A Manifesto for Empathetic Journalism

Every year, ad agency JWT publishes a trend report predicting what will be big in culture the following year. And for 2016, the number 1 trend in culture was something surprising in its non-newness: empathy. 

“From computer games designed to promote empathy to new empathy-based social networks…empathy - its importance, benefits and virtues - is the new buzzword in thought leadership”.

Evidence for this being the next ‘big thing’ were innovations including Facebook diversifying their reaction buttons so friends can respond to them in a more nuanced way than simply ‘liking’. They argued that, in technology, successful developments will be “those who understand human behaviour and emotion”.

All of this definitely makes sense. But my first thought was: shouldn’t this be a no-brainer rather than a prediction for the future; something that will be ‘on-trend’? Shouldn’t we all aspire to empathy beyond the realm of technology and in our own lives and the way we form opinions? But, surprisingly and disturbingly, it is a quality too often neglected in the realm that is more opinion-forming than anywhere else: the media.

Media and reporting have become about branding. Branding needs to stand out. Branding requires a fixed point of view.

A fixed point of view doesn’t lend itself to nuance. It doesn’t lend itself to alternative perspectives, or at least considering wider contexts. It takes a stand on an issue, or a lifestyle, or a way of looking at the world and stays there.

That is natural, and normal, because as humans we form opinions on little things, and they add up and ladder up to the way we view the world. Which then informs the way we construct our next opinion. And this process works because, although it might be circular, but we need to make sense of ourselves somehow.

As long as we maintain empathy.

The issue with the lack of empathy in the media is that it lends itself to black-and-whiteness. So the Daily Mail is perceived as being written by, and for, right-winged bigots. The Guardian is written by, and for, liberal lefties. Vice is written by, and for, drug-addled urbanites. They have succeeded in creating caricatures of themselves.

But stories don’t belong in one box or another. They are borne out of histories almost impossible to comprehend in their complexity. So how can we ask to be truly informed if we take on one way of looking at the world and stay there?

 

Empathy. Definition: “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. It is perfectly possible to believe something to be right and offer an opinion on it whilst seeking to understand how the other party have reached their position too. But why does reporting rarely do this? For example, the widely read story about Kim Davis, the Kentucky marriage clerk who refused to marriage people of the same sex due to her religious beliefs.

My personal opinion is that Kim Williams is a bigot. And reports either agreed with me, or they disagreed. This was pre-determined by the overall political and ethical stance of their media outlet. Surely it is much more interesting to question why she is a bigot? Why does she think it is right to refuse to give licenses to gay marriages? How can we seek to bridge that gap? Doesn’t answering that question create a whole new discourse of more nuance and progression than condemning her alone?

Instead what we are given are black and white opinions. These don’t shape or change or progress. They are simply reflections of the majority.

Empathy creates nuance. Empathy discloses perspectives. Empathy notes how these perspectives live alongside each other, and allows for small gradual shifts.

It is the rarest of actions that completely prevent understanding. There is often a context that provides the smallest inkling of insight. It is the most psychopathic who are unable to consider someone else’s point of view.

So let’s be empathetic journalists. Let’s support and condemn without fear and inhibition. But let’s do so from balance, from perception and from empathy. Because that is where the impact lies and that is where our point of difference can be.

 

Author: Vicky Noble

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