that made headlines. In France, a group of terrorists needed only minutes to take the lives of 129 innocent victims and injure hundreds more. In Minneapolis, a black man was shot and killed by a white police officer, evoking strong emotions from the community but leaving many questions about how and why the incident occurred.

Let’s start with Paris. Shock, sadness, anger, outrage. These are words we’ve used all too frequently in recent months, both here and abroad. Trying to understand how human beings can be so unhappy with life in this world that they’re willing to end their own lives while taking others who are given no choice in the decision seems incomprehensible.

Thankfully, the majority of the world abhors these actions. But when the enemy’s origins are unclear, they use encrypted technology to communicate, and they don’t mind dying  — and keeping it from happening again is challenging.

Which makes listening and sharing ideas, vital. Vigorous debate and discussion should be welcomed. But with social media today, it never seems to get that far. Try posting a liberal take on a conservative website. Or vice versa.  Within minutes, the responses become personal and nasty. So the natural tendency is to go where it’s safe. Or just not post at all.

Even more scary is that many sites become breeding grounds for racism, sexism and general hatred. Post where one knows others are likely to agree and posters become more bold, particularly when they’re able to hide behind anonymous or false representations. In the case of the terrorism in France, I’ve seen appalling demands to exterminate specific countries or religious factions as a quick solution. It’s become too easy to find a forum for our expression now,
so everybody wants to be heard. But few want to listen.

In the Jamar Clark controversy, I’m reminded of a phase from the old Simon and Garfunkel song, “The Boxer.” The line, “Still, a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest,” never rang more true than in this tragic case.

What we do know is this: Minneapolis police were called to the scene of a domestic dispute on the north side of town early last Sunday. The 911 call involved an injured woman needing assistance. Emergency medical personnel on the scene requested police presence when a crowd gathered and a man was interfering with their attempt to transfer her into an ambulance. That 24-year old, an unarmed black man, was subsequently shot by an officer and later, died.  In the days that have followed, the lines have become drawn.

On one side, is a group of angry citizens distrustful of police and authorities in general. They have marched in the cold, blocked a freeway for a few hours and more recently, set up a base camp by the Police Department’s 4th Precinct and demanded answers about how Jamar Clark died and why.

On the other side, are the law enforcement officials and their supporters. They are equally angry and distrustful of Black Lives Matter, the group initiating the marches and protests they see as disruptive and at times, violent. Their contention is that the officers, already in harm’s way, were just doing their job and defended themselves when confronted with a life-threatening situation.

If ever a dispute called for patience and understanding it is this one. Understand that this part of the city has one of the highest rates of poverty and homelessness.  That people of color have had reasons to distrust authority, based on turmoil in other parts of the country. But to also understand that police officers have felt under siege recently, often times without just cause. That they are men and women doing a dangerous job with an honest goal “to protect and serve.”

The facts in this case have played out slowly. Clark had at least 10 arrests and two felonies on his record. There is debate over whether he was disruptive or attempting to ask a question and whether he was handcuffed when he was shot.  Federal authorities were called in by the mayor to investigate, and there are eyewitnesses and videos. The officers have been identified as Mark Ringgenberg and Justin Schwarze. Police records show no disciplinary actions directed at Ringgenberg while Schwarze has been the subject of one case that remains under investigation. Both have been police officers for seven years.

What bothers me most about this case is that too many lives and too many reputations are at stake to NOT wait until all the facts are presented. Yet minds have been made up. Allegations have been levied. Less than a week after the shooting, the national president of the NAACP has been called in, white supremacists have made threats, and vigils are mushrooming in size.

If the move of Minneapolis to the forefront of this nationally growing debate brings more voices for reason and compromise, maybe this will ultimately be the beginning of greater understanding for both sides. But for now, I’m afraid that too many people are talking. It’s time we do more listening.

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