Compassion is not journalism’s downfall, it’s journalism’s salvation

Two years ago, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader published an eight-part series that showed readers what it’s like to grow up Indian in South Dakota. Reporter Steve Young ended the series with this observation about three-year-old Neleigh, the child of a teenage mother:

On the powwow grounds along the Missouri River, in her traditional Lakota jingle dress, Neleigh embodies all the beauty and strength of a culture whose spirituality and customs have sustained its people for centuries.

On the winding streets of her hometown, pushing a stroller or riding her bicycle, this is every little child in South Dakota who ever laughed and giggled and ran free in the innocence of youth.

At the kitchen table in Lower Brule, where mom is only 18, has dropped out of school, is pregnant again and living on welfare, a little girl waits at the intersection of three roads.

The dangerous traffic of reservation life is bearing down on her, veering wildly under the influences of alcohol, poverty, violence and despair. Which way will she go? And does anyone care? (Argus Leader, November 4, 2010)

“Does anybody care?” Young said the editorial board at the Argus talked long and hard about the conclusion: Could he end with this question? Ultimately, the board agreed with the author: The question rested on a solid foundation and had earned a legitimate place in the story.

Young, whose series earned the Argus a Nieman Taylor Family Award, understands the importance of empathy and compassion. In his conclusion, Neleigh becomes every little girl, every child, living in South Dakota, worthy of dignity and respect.

Attentive readers understand that this child and they are equal in their humanity — the quintessential outcome of any story that aims to connect readers to the world. Through his question — Does anybody care? — Young reveals his humanity and asks readers to think about theirs.

Though most agree that compassion is integral to the creation of an ethical life, the institution of journalism has worried for more than a century that compassion might somehow provoke the profession’s downfall. And it might — but not because we have ever actually let loose its imagined power to wreak havoc. Quite the contrary.

It’s time to surrender: Journalism education should incorporate the study of empathy and compassion alongside its study of the objective method. The objective reporter who integrates into his or her work an empathetic, compassionate approach does not face irreconcilable demands. The compassionate act, one that seeks to alleviate suffering, often follows a process that starts with empathy, i.e., the moment within which one connects with the other in an effort to see through his or her eyes, to know something through its meaning for that person.

When journalists practice an ethic of empathy and compassion, they do not forfeit their objectivity. Empathy seeks to understand the other, not produce agreement with the other. For this reason, empathy compels fair treatment of all sources.

Just as one should empathize with the poor person, he or she should empathize with the public official. For the journalist compelled by a moral compass, the writer who seeks justice in the world, empathy can make visible the lives of those who are marginalized and misunderstood and in so doing transform the act of reporting into an act of compassion.

My students possess not only a love for writing and reporting but an abiding interest in the well-being of humanity. From the get-go, as do all journalism students, they study and practice objectivity, understanding that its execution is integral to good journalism. They learn that objectivity calls for setting aside the emotions.

The message becomes confusing, for they also know that the best reporters integrate the emotions of sources and situations into stories, subsequently connecting with both the hearts and minds of readers. Over the years, many of my students have expressed their fear that to resist either the empathetic response or the compassionate act is to repress their humanity.

Journalism texts don’t really help students negotiate this confusion. As professors and teachers, we don’t expect students to understand balance and objectivity without first being given instruction, but we seem to think students will know when they can or cannot respond emotionally or whether another’s emotions should be explored, discouraged, distrusted, ignored, or “simply” described. In fact, we argue about whether journalists have the right to respond compassionately.

Many worry that the empathetic or compassionate person will fall prey to the emotions and lose sight of objectivity. Most of us, most of the time, can do better than that. We are capable of shifting the gears of inquiry as necessary.  Journalists ought to study the work of people like Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, who argues that emotions contain within them “awareness of value or importance” and are “suffused with intelligence and discernment.” They can, in other words, be put to good work.

The research of Sarina Rodrigues Saturn, a psychologist at Oregon State University, suggests we are hardwired to be more or less empathetic. Can we defy genetics to become more caring? She and others say yes. According to a New York Times article by Pauline Chen, doctors who have taken empathy training make fewer errors, and their patients do better and are happier. Empathy, in short, can be cultivated and lead to acts of compassion.

It stands to reason that a process of inquiry will go further if more of a reporter’s capacities are brought deliberately to bear. The personal characteristics and capacities we bring to any exchange influence what we create and who we become. Indeed, embedded in the empathetic, compassionate act are fellow travelers: honesty, trustworthiness, respectfulness.

We become more conscious of and connected to our environment when we are fully engaged. Do not our instincts as human beings tell us we should connect to that about which we write? As people of heart, mind, spirit and body, we are complex. Our methods must reflect our makeup.

Related: Journalism ethics are rooted in humanity

Janet Blank-Libra teaches in the English/Journalism Department at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

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