Insights, tools and research to advance journalism

Appendix: Empathy tips for journalists

Here are some tips for reporters, photojournalists and videographers on how to incorporate empathy in your work:

  • Spend time researching an unfamiliar community before you do your first interview. Ask questions with an awareness that there is a lot you don’t know.
  • Tell your sources up front what story you’re working on and what you’ll do with what they tell you.
  • Meet sources in person, where they live or work.
  • Tell sources a little bit about yourself and let them get comfortable. See what happens if they lead the conversation.
  • Reframe questions to get at a source’s motivations and emotions.
  • Spend more time with sources on tough stories. Instead of one or two sit-down interviews, embed yourself with them during a typical day, even if it’s just for a few hours.
  • On daily stories, try to find small ways to employ empathy. Look at the person you’re interviewing and adjust your body language to show you’re listening. Reflect what you hear instead of focusing on note-taking.
  • Try to break down an ongoing issue by covering the “arc of the story.” Spend time listening to concerns and questions of community members and address them in your stories.
  • Set aside time each week to follow up with sources. Trust comes from time.

Here are some tips for editors, managers and news directors:

  • When someone criticizes your coverage of their community, resist the urge to defend your news outlet or direct the conversation to factual issues. Just listen.
  • Give your reporters and photojournalists a few hours a week to go back to stories and see if there’s more to report. They may come back with vignettes like “The Next Day” or deeper story ideas.
  • Host regular discussions within your newsroom to take stock of your coverage. Consider formalizing these discussions with a focus group or a series of meetings with communities the newsroom wants to reflect better.
  • Help reporters move through the stages of empathetic reporting as described by NPR’s Keith Woods. Look for progress over time. Be aware that everyone won’t get to the last stage, but push them to challenge their assumptions and expose themselves to other perspectives.
  • Set up public meetings after major projects so community members can weigh in on what worked and what could’ve been done better.
  • When hiring, take care to note candidates’ reporting passions in addition to considering how their background can help your newsroom. Allow reporters to pursue those interests so they don’t feel pigeonholed.
  • Assign more than one reporter to a tough story so they can bounce ideas off one another and talk about their experiences.
  • Watch out for the emotional well-being of journalists who work on intense stories, including those involving trauma or violence. Let them break off to cover lighter stories.
  • Go back to stories your newsroom has covered in the weeks and months before and try to document healing and restorative narratives.
  • Let your audience in on your ideas early and see where their ideas lead you.

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