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The empathetic newsroom: How journalists can better cover neglected communities


Medicine came to the realization some years ago: Being a good doctor requires more than knowing science. The best doctors also understand their patients. As a result, admissions tests for medical schools for several years have included questions about psychology and human behavior, not just biology and anatomy.

And the benefits, it turns out, work both ways. Patients are more satisfied when doctors are empathetic, according to satisfaction scores. And doctors who care about the emotional lives of their patients are also less likely to burn out. Empathy can help doctors counter implicit bias, and research shows that doctors who receive this training provide better care.

Can journalists use empathy to provide more representative coverage of communities that are unlike them?

Journalism isn’t typically a matter of life and death, but it’s as much a listening profession as medicine. In telling stories, we care for our communities, just as doctors help ensure the health of our bodies.

Can journalists use similar techniques to provide more representative coverage of communities that are unlike them?

Keith Woods knows how empathy can change how we do journalism.

As a young reporter in New Orleans, Woods worked the sports beat for The Times-Picayune. He realized he could cover three historically black colleges and their basketball teams better than anyone else because he approached them differently. He didn’t just write about how the athletes did on the court; he told their personal stories, giving readers a window into their lives and dreams.

“The stories that got me to the front page,” he said, “were coincidentally the stories … that rounded these folks out, that gave you a look at these folks and the stories behind their stories.”

Woods said he was trying to help other journalists at the paper understand the value of paying attention to undercovered people. He isn’t sure he changed the paper as a whole. But he did change the relationship between the sports page and those three universities. After he moved on, he said, the sports section continued to tell the stories of the players not just as athletes but as people.

“I think they looked for something more,” he said. “They were open to more than they would have been before.”

That began his listening career. He’s now vice president for newsroom training and diversity at NPR. He coaches reporters and editors on how to listen and report with care.

The first step to covering a neglected community is understanding the perspectives of the people in that community and letting them tell their own stories.

For years, news organizations have talked about the need to diversify their coverage and their audiences. They have identified problems, tracked the racial and ethnic makeup of their staff and recruited more thoughtfully.

But the first step to covering a neglected community, Woods said, is understanding the perspectives of the people in that community and letting them tell their own stories.

This is the art of empathy.

In this study, part of the American Press Institute’s series of Strategy Studies, I’ll explore how empathy is an essential skill in accurately portraying any community you cover, as important as hiring journalists from different backgrounds. I’ll discuss how reporters can employ empathetic techniques in the field, such as spending more time face-to-face with their subjects and putting down their pens and listening. And I’ll offer ways that newsroom leaders can foster a culture that encourages these approaches.

Let’s make empathy part of the diversity discussion

After the 2016 presidential election, numerous critiques described how journalists had missed the signs that Donald Trump would win the election. Critics focused on filter bubbles, arguing that journalists were too mired in their own, mostly coastal, point of view to see the strength of right-leaning segments of the Midwest and understand Trump’s appeal among poor whites.

Many of those critics argued that journalists would have understood the results on Election Night if newsroom staffs had a broader spectrum of economic, geographic and political backgrounds.

A truly diverse newsroom represents the community in its makeup, but also shines light on people and communities through understanding.

“Until there are newsroom executives and leaders who better reflect the swiftly changing demographics of our country — ethnic, racial, linguistic, socioeconomic, you name it — mainstream news media will continue to miss the mark,” wrote Meredith Clark, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia, in a Poynter column.

This is a long-held belief: If you want coverage that represents a wide array of perspectives, your newsroom must mirror the community. But an inclusive, diverse newsroom is actually a means to an end. The true goal of diversity is to understand different kinds of communities and portray them more richly and accurately.

Racial quotas, one of the paths newsrooms have taken to become more diverse — or at least appear so — can indeed create a mirror of your community. But hiring alone is not the answer. A newsroom roster that has the same percentage of races and ethnic groups as its city doesn’t necessarily mean those communities are reflected in its coverage. A truly diverse newsroom represents the community in its makeup, but also shines light on people and communities through understanding. All journalists, not just those of certain backgrounds, should be able to thoughtfully cover the world around them.

A newsroom’s relationship with underserved communities can be harmed by all sorts of editorial and business actions: mishandled interactions between reporters and sources, story selection that takes a one-dimensional view of some communities, continual downsizing in the newsroom, diversity in entry-level positions but not on the masthead.

Those problems can persist even with a press for diversity. But they can be addressed by a newsroom that embraces empathy.

Even if newsrooms had been no more diverse during the 2016 presidential campaign, journalists might have better understood the ideas and frustrations that propelled Trump to victory if they had employed more empathy in the months leading up to the election.

What empathy and journalism have in common

Jorge Rivas, national affairs correspondent for Splinter, worked on a months-long investigation into the lives of transgender women in immigration detention centers in 2014.

Before meeting his subjects, he thought about when to ask the tough questions. It takes time, Rivas said, to build up to asking why someone had been deported or how it felt to be a transgender woman in a male detention center.

Reporters met with one woman several times with no notebooks or cameras — just “as humans,” as he put it.

Rivas wants readers to understand where someone is coming from, but he remains committed to telling an accurate, unbiased story.

He doesn’t use the word empathy to describe how he reports. But consider the three components of empathy:

  • Cognitive: This is the ability to see the world through another person’s perspective.
  • Behavioral: This is the verbal and nonverbal communication that indicates someone understands another person or her perspective.
  • Affective: This involves physically and emotionally experiencing another person’s emotions.

Two of these kinds of empathy in particular, cognitive and behavioral, can be applied to journalism.

A reporter can employ cognitive empathy to approach an underserved community, using techniques that help him understand people with opposing views and from different backgrounds.

Reporters can also practice behavioral empathy by using verbal and nonverbal signals to show they’re working to understand another person’s feelings and ideas. These signals can be simple, like putting your pen down to let someone cry or looking into his eyes as he speaks.

The third kind of empathy, affective empathy, makes many journalists uncomfortable. They believe sharing a source’s emotions is a sign they’ve gotten too close and jeopardized their impartiality.

That’s the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy involves feeling compassion, sorrow or pity for another person’s experiences; empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another by understanding his point of view.

Painting a fair, accurate picture of a life — and doing so with empathy — sometimes involves pointing out things that the subject prefers not to acknowledge.

A journalist can understand what led a boy to become a violent gang member and convey that in a story. That doesn’t mean she makes excuses for his behavior. In fact, painting a fair, accurate picture of a life — and doing so with empathy — sometimes involves pointing out things that the subject prefers not to acknowledge.

David Finkel, national enterprise editor for The Washington Post, believes empathy belongs in a specific part of the reporting process. Curiosity gets you started on a story, he said, because the drive to understand motivates any storyteller. Empathy plays a role in understanding by getting out of your own shoes and into someone else’s.

“When you’re underway and you’re immersing yourself, that’s when empathy really starts,” he said. “I genuinely am interested, I don’t have an agenda, I’m curious about something, I want to understand something. That’s empathy all the way.”

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