on journalism and empathy

I’m tasked with talking about empathy at a conference for student journalists tomorrow. “When are journalists allowed to care? the program asks.

It’s a faith-based track at a thoroughly secular conference, and my audience, at least in the past, has been students at religious schools, mostly Christian, with an occasional skeptic who wonders if Christians should even be journalists.

The skeptic believes Christians can’t be objective. And he is right. No one can be objective, not even the skeptic, whose sometimes visceral antagonism pretty much proves my point.

The idea behind this session is that young Christians journalists may struggle with how to “balance their own human compassion with their desire to cover the news fairly and completely.”

But I doubt they do. Struggle, that is. I know few young journalists who don’t want to save the world, or at least wear Toms shoes. They wear their compassion on their sleeves.

And they will fit in just fine. The best journalists are story tellers, and the best stories reflect a human connection between the writer and the subject, and ultimately between the writer and the reader. No one ever wrote a good story who didn’t care about it.

But while they won’t struggle with this tension, perhaps they should. “Fairly and completely” is more difficult than it sounds.

Finley Peter Dunne, an editor at the Chicago Tribune in the 1800’s, once said that journalists “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” But it was not a moral imperative. It was just a way to sell papers.

The hard thing is you even have to be fair to the comfortable. You have to treat both sides with respect, and you have to make sure you aren’t being hoodwinked by causes any more than by the commercial interests.

Just this week NPR’s This American Life retracted a story about human rights abuses by Apple in China. The story “contained significant fabrications,” they said. They are sorry they aired it.

But the truth is, they wanted it to be true.

Journalists will continue to decide what story to write, which people to interview, and what to include. That means we also decide what to leave out.

Empathy doesn’t have to be one of those things. It is natural and good that photojournalist Lynsey Addario, who was sexually abused by soldiers in Lybia, says she wept openly when interviewing rape victims in the Congo.

No Christian could seriously claim to understand the mercy of God who failed to do so. I’m not making a statement about Addario’s faith, though, since I know nothing about it. I’m just making a statement about those who follow Christ, and in so doing oppose oppression and injustice.

But I’m also saying that our emotions can deceive us, and that is a real danger. We have to go beyond our heart to the heart of the matter, which is invariably more complicated than it first appeared.

Yes, as Christians, we must speak the truth in love. But Christ made it pretty clear we have to love the bad guys too.

The danger of “empathetic reporting” is not that it is too hard but that sometimes it is too easy. I’m not saying it is easy to cover rape victims in the Congo, of course. I’m saying it is easy to play off the emotion of those who are disposed to hate the same things we hate.

Truth is harder to find than that.

And even harder to communicate.
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For links on this topic, see my Delicious stack on journalism and empathy.

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About wally metts

Wally Metts is the daysman. He is director of graduate studies in communication at Spring Arbor University and is a pastor at Countryside Bible Church in Jonesville, MI. The father of four adult children, he and his wife Katie raise barn cats and Christmas trees in Michigan. His grandchildren call him Santa.

One Response to “on journalism and empathy”

  1. Sitting on the Veranda at Hebras, reading your thought provoking post on a perfect clear afternoon right next to my honey. Does it get any better?

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