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.”
[pullquote align=right]It’s up to the whole newsroom, including senior management, to foster reporting that seeks to understand a community.[/pullquote]
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.
[pullquote align=left]If someone criticizes your coverage of their community, listen to it.[/pullquote]
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.”
[pullquote align=left]We each see the world differently, so working together helps reporters form a fuller perspective.[/pullquote]
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.
[pullquote align=right]Thomas ran up against a problem that’s common for minority reporters: He was pigeonholed.[/pullquote]
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.
[pullquote align=right]Much of the power of restorative narrative lies in the words reporters use.[/pullquote]
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.
[pullquote align=left]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.[/pullquote]
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.
[pullquote align=right]Taking an empathetic approach to reporting results in journalism that can be more compelling and thoughtful — benefiting sources, reporters and the news outlet.[/pullquote]
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.