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Judy’s Notebook: Why Listening Is So Important (For a News Reporter)

Last Friday on the NewsHour my colleague Ray Suarez reported on a documentary being released that day called “A Place at the Table.” It’s about how many more hungry people there are in America than most of us realize. Fifty million — including one-fourth of all American children — face food insecurity on a daily basis.

It includes a disturbing scene showing a sweet-faced grade school student named Rosie who is seen at her desk looking a little distracted. Her teacher describes how she noticed Rosie didn’t seem interested in what was going on in class, and assumed she was not understanding the material, or perhaps having problems at home. When she sat down to talk with her, however, she realized she was hungry. Rosie herself explains how she tries to focus in class on what the teacher and her classmates are saying, but often all she can think about is food.

Another scene centers on a mother who was once dependent on food stamps to help feed her two children while she searched for a second job. Once she found work and was bringing in an income that put her just barely over the maximum allowed to qualify for the food benefit, she immediately lost both food stamps and the free meals her children received in an after-school program. The mother, Barbie Izquierdo, explained that as a result, her children have significantly less to eat than they did before — and she still struggles to make ends meet.

I heard these stories and Ray’s interview with the documentary’s co-director, Lori Silverbush, but because I was sitting in our studio with Mark Shields and David Brooks at the time, preparing to talk to them for the segment to follow, I didn’t listen as carefully as I should have. I had been preparing off and on all day, and planned to begin by asking them about the famous budget sequester (the automatic, across-the-board federal spending cuts that were about to go into effect that night, because President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans had failed to agree on an alternative.)

But long ago, someone told me television — even television news — is like a big continuous conversation, and that it’s always better when the next person speaking acknowledges what he or she just heard. I knew this, but decided to ignore it — thinking David, Mark and I needed to get quickly to the big story of the day.

How wrong I was. A colleague quietly let me know I’d missed an opportunity, in fact several opportunities: to acknowledge the powerful and heartbreaking stories we had just heard; to say to our viewers and listeners that these were important enough to take note of them, by reacting; and to ask what the connection is, if any, between the hurt that many Americans are feeling with the political paralysis in Washington.

All I needed to do was listen and respond, and ask Mark and David to respond too. That would have told our viewers that we’re paying attention, just as they are. As of Wednesday night this week, five nights after Ray’s interview aired, over 420 viewers had indicated they were touched by the hunger report. If you haven’t read or watched already, it’s worth your time. And I plan to listen more carefully from now on.

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