In the coronavirus pandemic, empathy is imperative — and exhausting — in newsrooms

If you believe empathy is an optional soft skill, reconsider that premise

May 27, 2020
Category: Business & Work

Empathy shows up often in studies and stories that offer advice on crisis leadership. And that’s why we are reading more about it now.

President Donald Trump was short on empathy at his coronavirus news briefings. New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has led with empathy in locking down and opening her country. Marriott’s chief executive officer embedded empathy and vulnerability in remarks to his employees.

Empathy, according to leadership advice, can improve your negotiation skills. It can ease the tension that comes with change. And it can help you navigate conflict.

It also can be dismissed as one of those soft skills — nice to have, but not necessarily essential to leading in a crisis. Critical thinking, strategic planning and financial savvy are often deemed more urgent when revenue plummets.

So what’s most crucial now for leaders? Heart or head? A pandemic doesn’t allow you that choice. You need both. Make empathy a group imperative because it can be exhausting, especially in this extended recovery.


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The crisis has produced both strategic and empathetic heroics worth anchoring when newsrooms move back together.

I’ve heard editors praise middle managers who stepped into larger roles amid this remote work life and quickly grew independent. Entire newsrooms adapted within 24 hours to new software, communication tools and workflows. Several editors have said they’ve seen their staffs be kinder to each other and check in on colleagues who are alone and stressed.

And I’ve heard leaders of newsrooms share their own vulnerabilities in handling the operational shock. It’s a relief to hear someone in charge echo your own grief.

Asked what the virus era produced that is worth retaining, Michele Matassa Flores, editor of The Seattle Times, said her staff boosted its breaking news muscles with speed and focus — a valuable and strategic advance. She also wants to hold onto reporting and storytelling that have drawn readers closer.

“We are living the story along with our readers,” she told a group of editors during a Poynter Institute webinar. “That has made our coverage more empathetic.” It has also brought a surge of subscriptions — a signal of readers’ trust.

Empathy can be strategic. Listening intently to your customers and staff can help you determine your next moves. What have you observed since March about the capacity of your staff to change? Reinforce what you want to anchor.

Adam Waytz, a professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University, has studied and written about the benefits of empathy — and its limits.

He says empathy “is not a soft skill because actually getting into the mind of another person requires deliberation and working memory, the exact types of psychological processes required for heavy-duty reasoning and strategic planning.”

Empathy also can be exhausting, as Watyz wrote in his article for Harvard Business Review. Coronavirus deaths, fears about joblessness, and financial calamity have exhausted newsrooms the world over. This is where empathy has its limits.

“If you are feeling another person’s pain sometimes it can make you turn off altogether and disengage from action,” Waytz said. “Empathy is often most effective in driving action when it enables people to understand others’ feelings without taking on those feelings as their own.”

He recommends making empathy less of a solo task. If it’s a shared responsibility, it can help extend an organization’s endurance. A group can more readily draw and hold healthy boundaries — avoiding “taking on others’ feelings.”

The now worn tagline: “We’re all in this together” deserves an empathetic dissection. We’re all in the same raging ocean, but not in the same boat. Some are going to sink.

News organizations have gained new audiences who were craving coronavirus updates. A percentage of them are younger and in different income groups. The virus is disruptive for nearly everyone, but ruinous and deadlier to some populations. How can you accurately capture your community’s spectrum of pain?

Empathy can be learned. Questioning your own assumptions and then using your curiosity — both key in critical thinking — are empathy-building practices. Most important is building expertise in listening — the kind of listening that detects the catch in someone’s throat and notices the intensity in word choice and tone. The best listeners can train themselves to hear what a professor of mine once called the song beneath the words — emotion, values and perspective.

If you believe empathy is an optional soft skill, reconsider that premise. Exercising empathy is a strategic act informing your plans to retain your audiences and develop your staff. If it blossomed during this crisis, hang onto it and grow it. It could become your secret weapon in earning trust.

Cheryl Carpenter is a faculty member who teaches leadership and editing and serves as a Table Stakes coach in Poynter’s performance change program. She’s also co-leading an online leadership course starting in June. Reach her at ccarpenter@poynter.org.