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Conversation lost in texting

There are two markers of an educated person. First is the ability to write well. Second is the ability to stand before an audience, regardless if it’s two or two hundred people, and speak with competence and confidence.

The study of the impact of technology on oral communication and oral tradition is a growing field. Study after study is revealing what most of us already suspect. Teenagers have a difficult time communicating face to face. The art of conversation now is often a five word text message void of punctuation and even understanding for a 53-year-old guy like me.

Teaching college reporting for more than 20 years has afforded me the opportunity to watch this phenomena progress. Of course there are exceptions, but the majority of my students today are uncomfortable interviewing people in person. Many of my students are fearful of interviews with strangers, especially adults. The fear is understandable because they’ve not had much practice.

Good reporters will tell you one of the keys to a good interview is establishing a sincere report with your interviewee before the interview starts. Making personal connections is not merely a clever reporting device, it often provides some important background and it always gives a reporter the chance to show his/her subject that he is listening. Ultimately, it puts the interview subject at ease. My students have a terrible time establishing and holding a casual conversation with a stranger. Reason number one? Our tech savvy students are used to reading messages, not listening to them.

Perhaps my assessment sounds like the rant of an old man. It’s not. Getting better at interacting with people face to face is like shooting free throws. It takes practice and the guidance of a coach.

I never used to go on interviews with my reporting students. That’s changed. I’m best able to coach my student reporters by watching them work. I also do something else I’ve never done before. During two class periods at the very beginning of the semester, I take my students out onto Michigan Avenue so they can watch me interview strangers.

Some say the teenage communication conundrum is dire. I disagree. It’s just a matter of booting them off their cell phones for a few hours and forcing them to talk to people. Once students conquer their initial fear, they tend to do okay. By mid-semester, the improvement is obvious.

I encourage students to take advantage of my office hours by making an appointment, but I do so with a warning: don’t you dare do it via text.

-ralph braseth