Examples of empathetic journalism

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.

Nick Kristof

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.

Al-Jazeera English

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.

City Stories

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.”

Storyboarding

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.

Storytelling Series with Ira Glass (Pt. I)

I’m a big fan of Ira Glass, the host of the acclaimed radio show This American Life.

Ira Glass, http://arileigh.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/ira-glass.jpg

His take on storytelling and journalism is one of the best I’ve heard, and he discusses it in the introduction to his anthology of contemporary nonfiction, The New Kings of Nonfiction.  I got this book for my graduation from Y-Press last summer, and I just now sat down to read it–I wish I had sooner.  The introduction really connected with me because I felt like my own views about  journalism were being spewed back out at me, but with more clarity.

I’m working on a piece which will quote big segments of Glass’ piece and include my own thoughts, but in the meantime I wanted to start posting a daily series of videos of Glass discussing storytelling.  They’re only about five minutes and incredibly insightful.

Here’s the first, which is about the two important building blocks of great stories.

Why ‘witness’?

Welcome to my blog, Witness.

For the past several months I have been hoping to launch this blog.  Throughout my freshman year of college, many thoughts have come to mind that I have wanted to share with a wider audience.  These reflections have been spurred by classroom discussions, campus events, interactions with friends, and incidents in world news during the past year.

Over the summer, I will finally have time to put to paper (or virtual Word Document) the things I’ve learned and the experiences I’ve had.  I’ve been putting off a lot of writing that needs to be done, and I hope this blog will give me the incentive to write and continue posting into the upcoming school year.

You can expect the topics discussed here to be wide-ranging.  My previous posts on Facebook are a good indicator of what will appear here shortly–posts about news and writing, politics, culture, and religion, both in the U.S. and abroad.  Some days I’ll merely post links with short blurbs, and occasionally I’ll write longer reflections on an article, a news event, or an experience from my life.  I would love this blog to become a place of discussion, where we all can express our thoughts on issues we find significant.  I welcome you to challenge my positions, correct my mistakes, and share your own thoughts in the comments section.

I wanted to come up with a theme and title for this blog that brings my passions–specifically journalism and the relationship between Christianity and Islam–together.  ‘Witness’ seemed perfect.  Let me explain.

For several years, I was a member of a youth journalism organization in Indianapolis.  Along with other factors, my time spent in Y-Press convinced me to pursue a career in journalism.

The word witness connects directly to journalism.  As journalists, we witness and document an event to bring it to those who are not present to experience it.  But journalism is not a passive state of watching; it is an intentional engagement that transcends passivity and requires questioning, challenging, and immersing ourselves into our subject.  All of this is done with the goal of seeking truth, providing greater understanding and knowledge to our readers, and for me, ultimately creating more human connections between reader and subject.  (More on this topic in future posts.)

Another one of my interests is religion–specifically Christianity and Islam–and how it influences or is influenced by culture, politics, economics, location, etc.  Aside from its impact on world events, I am also concerned with religion’s intrinsic value–what it can do for us individually and spiritually. I enjoy learning about the theological similarities and differences and how those things are translated into ritual practice, cultural traditions, etc.

The word witness has had a significant impact on both Christianity and Islam.  It appears in similar contexts in the Bible and the Quran, and the evolution of the word has developed almost identically in the respective religions.

In Isaiah 43:10, the Lord says, “You are my witness…and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am He.”  In Surat al-Baqara, God also says, “And thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle way, so that [with your lives] you might bear witness to the truth before all mankind.”

God calls on His people to be witnesses, but what does the role of witness entail?

In the Bible, the word martus (Greek for witness) refers to someone “who testifies to a fact of which he has knowledge from personal observation…[A] witness of Christ, is a  person who, though he has never seen nor heard the Divine Founder of the Church, is yet so firmly convinced of the truths of the Christian religion, that he gladly suffers death rather than deny it.” 1

In Islam, a shaheed (شهيد, Arabic for witness) “sees the truth physically and thus stands by it firmly, so much so that not only does he testify it verbally, but he is prepared to struggle and fight and give up his life for the truth.”  A witness’ goal is “struggle and sacrifice for the sake of the truth.” 2

Today, the English word “martyr” has replaced “witness” in translations in both religions, and sometimes carries a negative connotation.  However, a martyr is simply a person who struggles to defend a greater truth, and is prepared to die in the protection and promotion of that truth.

The religious role of a witness and martyr relates well to the role of a journalist.  I have already discussed how a journalist seeks to uncover and testify to certain truths.  But the journalist also must be prepared to sacrifice.  Not necessarily sacrifice life–though many parts of the world where journalists report are quite dangerous.  As with any work that attempts to benefit the common good, some form of self-sacrifice is necessary and ultimately positive.

Practitioners of journalism, Christianity, and Islam are all seekers of truth.  I see this blog as a way for me and others to continue searching for truth, truth that not only occurs on factual and historical levels, but also on religious and human ones.  I hope you too will participate in that process.

Peace,

سلام

Jordan

جوردن

“… You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” Acts 1:8