The Need for Listening and Empathy in Journalism

Two recent blog posts raise this question: Just how often do news organizations actually listen to their communities?

In his post, former News & Record editor John Robinson argues that his former paper doesn’t dedicate time or resources to the issues he and many other readers face on a daily basis. And the News & Record isn’t unusual. In fact, Robinson says this problem isn’t limited to newspapers: “TV news has the same news diet,” he writes, “and it’s not in touch with mine.”

In a response to Robinson, Kevin Anderson notes that many newsrooms are “subsisting on the fumes cast off by official life: crime, council meetings and planned events.” They’re spending much less time, Anderson says, on “the lived experience of their communities.”

Zoned Out of the News

This debate reminds me of a talk that longtime editor Tom Stites gave at UMass Amherst in 2006. “Why is it that less-than-affluent Americans are being zoned out of serious reporting?” Stites asked.

Stites noted that newspapers are increasingly aiming to serve the audiences that advertisers want to reach. “Is there any wonder that less affluent Americans have abandoned newspapers and are angry at the press?” Stites asked. “They’ve abandoned newspapers … because the newspapers have abandoned them.”

In his talk, Stites dissected an issue of the Boston Globe. He searched for stories that reflected the realities of Boston’s poor and working class. Instead he found stories about the Boston Symphony, Cape Cod vacations, houses that cost more than $300,000, lobster dinners and investments.

Stites noted that this kind of narrow focus isn’t found only in the Globe; it’s present throughout the industry.

In an earlier post on the topic, Anderson says that journalists need to ask themselves some tough questions: “What stories are we missing? What part of the audience are we ignoring? Whose viewpoint are we ignoring?”

Those are all good questions, but there’s another one: What is the role of empathy in journalism?

Engaging Empathy

Two weeks ago, I saw Ira Glass talk about how stories enable us to see ourselves in the lives of others. “The story is a machine for empathy,” Glass has argued elsewhere. “It is a really powerful tool for imagining yourself in other people's situations.”

Glass is concerned not only with what stories to cover, but how to tell those stories. If we want to better reflect the lived experiences of our communities, we need to tackle both.

A year ago, Andrew Haeg left his work in public broadcasting to develop what he called an “empathy engine” to help journalists better engage and understand communities.

In a blog post announcing his new project, he quotes Jose Antonio Vargas’ keynote at the 2012 Online News Association conference. Vargas said that journalism “has given me the biggest gift that anybody could ever give me … the gift of empathy. Of seeing and listening to people who may not agree with me and who feel [differently] than I do.”

So the question of empathy has two facets: empathy in the newsroom, and the empathy our stories foster in our readers. What connects these two elements is the act of listening.

Listening to Community

Better reflecting and responding to our communities has to start with better listening.

While journalism is rooted in interviews, there’s not enough discussion about the need to listen to our communities. And by listening, I don’t mean simply talking to sources or listening for story leads; I mean listening for the sake of understanding and building truly reciprocal relationships with readers.

And I don’t mean monitoring social media, fine-tuning Web analytics or reading comment sections. That kind of digital engagement is necessary but insufficient.

My background is in community organizing, a core part of which involves listening to communities, identifying their needs and their assets, and supporting their efforts to build solutions and make change. There are many models for how organizers do this that could be translated to the newsroom context.

But we don’t have to look outside journalism. In 2002, Keith Woods, now NPR’s vice president for diversity in news and operations, created a training at Poynter called “The Listening Post.” He wrote:

Journalists interested in telling more of a community’s ‘truth’ need to establish listening posts in the places that fall outside the routine of journalism. … The first thing [journalists] need to know is that they have to leave the office, the neighborhood, maybe even the comfort of personal likes and dislikes in order to make this happen.

Efforts like the Civil Conversations Project use media and journalism as catalysts for meaningful debates in communities. Other projects like the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ Parity Project at the former Rocky Mountain News have connected communities and newsrooms in ways that shift and challenge newsroom culture, coverage and staffing.

More Diverse Media

Which raises a final point. The staffing and ownership of our media don’t reflect our communities’ diversity. FCC data released in 2012 show that women own less than 7 percent of radio and TV stations and people of color own just 5 percent of TV stations and 8 percent of radio stations.

In its most recent survey, the American Society of News Editors found that newsroom diversity has “hovered between 12 and 13 percent for more than a decade.” And a number of studies have found that women are consistently underrepresented in bylines and as sources.

There is a web of factors we need to examine when we take on the challenge of creating media that better reflects our nation’s diversity and responds to the concerns of our communities. These issues are embedded in questions of ethics, sustainability and our role in a democracy — and they deserve more attention.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good