How to develop empathy as a core tool in successful journalism

The Design Thinking Process - empathy is the first stage

Empathy is the first stage of design thinking. Image: Mike Boyson

In the fourth of a series of post on seven habits often associated with good journalism I look at a quality which is much less talked about, and often misunderstood — and why I believe it should be just as central as qualities such as persistence or curiosity.

Empathy — specifically cognitive empathy — is the ability to imagine what it is like to be in someone else’s shoes.

It is one of the more underrated qualities of good journalists, perhaps because people often confuse it with sympathy, or with emotional empathy.

The difference is important: it is possible to imagine what it is like to be a particular person (cognitive empathy), including criminals and corrupt officials, without feeling sorry for them (sympathy) or feeling the same way (emotional empathy).

For example, an official may have given contracts to people she knew because she was worried about losing their friendship, or it was easier than going through a longer external process, or because she feared for her job and was hoping it might help her get employment if she lost it.

These are all motivations we can understand, while still seeing that the resulting actions are immoral and unjustified.

Why do we need empathy as a journalist? Firstly, it helps us dig deeper into a story.

Identifying the motivations involved in an event — part of the ‘why‘ of a story – can help us better report it.

If there is a systemic problem it helps identify what human dynamics that system needs to account for.

If there is a human impact it helps us to explore and report that.

In other words, empathy is one aspect of scepticism: without empathy it can be easy for the journalist to revert to stereotype. The ‘welfare cheat’ and the ‘corrupt politician’; the ‘illegal immigrant’ and the ‘fatcat boss’; the ‘apathetic youth’ and the ‘racist pensioner’; the ‘criminal’ and the ‘victim’ are all cliches that we can push past — with just a little empathy-based scepticism.

Empathy as an interviewing tool

Empathy illustration

Design thinking literature has useful tips for developing empathy. Image: Ditte Hvas Mortensen/Interaction Design Foundation

Secondly, empathy can help us identify the best ways to approach sources, and to deal with them afterwards.

Sources are likely to harbour at least some suspicion about your motives in approaching them — based, no doubt, on another cliche: the morality-free reporter who will twist what is said to fit a story that’s already written in his or her mind.

So how do we address that suspicion?

Empathy helps us to identify what those suspicions might be: a victim of crime is likely to have very different feelings about speaking to a journalist than a person accused of that crime; academic experts may be operating in a different environment to police officers. Here is an example of empathising with each:

  • A ‘victim’ might be worried about repercussions from the person or organisation he or she is a victim of, or concerned about increased media attention and the impact on his or her family
  • Someone ‘accused’ might be worried about being judged, or fear repercussions from others involved
  • An academic expert might be too busy hitting a conference deadline or buried in end-of-term marking, or might receive dozens of enquiries every week, and does not see journalistic approaches as a priority. Or they might think journalists typically have only a superficial understanding of the issue and will make mistakes when trying to report it
  • A police officer might have to refer all press enquiries to the press office, or have concerns about legal issues such as contempt

In one example Sarah Shroud outlines her own experience of this when interviewing an oilman for a podcast:

“I quickly learned that even the mention of “climate change” put him on the defense. For him, the phrase evokes the condescension he’s felt his entire life from politicians, liberals and environmentalists, and maybe even taps into some underlying feelings of shame left over from growing up poor.”

Many of these obstacles can be addressed by demonstrating in our approach that it is based on curiosity, not a prejudiced opinion. That we are seeking to understand what actually happened, and why.

Empathy might involve understanding that many people are not aware of the distinction between opinion (where judgement is often passed) and news reporting (where it is not) – and that we might need to explain that.

We might equally need to explain that it is not our role to act as a person’s advocate.

We might explain our duty to provide a right of reply, or to give a voice to the voiceless, or to ask the ‘why’ questions relating to newsworthy events.

Other obstacles might be addressed by demonstrating our legal or field-specific knowledge, or our commitment to reporting on a particular field.

We might point to previous work, or ask mutual contacts who have dealt with us in the past to act as a go-between and vouch for our integrity.

More broadly, empathy can help us avoid some of the common mistakes made in interviewing, such as asking leading or closed questions, or failing to ask follow-up questions.

In a post on “empathy Interviewing”, for example, Theo Wolf emphasises the importance of active listening in interviews, and the role of empathy in focusing on non-verbal cues. To illustrate this he describes three levels of listening:

“In level I listening, you are listening more to the thoughts in your own head than you are to the person in conversation with you … You can get caught up thinking about what question you should ask next, or worrying “Is this person comfortable? Am I taking too long?”

“Level II listening means that you are focused, you’ve tamed these arrant thoughts and they are not intruding on the conversation …

“In level III listening you invite senses in addition to your hearing to the party. When you are in level III listening you are tuned into your interviewee’s body language, their tone and way of speaking, as well as their physical energy. We can actually think of The Empathizer as being in a state of level III listening when she was observing the behavior of customers in the restaurant. She wasn’t asking questions yet, but she was using all of her senses to pick up important information.”

Other useful tips for developing empathy as a tool to improve interviewing are provided in the post.

Empathy as a tool for finding sources and information

Empathy can also help us in finding individuals and information in the first place, especially in the field of OSINT (Open Source Intelligence).

A journalist seeking to find a twin who was writing about their experiences online, for example, might try to imagine a phrase that they would use that non-twins writing about the same topic would not. (The answer: “My twin”).

If they wanted to know whether someone was really in a particular place at a particular time or not, they might consider things they be able to describe that weren’t mentioned in news reports? (Perhaps the weather, which you can then research ahead of any meeting, ready to use as part of some verification processes).

If I suspected someone might try to hide information, I can use empathy to imagine when and how they might they do that. (After they’ve been approached, perhaps. So I might use a service which alerts me to changes on specific webpages, or differences between pages saved before and then downloaded again after the approach.)

And empathy can also be used to build a picture of a system and the actors within that: who do they come into contact with? What rules do they need to follow? What trails do they leave?

In a previous post — Empathy as an investigative tool: how to map systems to come up with story ideas — I outline a systematic way I use some of these techniques in teaching my MA Data Journalism students to plan investigations and generate story ideas.

Empathy as an audience-building tool

Finally, empathy is crucial to understanding our audience: what they need to know, what they want to know, what they already know (and don’t), and the most effective ways of telling them something new. It is the first part of design thinking.

Sarah Shroud’s post contains some useful practical steps in using empathy “to reach an audience from a very different social, economic, cultural and ideological bubble than our own”, which it’s worth quoting from at length:

“In order to see outside your own limited frame you have to know who you are. You have to know how you think, your own blindspots and biases, as well as the intersecting events, experiences and ideas that have shaped your worldview. To get there, you have to have done a ton of self-scrutiny and have received a ton of feedback from all kinds of people in all kinds of contexts.

“Next, after scrutinizing yourself, you interview your audience, extensively … For me, as a journalist, this means starting at the finish line, with the people you’re trying to reach, and working backwards. You don’t just imagine your audience, you get to know them very, very, well. Who needs this story the most? How do they explain what’s going on? What words, ideas and information do they use to frame it?

“Third, and last, once you have a strong grasp of both your audience’s frame and your own, you’re ready to leave them both behind. Now that you’ve become fluent in multiple frames, you look for a way to tell the story that weaves them together into a complex narrative, one that builds on and transcends the frames you’ve taken such pains to identify.”

Cognitive empathy versus emotional empathy

Paul Bloom’s book Against Empathy (h/t Murray Dick) is a particularly well written exploration of the distinctions between cognitive empathy and emotional empathy, and an argument against the latter.

One example he uses is particularly relevant to journalists:

“In the fall of 2014, there was a series of incidents in which unarmed black men died at the hands of the police, and many people expressed their anguish about the lack of empathy that Americans—and particularly police officers—have with racial minorities.

“But I would read as well angry responses complaining about the lack of empathy that many Americans have with the police, or with the victims of crimes. The one thing everyone could agree on, it seemed, was that more empathy is needed.”

Emotional empathy, he argues, reflects our biases, and “distorts our moral judgments in pretty much the same way that prejudice does”:

“Although we might intellectually believe that the suffering of our neighbor is just as awful as the suffering of someone living in another country, it’s far easier to empathize with those who are close to us, those who are similar to us, and those we see as more attractive or vulnerable and less scary.

“Intellectually, a white American might believe that a black person matters just as much as a white person, but he or she will typically find it a lot easier to empathize with the plight of the latter.”

Of course journalists exploit this systematically in their reporting, assigning more importance — more newsworthiness — to a local death than one halfway around the world; but they are also more likely to report on white victims of crime than black ones, and cover stories that the imagined audience is going to empathise with, in an emotional sense.

Cognitive empathy, in contrast, is a “necessary [tool] for anyone who wishes to be a good person — [and] it is morally neutral.”

With curiosity, scepticism, persistence and now empathy, the first four habits of successful journalists all primarily relate to newsgathering — but with the next three the focus shifts to production. In the next post I look one of those: creativity.

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