This post is about the importance of “empathetic journalism.” This past summer, I spent a considerable amount of time writing about this topic, but I was never happy with anything I’d written. During the past few weeks and months, however, I’ve stumbled upon a few great examples that discuss empathetic journalism, so I’ll post them here along with some of my own reflections.
“Nicholas Kristof: Journalism and Compassion”
I recently listened a program about New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof’s unique view of journalism. For him, journalism should be about more than fairness, objectivity, and truthfulness–it should also be about empathy. As journalists we must work with an empathetic attitude if we hope to better connect with our subjects and better tell their stories. Additionally, we want our readers to connect empathetically with the subject, which requires us to present the story in a more personal way. Empathy isn’t only the mechanism but also the end goal, too. Bringing empathy into journalism is necessary if we want journalism and the news to really inform and change our actions.
This quote from Nick relates well to my writing on this blog:
“I think that you’re more persuasive when you acknowledge that you have changed your views and you explain how that process happened.”
He acknowledges that admitting you were wrong is a little embarrassing, but that in the end it helps others consider your position if they don’t initially accept it. You can show the reader that you were once in their place and that we don’t have to be afraid to change our minds. We don’t have to cling on to our old views, even if they seem safer.
I have written in this way on my blog–talking about how my views have changed–but I wasn’t all that conscious about how this kind of writing could enhance my ability to persuade. Thanks to Kristof’s advice, I’m going to write this way more often. By admitting my own past misperceptions and trying to uncover the ones I still have, I give license to others to do the same.
Kristof makes some other important points that I will only mention here. If you want to hear more, listen to the program! He talks about…
…how stories about particular individuals engender the most compassion–and therefore, action–in a reader.
…why he doesn’t oppose sweatshops in the developing world.
…why you shouldn’t always believe the claims of victims.
You should also check out Kristof’s columns and blog on nytimes.com.
A few weeks ago, I attended a discussion at Georgetown entitled, “Reporting from the Front Lines: Covering the Human Side of Conflict.” Three reporters for Al-Jazeera English shared their experiences about reporting from conflict zones like Gaza, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and specifically discussed the importance of covering the “human stories” that enfold–sometimes invisibly–amid conflict. Other broadcast outlets, especially Western ones, often avoid covering individuals’ stories (for a number of reasons I will not address here) but Al-Jazeera English makes that its mission. AJE is trying to fill a void left by Western media by increasing coverage on the ground of global issues; giving voices to the powerless by focusing on the human story; and providing viewers with an opportunity to empathize with others and get a glimpse into their daily lives.
One of the panelists was Sherine Tadros, whose reports I have watched. One of the few journalists inside Gaza during the winter 2008-2009 war, she was tasked with finding the stories of individuals to accompany the more general breaking news pieces produced by another Al-Jazeera colleague, Ayman Mohyeldin. Her assignment, which often manifested itself in visits to the dead and wounded in hospitals, required a lot of empathy and made it impossible for her to shut out her emotions. Curious about how I might deal with these kinds of situations if I’m every lucky enough to do foreign correspondent work, I asked her how she dealt with the emotional lows.
Al-Jazeera, "the Island" in Arabic
She told me that during her assignments she was able to hold it together, but that when she returned to her hotel in the evenings she would get very upset. Rather than letting that hold her back, however, she used her sadness as motivation. It drove me to wake up earlier or work harder to tell the story better the next day, she said. I tucked that little piece of advice away if I should ever need it, remembering to channel my sadness and anger and fear into something productive, something that will–directly or indirectly–help those suffering.
If you’ve never gone to Al-Jazeera for your news, I highly recommend it. You can also get daily email alerts called “News You May Have Missed,” which contain stories that often go uncovered by American or mainstream Western media.
This summer I worked for City Stories camp, a journalism and story-telling camp for low-income elementary school students in Indianapolis. Along with another co-
Teaching camera basics
counselor and eleven current and former Y-Press journalists, I organized and led two-weeks session that gave kids not only the ability to document the people and places in their communities, but also the opportunity to look at those things empathetically. Camp was also a lesson in understanding and empathy for us as leaders. As we immersed ourselves in these communities that are often labeled as being “bad neighborhoods” or “dangerous places,” our initial misperceptions were eliminated as we got to know shop owners, community members, and most of all, the campers.
I strongly encourage you to check out the extra-ordinary work that the campers and counselors did this summer. You can find the audio slideshows (multi-media pieces combining photography and in-depth interview audio) on the Y-Press website or by clicking this link. Some of my favorites are “317 Ink,” “Big Sam,” and “Carniceria Guanajuato.”
I also wrote a two pieces about City Stories camp for What Kids Can Do, another organization I worked for in the last year, in addition to producing two audio slideshows featuring the counselors’ voices. (The first, more general piece about summer learning can be found here along with the audio slideshows, and a more detailed story about City Stories here.)
Final quotes for thought
“This empathetic mission gives the writing a warmth, and–not incidentally–it helps…all these writers get away with saying certain unflattering things about their subjects, because it’s clear the overall project of their writing is not a malicious or demeaning one. I like that. And as a reporter, I understand it. I have this experience when I interview someone, if it’s going well and we’re really talking in a serious way, and they’re telling me these very personal things, I fall in love a little. Man, woman, child, any age, any background, I fall in love a little. They’re sharing so much of themselves. If you have half a heart, how can you not?” -Ira Glass in the introduction to The New Kings of Nonfiction
“The personal narrative of a human being is the way to create empathy on the other side.” -Robi Damelin, an Israeli woman whose son was killed by a Palestinian. She now works to bring Israelis and Palestinians together through their shared experiences of loss.
Some of the campers and counselors at a City Stories event in August.