The Empathy of Listening: teaching without teaching.

Air Canada 182 via Toronto, and then a change of flight to London, was soon to be on its way when placing my bags in the overheads, I locked eyes with a young man.

“Yeah”, I said, “Yeah, Yeah!” in one of those moments when you’re still embarrassingly pulling on threads of your memory to help you out. “How’s it going?” “Why don’t you drop me a line, and we’ll talk about it?” By now I was aware that even with that briefest of exchanges there was a queue of eager-to-board passengers behind him.

Six weeks earlier, I had landed in Vancouver on a sabbatical for the Asper Visiting Professor (VP) for Journalism at the University of British Columbia (UBC). It’s a scheme in which UBC’s faculty each year choose a prominent journalist, or media academic to contribute to its excellent journalism programme. Previous VPs have included: Diane Nottle, Editor, The New York Times; and Peter Klein, Producer, 60 Minutes and CBS News.

In my interview I spoke passionately about what I do: despite years in a spectrum of journalism forms and storytelling, the BBC, ABC News etc, I refrain from this idea that the lecturer delivers tablets of knowledge, specifically too to MAs because knowledge is mutable. Time; place; culture, you; me, we impact information, in ways we sometimes can’t see.

What I do best is collapse disciplines from multiple sources e.g. art, tech, science, journalism, to help people, students, to uncover finds; to learn about learning, and unlearn by reaching their own conclusions.

I’m also at heart an anthropologist documenting events, particularly research-based assignments to eke out stories, and produce photos and videos (see below for a few).

Vancouver, Vancouver

My introduction to Vancouver was far from auspicious. My first day, I had ten dollars in my wallet, walked for miles to find something to eat, as I did the second day on a terrifying wind-rain-swept crawl across this vertigo-inducing bridge.

Back in my dwellings I received the latest emails from two of the lectures, Mary-Lynn and Saranaz, whom I would be working with. I’d be taking the 100s (undergrads, 18-year-olds) in a two-hour plus lecture introducing them to tech in journalism and its ethics and foundations. For the latter, a sublime thin book “Elements of Journalism” and its tackling of objectivity would do. I had brought in my luggage fifteen books. Why, won’t Kindle do? I’ll explain in a minute.

For the former, where do I start? I’d brought my digital toys with me in my rucksack: drone, i-Phones, DSLR, drives, 360 camera, Go Pros, rigs and an apple. Yes! an apple.

Emails went between us, Mary-Lynn, Saranaz and I, about what they were seeking for their new cohorts. I’m a keen follower of briefs. I learned a lesson way back in 2006 presenting in Sweden when I thought I knew the audience and turned out I didn’t. I was using unfamiliar terms, which confused rather than simplified. I sat down with my host after one mini-presentation lasting 45 minutes to rebuild a new one I was to present to about 1500 people in thirty minutes. It would end with my host receiving a standing ovation.

Monday morning and with minutes to go prepping the room, I asked if the two lecturers would allow me “to do something”. Thankfully, and I would not have been surprised if they were both reluctant, they trusted me.

My session with the 100s would be a framing exercise in implicit and explicit empathy. What did I know about them? And how would they respond to me? There are similarities presenting on the circuit to professionals, however the motivation for the 100s would be different. This is their first lecture and they’re entitled to ask who is this guy with an unfamiliar (non-Canadian) accent talking tech and “ethics and objectivity” to me?

Hence that lecture would be one of psychology and neuroscience — how do I become attractive to you; not physically, but that there is something to warrant your attention. The class became a theatre to pure cinema. By that I mean an attempt to stimulate the visual, motor, amygdala and an array of areas in the cortex, from my autobiography and others. At times the room doubled as a stage for moments of stand-up. Experiment after experiment show how laughter helps learning and leads to empathic listening from the audience and the deliverer.

I spoke about my interview with a former head of the CIA, when I ran out of air on an assignment diving in the Dardanelles to locate a war ship; how I got scared near the border of Syria making a film, or went native in South Africa in the early 90s covering Apartheid and met an incredible figure Nelson Mandela — effectively it could, perhaps, have been the loose plot for a Bournesque film.

I then segued into social media of the 1990s. Oh yes, we had a laugh! There’s nothing new under the sun, such as selfies. This here dates back to the early 1900s.

During the lecture, I asked Oliver and several others a series of jeopardy questions, which I left hanging to the end: what would happen if he found out that a friend was involved in wrong doing and he was part of his report?

After lectures, some students gathered around and we continued the conversation. On our way back to faculty I plugged back into Mary-Lynn and Saranaz’s needs and a week later met the 100s again to talk about tech and the irreducible nature of ethics.

The books I had brought with me became kinaesthetic props to be passed around. Far easier to remember something and feel it, rather than being given a bibliographic reference. If they ever have anyone talk to them about a journalist must be objective, from this book, you have the license to tell that person, they don’t know what they’re talking about, I said. Nothing like young people telling others they’re wrong and the young person being correct! Yes, the architects of journalism meant that the process of journalism be objective, not the journalist per se.

The incongruous placing of a bright red apple amongst mat black coloured equipment means you’re far more likely to remember what’s on the table because of the apple.

What should have been one more session turned to two more. And then something happened.

At the end of the final lecture, I asked this question: “How many of you following what we’ve spoken about in this lecture would pay for content?” Almost everyone put their hand up. “And how many of you are OK with your personal details being put online?” Many hands went down. If this finding was anything to go by journalism funding is undergoing a shift. We ended with a round of applause and the lecturers pleased at the outcome and place their cohorts were for ensuing contact.

At the end of the lectures, I asked this question: How many of you following what we’ve spoken about in this lecture would pay for content: Almost everyone put their hand up. And how many of you are OK with your personal details being put online. Many hands went down. If this finding was anything to go by journalism funding is undergoing a shift. We ended with a round of applause and the lectures pleased at the outcome and place I had left their cohorts.

Three weeks later, whilst sitting in enjoying another class, word got to me. A group of 100s after their lecture had come back to the main faculty building — a five minute walk — to track me down for a chat. We did not find each other, and on my last day I had wanted to find them, but failed to say ‘Thank you” and “bye”.

And then Oliver and I met just by chance on flight 182. And two weeks later we got to skype about journalism, investigative journalism and integrity.

In the 1990s when I was first introduced to the Internet as a cable news reader and reporter, recall telling my BBC friends that new media could make bricks and mortar news redundant. How naive I was.

Mainstream news has learned much from web based journalism, but at a time when the intentional falsifying of facts is prevalent and public figures lie with impunity, and bots are designed to confuse what’s fact and fiction, we require a new generation of journalists to report stories and truth, like never before in the last fifty years. And increasingly we may have to look at mainstream media as the last, and hopefully, not the only bastion of truth telling and reporting etiquette.

Above all, we require that anew gen develop an empathy for listening. If I can help in anyway guide burgeoning journalists the pleasure is all mine.

This photo was taken by Noel, one of the students whom I lent my DSLR to to play with. Smiling at the camera is Oliver.

My parting email from the lecturers of the 100s

Fri 12/01, 19:40

Dear David:

On behalf of the teaching team and myself, I would like to say thank you for all your great work this week. The first weeks of the term are so important to hook students in and you did that masterfully. Much appreciated. I personally learned a lot from your talks.

Please send along the great review-post on Medium that you did and any other extra material you would like the students to look at.

Thank you again

Saranaz, Mary-Lynn, Sharon, and Andrew

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

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