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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.”

How to build empathy into reporting

Empathy should be a newsroom-wide value, but it starts with reporters because they deal with people in the community every day. No matter a reporter’s background, there are ways to empathize with sources without compromising one’s journalistic values.

The techniques described in this chapter will help you see the perspectives of different people and communities and tell stories that better reflect them. Few are novel, but they do take time and energy, which are precious in today’s newsrooms.

Do your homework, but don’t act like an expert

In communities that feel wronged — because they believe they’ve been stereotyped, ignored or misunderstood — a reporter is often seen as the sum of all the others who have come before.

“You’re not the first one to come,” said Keith Woods, vice president for newsroom training and diversity at NPR. “And the last one that came, came with nothing. And the one before that.”

Approaching people with empathy can help bridge the gap with communities that are unfamiliar with a news organization or don’t trust it because of how they’ve been treated before.

Woods has seen it happen. Kat Chow, a reporter with NPR’s Code Switch team, has spent a significant amount of time working to understand Muslim communities. Leah Donnella, also with Code Switch, has reported on Native American issues, starting with the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Both reporters worked with communities that were not their own and approached their work the same way: They did a significant amount of research at the outset, but they admitted they didn’t know everything.

“I do a ton of background reading,” Chow said. “I always ask people to tell me what I’m missing.”

Donnella did much of her initial reporting on the Dakota Access Pipeline by phone and still managed to make connections, Woods said. “She had done enough reading on the issue to be able to ask the questions that got her deeper, and as she did her reporting on that story, her learning kept growing.”

Woods believes this process works because one-time interviews serve to develop sources for related stories. Sources came back to Chow and Donnella, less wary and more cooperative.

Miriam Messinger works for the Interaction Institute of Social Change, a nonprofit firm that trains government agencies and social justice advocates on how to communicate with communities. When her organization or a client starts working with a new community, they do so with humility, Messinger said, and an open mind.

Awareness starts before you first pick up the phone.

“There is awareness of perspective, history, what you’re walking into,” she said.

That awareness starts before you first pick up the phone. Chow said she tries to keep an open mind by pushing aside assumptions about people she’s interviewing.

When she worked on a series about Asian women who get surgery to create double eyelids, she sought to investigate assumptions that those women wanted to look white.

She said she gave her sources “freedom to lead me through how they were exploring this part of their identity.” The women said they had this surgery for more complicated reasons, including legitimate medical issues and a desire to be a different sort of beautiful.

Empathy can help you build — or rebuild — trust

Acknowledging what you know and don’t know about a subject or a community is the first step toward developing more journalistic empathy. The next step involves listening — and learning. Take time to listen to members of marginalized communities who believe they have been maligned, ignored or stereotyped. This breaks down barriers, and you can build trust from there.

This is not a universally accepted approach. Some journalists agree with the dynamic outlined by South African journalist Jonny Steinberg. In “Midlands: A Very South African Murder,” he describes the journalist-source relationship as a sort of cat-and-mouse game: Subjects hide their thoughts and motivations, trying to keep them outside of the public eye. Journalists hover at the edge of those boundaries to discover “the things he does not say, the things he says by accident, the things he betrays in a laugh or a wince.”

Take time to listen to members of marginalized communities who believe they have been maligned, ignored or stereotyped.

An empathetic approach runs counter to this idea, allowing many truths to exist — all of which journalists can portray.

David Beard, a journalist who has worked with communities on a local, national and international scale, suggests approaching a community that feels betrayed with a proposition for fairness.

“The best advice I ever got was, everything is like a little community,” he said. When you run into sources, he said, you need to be able to look them in the eye.

Beard, a contributing editor at Poynter who finished a fellowship at the end of 2017, said his goal in working with communities was to create an accurate representation that he could stand behind. Every day, he said, the reporter has to care more about the people and the stories in the community than anybody else does.

Lisa Krantz, a photographer for the San Antonio Express-News, takes this idea to another level, akin to a doctor’s oath to “do no harm.” Since early 2018, she has spent time photographing the people of Sutherland Springs, the small community in Texas where a man killed 26 people  at a church in 2017.

“I immediately am emotionally connected to them because I feel so terribly about what they’ve been through,” Krantz said.

Krantz said she understands some people may have felt inundated by journalists after the shooting. She wasn’t involved in the coverage of the shooting itself, but she is trying to show the world they live in now and how they’re healing.

“You just have to look at the people that you’re immersed with and be conscious of what publication might do to them,” she said. “They’ve already been through so much. We don’t need to cause more” harm.

For projects like this, she works slowly to gain trust. In a prior project, she documented a school that was threatened with closure. She often accepted invitations to cover events where she knew she might not get intimate photos. But by being there for the good and the bad, she earned students’ trust, and they became used to her documenting their lives.

“I’m only truly comfortable when the person I’m photographing is comfortable,” she said.

That care can help you find stories others miss.

In the aftermath of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, in 2015, Dexter Thomas’ connections with the Muslim community helped him gather information the newsroom may not have been able to get otherwise.

The month before the shooting, Thomas took part in a panel discussion in nearby Riverside about race, civil rights and social media movements.

Thomas had grown up in San Bernardino, and he had attended various services and dinners at the Islamic Center of Riverside.

The day of the shooting, Thomas called the director of the mosque — not as a reporter, but to see how he was doing. The director told him one of the alleged shooters had attended services there.

“My immediate reaction, which is not a journalist’s reaction, is, I’m never telling anybody this,” said Thomas, who now works at VICE. “But then I thought about it some more. I thought if the wrong person finds out first, it’s going … to be dangerous.”

Set expectations at the outset and follow up later

David Finkel, national enterprise editor at The Washington Post, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who spent a significant amount of time embedded with soldiers during the Iraq War. He wrote a book about the experience and a second on life afterward for the soldiers and their families.

When Finkel works with sources for an extended period of time, he starts by explaining who he is, why he’s there and the questions he’s trying to answer. This sets boundaries between him and his sources.

In an interview with Nieman Storyboard, he described how he does this.

Maintaining boundaries is crucial.

“I explain that the story is being written about them. It’s not being written to them, and there’s a difference,” he said. “The way to underscore that is I emphasize that they, despite their investment and time, despite everything they’ve agreed to, including having me around, they don’t get to see the story until it’s published.”

Maintaining these boundaries is crucial. He has signals, such as holding his notebook or pulling out a recorder, to remind sources why he is there. But he also spends enough time with them that he practically fades into the background.

He seeks to find a point where his subjects know his purpose and trust his storytelling.“I think if people sense a true intent to understand, that helps take down walls,” he said .

Messinger, of the Interaction Institute, said it’s imperative that people know what will happen with the information gathered. Sometimes the goal of a community meeting, for instance, is to collect feedback to help make a decision. But it’s rare, she said, that people at the meeting know what their comments will be used for.

“It’s never clear who is listening and what’s going to happen with that material. Rarely are decisions made in the room,” she said.

This applies to storytelling, too. Reporters should be clear about the story they want to tell when they meet with community members, especially in large groups. This may not help with the immediate story — it could even make that harder — but it may build trust for the next one. Sources who understand how you plan to use their interviews could be more forthcoming the next time you call.

At some point, even if you spend months reporting on a community, you’ll have to move on. That’s not easy, especially if you were effective at the outset at building trust.

Lane DeGregory, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at the Tampa Bay Times, has built her career around immersive storytelling. She said maintaining relationships is worthwhile because  it often leads to more stories. Depending on the story and the particular community, staying in touch could mean a short email or a long dinner.

DeGregory once profiled a city manager who had been fired for announcing he was transgender. That story led to follow-ups about his transformation and others’.

“After I got the [first] story, I got all these other stories from the community,” she said. “It opened all these other doors.”

Get close to your subjects

DeGregory has covered extremely difficult stories, including one about the discovery and adoption of a feral child (which won her the Pulitzer Prize), and one about a father who killed his daughter by dropping her from a bridge.

To get close to her subjects, DeGregory meets people where they are, physically. She lets them guide the conversation at first so they can get comfortable with her. Then she starts talking. She asks innocuous questions and tells them about her kids or her dog.

She tells people, “I want to have a conversation with you, not an interview.”

DeGregory strives to find emotional connections to the people she interviews. If she doesn’t let her guard down and allow herself to respond emotionally, she said, she can’t get to the heart of the story.

Curiosity is at the heart of it. She wants to know how it feels to be transgender, for instance. Or what it’s like to feel threatened in your backyard, get a gun, and shoot someone.

“I don’t feel sorry for the guy, but I surely [want to] understand empathetically what drives you,” DeGregory said. “Everybody has a breaking point.”

These connections have to be made in person.

“I don’t think you can connect with people on the phone, and certainly not over email,” she said. “I can’t think of any narratives that didn’t involve some face-to-face time and being out in their world.”

Mike Wilson, editor of The Dallas Morning News  (and DeGregory’s former editor at the Times), encourages empathy in his reporters because it helps them to look at all sides of a story.

“I don’t like the idea of any journalist reporting without empathy,” he said. “Our jobs are to open ourselves to other ideas and people.”

He believes his role as an editor is to keep reporters from going over the brink — to help them get close enough to understand, but not so close that they have what he calls the “shared experience” of sympathy. Inexperienced reporters sometimes go too far and feel like they’re friends with their sources, he said.

Wilson frames it for his reporters this way: “Get close to them and don’t leave. Empathy comes from proximity.”

Don’t just ask questions; listen

Good journalists know the key to good stories is to shut up and listen.

In 1990, Times-Picayune photojournalist Ted Jackson went on an assignment to photograph a homeless camp under a highway bridge.

“I prepared my mind for honest compassion and understanding. This world is so different from mine, I reminded myself,” he wrote years later in a piece reflecting on the incident.

The homeless camp was gone when he showed up, but he came across a man covered in plastic and sleeping on a rusty box spring.

“You ought to do a story about me,” the man said after Jackson woke him up. Why, Jackson asked. “Because I’ve played in three Super Bowls,” he responded. That began a years-long journey documenting the life of former NFL football player Jackie Wallace.

DeGregory approaches her storytelling like fiction, calling her sources “characters.” What keeps people reading, she said, “is getting into your character’s head.”

She strives to understand her sources’ personalities and motivations. When she interviews people, she asks what they were thinking or feeling when something happened. She allows people to tell their own stories, limiting her questions and taking notes about what she needs to follow up on. She rarely interrupts.

DeGregory suggested giving people room to change the subject and allowing them to arrive at a topic in their own way. “They do want to talk to you; they just want to own how they talk to you,” she said.

Corinne Chin, a video editor at The Seattle Times , said she thinks of her work as a collaboration. She often sits down with a source without her camera at first so they can discuss the story.

Going to an event with eyes and ears open, asking good questions, and really listening can make empathy a daily practice.

For an upcoming story, Chin followed a young transgender man for two years through his transition. When she and her colleague Erika Schultz  started the project, they asked what annoyed him about coverage of transgender issues and what was missing. He told them he was tired of seeing people shaving and putting on makeup. So they’ve chosen not to use similar imagery.

In interviews, Chin shies away from conventional practice for videographers, never telling subjects to look at her and to speak in full sentences. Giving too much direction, she said, can seem like she’s handing a subject a list of things to feel self-conscious about.

Instead, she tells the subject they’re going to have a conversation and then she sits down and really has that conversation. “If you’re having a conversation well enough, they are looking at you,” she said.

This interviewing style means she doesn’t run down a list of questions. She asks follow-ups after letting the answers sink in, even if that requires a period of silence.

Wilson said it’s possible to apply these techniques in daily stories, too. Going to an event with eyes and ears open, asking good questions, and really listening can make empathy a daily practice.

Reporters can work on this by using nonverbal cues like nodding to show they’re listening, by restating what someone says to make sure they understand it, and by responding to answers rather than going through a list of prepared questions. Your sources will respond, just like you respond when you feel a doctor is truly listening.

“You may ask all the questions that you have,” Wilson said, “but if you’re not willing to listen to answers … then you’re vulnerable” to bias.

Spread this type of reporting over many stories

For a project called “68 Blocks,” reporters from The Boston Globe  explored life in the Bowdoin-Geneva  neighborhood, which journalists typically visited only for crime stories. They spent a year on the project, and time was a key element of its success.

Jenna Russell, one of the reporters, spent day after day in a community garden, often waiting all afternoon to talk to a single person.

“There were definitely days where I was thinking nothing is going to be going on in the garden and maybe I can skip it,” Russell said. “I would push myself to go and be there, and sometimes I was sitting there by myself in this garden. Every time, inevitably, some person would show up.”

68 Blocks was published in five parts and included interactives, videos and photo galleries, as well as reporter’s notebook pieces showing snippets of life in the neighborhood.

But with daily deadlines, who can spend so much time on a project? S. Mitra Kalita, believes in reporting throughout the “arc of the story.”

Covering something in bites — the genesis, the conflict during the event, and the effects or possible solutions — not only nets more stories, but it demonstrates empathy.

News stories generally focus on the point at which something has happened, Kalita argues, such as breaking news or a planned event. That point in the arc of a story is like the peak of a mountain. She advocates focusing on the entire arc, which means paying attention to the upslope, when people are wondering what will happen, and the downslope, when people want to understand the significance of the event.

Covering something in bites — the genesis, the conflict during the event, and the effects or possible solutions — not only nets more stories, but it demonstrates empathy.

Listen to questions and concerns posed by readers and stakeholders and try to address them in your reporting. This shows you heard and understood the conversation as the story unfolded.

With this approach, you can gain trust as you go. The community can see the overall story you are trying to tell, even if it is in smaller pieces.

These incremental stories are simple and useful, Kalita said. “It’s not necessarily a project; it might build you up to a project.”

Put these ideas into action

Here are a few ways to incorporate empathetic techniques in your reporting:

  • 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.

 

 

 

How to create a newsroom culture of empathy

Empathetic journalism can build bridges to communities, but without lasting changes in coverage, an act of empathy can become another instance of parachute journalism. This isn’t just the reporters’ job. It’s up to the whole newsroom, including senior management, to foster reporting that seeks to understand a community.

“You can do empathetic journalism. It isn’t about becoming an empathetic journalist,” said Keith Woods, vice president for newsroom training and diversity at NPR. “The real challenge here is to get the organization to more directly and intentionally cover the communities in the first place.”

It’s up to the whole newsroom, including senior management, to foster reporting that seeks to understand a community.

If your newsroom is led by a woman or person of color, you have an advantage. Reporter Jorge Rivas said his managers at Splinter have created space for empathy.

“I think that allows me to ask more nuanced questions … and more complicated questions,” he said.

But no matter who’s in charge, managers can take steps to build this capacity among their reporters and editors. Here’s how.

The first step is admitting you have a problem

At the end of 2017, The Dallas Morning News named white supremacist Richard Spencer as a finalist for Texan of the Year, a decision that did not sit well with many.

It’s not that the paper had praised Spencer — in fact, Spencer made the list for his “noxious” effect, not because editors thought he had done anything to show Texas in a favorable light. But “Texan of the Year” has a positive connotation regardless, readers said.

In a column, Editor Mike Wilson admitted the error in judgment. “When you aim for clarity and end up sowing confusion and anger instead, you’ve had a bad day,” he wrote. “In 2018, we’ll be rethinking the Texan of the Year project to eliminate this kind of misunderstanding.”

Wilson has a sense that his paper does not cover certain communities around Dallas well enough, but he wants the data. He’s working with Southern Methodist University to review the paper’s stories and tell top editors if they are falling short in covering some communities or relying too much on the same sources.

If someone criticizes your coverage of their community, listen to it.

We do a disservice to communities by covering them stereotypically, such as writing about the local Asian community only during Lunar New Year (what you may know as Chinese New Year). Truly representing a community means we have access to it and understand life within it, including the underlying issues and unheralded successes.

Eric Deggans, TV critic for NPR, said stereotypical coverage of race is a sign of a newsroom’s failure to adequately address it. Race and gender should be one of the most desired beats, he said.

“If a newsroom is still struggling with the idea that reporters of color are pigeonholed into covering race issues more often, it is truly stuck in the past,” he said. “Issues of race, culture, ethnicity and gender are at the core of some of the hottest news events of recent times.”

If someone criticizes your coverage of their community, listen to it. If you’re a reporter, bring it to one of your newsroom leaders. Even if some of that criticism is misplaced, there may be a nugget of truth.

How editors can build up reporters’ empathetic capability

Woods’ approach for diversifying coverage is to get most staffers to a middle ground.

The first step to reporting that better serves communities is rule-based — what he calls “stop doing bad shit.” That could mean requiring reporters to seek sources who aren’t white men or making sure they interview someone who challenges their premise of the story.

“I can’t cause you to be a better person,” Woods said, “but I can make you stop doing the things that are wrong, and I can help you to identify the things that are wrong.”

Anyone can follow these rules, which lay the groundwork for empathetic reporting.

The second stage is about challenging assumptions and attempting to understand people from different backgrounds. Woods pushes reporters to challenge their assumptions through deeper reporting and by exposing themselves to other perspectives.

When working on this, reporters must be mindful of using verbal and nonverbal communication — nodding or leaning in, restating what people say — that shows they’re working to understand the other person’s perspective.

The third stage, Woods said, is being able to approach anyone, value who they are, and understand their emotions and motivations. At this point, seeking to understand through empathy is no longer an intellectual exercise, but a value.

“You’ve reached true empathy at that place where you’re no longer acting out of rote or instruction,” Woods said. “You have enough information and you’ve embraced it and it’s become who you are.”

This third level is an acquirable skill, Woods said, but he acknowledged it’s difficult for some. He aims to get reporters to the second level.

“That’s all empathy is at the end of the day, is standing in someone else’s shoes,” Woods said. “You don’t have to wear them. You don’t have to like them.”

Team up reporters to practice empathetic reporting

Stories that require empathy shouldn’t always be assigned to a single person. A team approach helps reporters critically evaluate their stories and their relationships with sources.

That’s how The Boston Globe  handled its “68 Blocks” project.

“There were enough people on that project to keep you honest,” said Andrew Ryan, part of the team of reporters who worked on the project about life in Boston’s Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood.

Reporters bounced story ideas off one another. Sometimes one of them had an interaction with a source that informed another reporter’s work. We each see the world differently, so working together helps reporters form a fuller perspective.

The benefits of a team approach extend beyond reporting in the field. NPR’s Code Switch team, which covers race through a mix of audio and digital reporting, holds wide-ranging pitch meetings, where journalists sharpen their ideas and get ideas about how to report them.

A reporter will bring up a story idea, spurring a discussion about the questions that complicate it, as NPR’s Kat Chow put it.

“It takes you down so many rabbit holes of questions you want to answer,” she said. “A lot of times, these discussions are really fun arguments.”

We each see the world differently, so working together helps reporters form a fuller perspective.

These discussions are sometimes taken to Twitter, offering an opportunity to engage with a dedicated fan base. That too can bolster the reporting, leading reporters to places they may not have anticipated. Letting a community guide a conversation — and the subsequent reporting — shows you’re truly listening.

Beware of empathy burnout

Journalists often feel like they have to guard themselves emotionally when they document conflict and horror. It’s similar to how first responders and other “helpers” feel, according to the science magazine Nautilus:

Many helpers feel that they face a double bind. They can preserve themselves by growing emotional calluses and blunting their responses to those in need. Or they can throw themselves into building connections with their patients and risk being crushed by the weight of caring.

One summer, after a particularly difficult story and a series of personal changes such as her son’s graduation, Lane DeGregory, a reporter at the Tampa Bay Times , crashed. She tried not to lean too much on her family, but she could call a photographer she had been working with.

“The only thing that helps is having a photographer to live it with you,” she said. “Someone you could text in the middle of the night and say, ‘What in the hell just happened?’”

Lisa Krantz, a photographer for the San Antonio Express-News , said she has accepted that employing empathy in her work means she risks burnout. For years, she followed an obese man on his weight-loss journey. He died a few days before the story published. Krantz said she felt immense guilt for not helping him more during their time together.

“I have spent half my career trying not to cry,” Krantz said. “We’re so emotionally and mentally involved in our stories that I don’t even know how to describe it. You’re connected in this bizarre, observer way.”

She said she is lucky to have an editor who is supportive and gives her time off after tough stories. She also tries to balance emotionally difficult stories with lighter work.

Don’t burden one reporter with reaching out to neglected communities

The simple solution to gaining access to a community is often to hire someone from that community. But it’s unfair to task a single reporter with mending a news outlet’s relationship with a particular community — and it’s inadequate.

Dexter Thomas was hired by the Los Angeles Times  as part of a strategy to better cover LA’s diverse communities, including entertainment, African-Americans and Asian-Americans. He was placed on the audience team. S. Mitra Kalita, one of the lead editors on his hire and now at CNN Digital, said she envisioned Thomas finding and working with online communities the way others work a physical community.

“I wanted it to be changing the model of community journalism,” she said of his job.

Thomas ran up against a problem that’s common for minority reporters: He was pigeonholed.

Thomas, who moved from academia to journalism with that job, walked into the newsroom with a long to-do list. But, he said, he wasn’t able to accomplish much because editors and other reporters didn’t understand or support his charge. “I was a freelancer with a bathroom pass,” he said. (He now works at VICE.)

Thomas ran up against a problem that’s common for minority reporters: He was pigeonholed into covering the African-American community, particularly police shootings.

He said the only time he felt like part of the newsroom was when he was assigned a story about a shooting — which he felt compelled to cover, even though he was frustrated by not being able to do more complex stories about race and the internet. He remembers thinking it would be embarrassing if the Times didn’t have a story on certain events, “so I better do it.”

Wilson watches out for this when assigning reporters at The Dallas Morning News.

“Sometimes there may be an advantage to sending an Asian reporter into an Asian community,” he said. “It’s an awful lot of expectation to lay on a reporter to say, ‘Go and represent our organization in this community and make them care.’”

Programs like Report for America and ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network can help newsrooms expand to certain communities, Wilson said.

He realizes new hires may feel pigeonholed, so he gives them space to find different stories that interest them.

So yes, it is helpful if a reporter covering the school system can speak Spanish. Wilson said his job is to ensure that the reporter’s background bolsters her ability to do the story and isn’t the sole reason for doing it.

“I’m hiring people with skills and experiences that prepare them to cover a range of subjects,” he said.

Look for ‘restorative narratives’

In her prior job as executive director of Images and Voices of Hope, Mallary Tenore  promoted empathy through a storytelling model called “restorative narrative.”

This technique focuses on resilience and rebuilding to document communities after tragedy. But it can be applied to stories outside terrorism and natural disasters. A reporter can go back to the location of a crime the month before and ask what’s happened since, how people have recovered and who has helped them.

“No one recovers in isolation,” Tenore said.

Vicarious resilience is the idea that focusing on resilience and survival helps people deal with trauma. It’s been documented to help aid workers and medical workers; Tenore believes journalists can use the concept to help heal communities through storytelling.

Psychologist Kelly McGonigal  wrote about vicarious resilience in her book “The Upside of Stress”:

How do you catch resilience and growth from another person’s suffering, instead of only sympathetic distress? The most important factor seems to be a genuine empathy. You must be willing to feel their distress and imagine yourself in their experience. You also must be able to see their strength alongside their suffering. One of the biggest barriers to vicarious resilience is pity. When you pity someone, you feel sorry for their suffering but do not see their strength, and you do not see yourself in their story. In many ways, pity is a safer emotion than genuine empathy. It lets you protect yourself from sharing too closely in someone else’s distress.

Brian Cassella, a photojournalist at the Chicago Tribune , was thinking about resilience when he approached his editors in 2015 about an idea for a project: He’d go to neighborhoods where violence had occurred the day before and portray life on that block.

He didn’t make any promises, asking to spend just a couple hours a week to see what he could come up with. His editors let him try it, and over the course of a year he published dozens of what he calls postcards — photos and written vignettes. It’s called “The Next Day: Living around gun violence.”

When Cassella goes to these neighborhoods, he’s clear about his intent. He scouts out places via Google Maps or he simply drives over and allows himself to be awkward and conspicuous. He walks around, looking for a person or a scene. Because he is white and so much violence occurs in black neighborhoods, many people assume he works for the city or he’s lost.

Much of the power of restorative narrative lies in the words reporters use.

Sometimes Cassella gives up quickly. Other times he pushes to have one more conversation or wait for someone to walk by. “Far more often,” he said, “it only makes a story when I push a little bit harder.”

He doesn’t think his work has radically changed journalism in Chicago or spurred resilience in the community. But he hears from people who used to live in these neighborhoods and appreciate seeing them as they remember them. He believes it’s important for Tribune readers in the suburbs or other cities to see that these parts of Chicago are not a war zone.

The project has helped him deal with photographing violence so often. “There are lots of times when I finish one and I think, ‘All right, Chicago’s got a chance,’” he said.

Much of the power of restorative narrative lies in the words reporters use. Don’t sugarcoat the narrative or latch onto uplifting statements, Tenore advised. Stories focusing on an anniversary might rely on simplistic phrases such as “on the road to recovery.” But the road to recovery is not straight or simple.

“A lot of the time,” Tenore said, “you look at the apple, but you need to look at the bruises on the apple, too.”

Take stock of your coverage

If you’re working to change how you cover certain communities, you should find out if it’s working. Your newsroom may conduct post-mortems after major breaking news events to examine your accuracy and workflow. It’s just as important to examine coverage of a community to see if your news outlet misunderstood or mischaracterized anything. You may be surprised to learn what rubs people the wrong way.

Wilson said he’s upfront when responding to criticism about The Dallas Morning News’ coverage. “I’m just inclined to try to tell people the truth if I can,” he said. “We’ve seen that showing our process to people and showing our thinking is really helpful.”

The News regularly holds discussions among front-line editors about topics like empathy or a failure in storytelling, whether it’s their own or another news organization.

“Talking about it is better than not talking about it,” Wilson said. “Talking about it doesn’t mean everybody does it perfectly after that. You hope for incremental progress.”

Deggans suggested that supervisors factor diversity of coverage into staff evaluations to ensure people prioritize it.

After 68 Blocks, The Boston Globe held a community forum with reporters, editors, sources and community leaders. Not all of the response was positive, reporter Andrew Ryan said, but it helped to hear from the community on what could have been done better. For instance, groups like the local Boys & Girls Clubs  felt slighted by the stories because they didn’t believe their contributions to the neighborhood were reflected. Ryan said the event serves as a reminder to keep the community’s point of view in mind when reporting.

These discussions can generate more stories. NPR’s Code Switch airs feedback and questions from listeners during “mailbag” episodes. If reporters don’t know the answers, they often go back to sources to get them — and sometimes they find more stories.

Convene a focus group to foster a long-term relationship

A reader advisory board can help journalists and a community understand one another. These meetings can take various forms, have different goals and target particular groups. But regardless of the format, you must work to keep them focused and productive.

In 2016, The Seattle Times  tried a reader advisory board with its Education Lab, a project focusing on public education. Anika Anand , engagement editor for the project, hoped the board would enable the Times to hear new voices and improve its reporting.

“Instead of only calling these people when we had a question,” she said, “we would also be able to sit and listen to what was happening in their lives, in their communities.”

She made mistakes. She didn’t know how to facilitate a meeting like this, so a few people took over the discussion at the first gathering. She invited a lot of people, but fewer showed up for the second meeting because she had forgotten to bring snacks and drinks the first time. She planned two or three meetings over the course of a semester, but that wasn’t enough. After one meeting didn’t go well, fewer people showed up to subsequent ones.

All of them liked the idea of a reader advisory board, Anand said, but most everyone involved admitted it didn’t work out. Some people wanted to hear from the journalists; others wanted to pitch story ideas. Some wanted to speak out about what was going on in Seattle. Reporters became frustrated when they heard about potential stories or sources too late to do anything with them. Participants didn’t always feel like their perspective was heard.

Instead of only calling these people when we had a question, we would also be able to sit and listen to what was happening in their lives, in their communities.

In short, no empathy was gained by the public or the journalists.

Anand still believes in the concept, but she wishes she had held more meetings with smaller groups so she could focus the discussion. Smaller, more frequent meetings, each focused on one topic, would have been more productive.

She believes a successful reader advisory board could look different “for each newsroom based on what they’re trying to achieve.” But in each case, “there needs to be a lot more specificity and focused intention.”

She had a chance to try again with a writing group at The Evergrey, a Seattle-based local news startup she co-founded.

This time, she had a specific goal: Bring diverse writers and viewpoints into the Evergrey’s content and help non-journalists learn to pitch and write stories. Participants were recruited and selected based on a diversity of viewpoints, which helped foster good discussions. There was a specific program, with writing assignments.

The Evergrey did publish a few pieces from the program, but Anand has ideas to make it better, such as having a staffer act as facilitator instead of a community member.

In Nashville, The Tennessean has convened small, facilitated focus groups on subjects ranging from gun ownership to coverage of Muslim communities. The idea came from the newsroom’s diversity and inclusion task force.

David Plazas, director of opinion and engagement  at The Tennessean  and chair of the task force, said the first discussion took place around one table and wasn’t facilitated. Like Anand, Plazas said a few voices dominated the conversation.

Now the participants are broken up into small groups, with journalists at each table. The groups use a list of questions sent out in advance as a starting point for the conversation.

Plazas also writes about the groups in his column for the paper.

“By reporting back to the public,” he said, “it’s to say, ‘We’re doing this because we believe in reaching out to people that we haven’t done a great job of covering.’”

Since The Tennessean started these meetings, it has expanded its source lists. Participants have written opinion pieces for the paper and tipped the newsroom off to stories.

If you want to try this sort of thing, don’t treat it like a town-hall meeting, where you ask general questions about coverage or get feedback on a particular story. Approach it like a focus group, where a facilitator listens and pushes people toward answers, like: “Why isn’t this approach working? When we phrase things this way, is it detrimental? Are there better people for us to talk to?”

Empathetic reporting can bolster other efforts to diversify your staff and coverage

A newsroom that fosters empathy among its managers, producers, editors and reporters can find ways to better relate to communities. By listening and letting down our guard as journalists, no matter who we are or where we come from, we can create genuine, lasting connections that help us create a news product that speaks to a diverse community.

Taking an empathetic approach to reporting results in journalism that can be more compelling and thoughtful — benefiting sources, reporters and the news outlet.

Empathetic reporting works in concert with other methods of increasing diversity in your newsroom and your news coverage. Hiring to better represent your communities is a solid first step toward covering them better. Meanwhile, empathetic reporting can help newsrooms gain trust in these communities.

Taking an empathetic approach to reporting results in journalism that can be more compelling and thoughtful — benefiting sources, reporters and the news outlet. It’s better journalism that better represents the community.

These techniques work for all levels of reporting, and they can be put into action on a daily story tomorrow or over time on a big investigation.

The capacity to practice empathy probably already exists in your newsroom. Some of the reporters profiled in this study are truly exceptional, but entry-level and seasoned journalists can learn these techniques with the right coaching.

“No one becomes an expert on racial issues by virtue of their birth,” Deggans said. “Even journalists of color need to spend time working to understand these issues and how they manifest in news coverage to avoid making the same mistakes as their white counterparts.

“And it is possible for white journalists to develop similar expertise in covering racial issues; they just have to take the time and make the effort to learn the subject,” he said.

Empathetic journalism is a lasting pathway to diversifying newsrooms and showing communities they’re not only represented, but heard.

Put these ideas into action

  • 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.

 

Appendix: Empathy tips

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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