My mom may be the most progressive empathizer I’ve ever known — and she doesn’t even know it. photo of Sam RaglandLet me explain: Red, as I lovingly call my very Irish, freckle-faced mom, raised our family of four with my Black father in a small Kentucky town in the ’80s. Back when mall cops would ask if my older brother and I were lost as we meandered near her, back when KKK rallies would encourage our classmates to skip school to join up. 

She never tried to feel what we felt. She never said, “I understand how you feel.” Instead, she talked to us — and listened. She asked us questions, and helped us process. She never ignored the truths we shared. 

As the most impactful ally I will ever know, she met core needs we didn’t know we had (more on this below). She led with curiosity and relinquished control — and it’s this relationship with curiosity and control that makes journalists naturally good and bad at empathy. 

This week’s Mental Health Reset challenge will require you to acknowledge your strengths as a journalist and ask you to turn those strengths in on yourself and your teams.  


Studies have shown that physicians learn over time to block their innate response to echo someone else’s pain, or to feel alongside them — a necessary protective behavior that helps them do their job. And journalists, whether on the front lines or at their computers, are no different. With every breaking news story we cover, with every disaster, every doomscroll through a newsfeed, we build up our ability to concentrate on the work and control our empathy by tuning out the emotions of others. 

This ability to control the scene, situation and coverage strategy makes us fine field journalists but poor news leaders and, and sometimes, colleagues. As mission-driven, community-engaged journalists, our empathy is most on display through our curiosity, which means we can use that skill to help our teams. Subduing our inclination to control things will make us more empathetic managers and leaders, and knowing when to slow down and put on curiosity can also help. 

We saw earlier this year, thanks to the UNC local news burnout survey, that 70% of local journalists have experienced work-related burnout, 72% have considered leaving their job and those younger than 45 experience burnout more than their colleagues older than 45. Getting curious is the starting point to lowering these rates of burnout and churn. 

Yes, I’m saying empathy is a burnout intervention AND a retention strategy. Questions I like: What are my team and I optimizing for? What motivates us? What needs must be met for me at work to feel safe and secure? Treating journalists with curiosity and empathy, with kindness and care, is our greatest opportunity to retain and grow talent. 


If you, like API, believe the future of news is local, then leading more than the journalism must become a strength and a priority. Today I’ll share one way you can do this. It’s called the BICEPS Framework, by Paloma Medina, an expert on merging the neuropsychology of work and life. 

The framework posits six core needs – Belonging, Improvement, Equity/Fairness, Choice, Predictability, Significance – are at the heart of human social behavior and that most behavior pursues those needs. Threats to those needs (queue the changes in leadership, the out-of-the-blue restructure, the chase for larger audiences) trigger a fight-freeze-flight response.

Everyone on your team, including you, is likely optimizing to meet a different core need. Our responses to these needs and for these needs should be marked by curiosity, which will activate our empathy and hopefully set in motion the compassion to act on your behalf or on behalf of someone else. 


What we’ve created here is a ratings chart to assess your core needs. Medina’s research shows that these core needs are present at all times, but depending on internal and external factors, we may be more triggered by one not being met than the others.

One core need at a time, consider and complete the following: 

    1. Current rating (degree to which this need is presently being met): high, medium, low
    2. Importance to you (degree to which you are presently motivated by this need): high, medium, low
    3. Alignment: color-coded (green – well aligned, yellow – needs work, red – misaligned)

Note before continuing: If you’ve been to my burnout and boundaries session, you know I’m a huge advocate of knowing what you need before you need it. So sit with this question as you consider your ideas for improvement: How might I feel supported, safe and/or secure in my work?

    1. Ideas for improvement: Brainstorm solutions, conversations to be had, workflows or processes to re-envision, projects and tasks to delegate.
    2. Priority: Select  one or two ideas that you’ll move to action this month. 
    3. Plan: Schedule 15 minutes on your calendar four weeks from now to revisit your worksheet, rating the core needs again and considering what’s changed, what hasn’t, why and what’s next.


Remember: Curiosity is a gateway to empathy, trust and collaboration. And lucky for us, journalists are naturally curious people. After you’ve given some thought to your core needs, and maybe how they differ today from the start of the year, consider bringing the framework to your team. Start by unearthing their core needs and thinking about what they share with you. Medina’s BICEPS handout on coworker conversations will be helpful.

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You also might be interested in:

  • This is a column on how to measure well-being for yourself and your organization. By the end, you’ll have a clear direction and quantitative ways to chart a healthy path forward for your journalists.

  • Experts define moral injury as the suffering that comes from witnessing, perpetrating or failing to prevent events that violate one’s own deeply held moral beliefs and values. It is not classified as a mental illness, but it can lead to depression, substance abuse or burnout, which is one reason news managers need to understand the phenomenon of moral injury — and ways to address it or head it off.

  • For many newsrooms, changing the systems that protect unhealthy culture could be a few sustained decisions away from reality.