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.
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.