January 26, 2021

This column originally appeared in The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter by and for women in media. Subscribe here to join this community. 

I’m in my own little world. I bet you’re in your own little world, too.

Because we have shared values and overlapping identities in this Cohort community, I can assume we both live in a fact-based reality versus one fueled by conspiracy. But the longer we experience crisis, and the more crises layered on top, the more difficult I’m finding it to relate.

COVID-19 felt like a great magnifier at first. We could see our problems clearly, and it seemed like we as journalists were going through a lot of what our audience was going through. Now, when you add in joblessness and economic uncertainty, police brutality and the trauma of racism, natural disaster and displacement, loneliness and isolation, dehumanization and violence, family discord and loss loss loss, it’s almost impossible to know how your fellow human is doing at any given time. It’s almost impossible to know how you, yourself, are doing.

This empathy block is a challenge for journalists who serve their communities and for leaders who are trying to support their team.

I asked Cheryl Carpenter, leadership faculty at Poynter, to provide some insight. How can we connect when we’re constantly compartmentalizing? How can we focus on others when we’re full of fear? How can we tap into our common humanity when we — as journalists, as women, as people of color — have been so dehumanized?


Mel: Cheryl, please help me. What is going on here?

Cheryl: I think what you’re describing is empathy exhaustion.

Mel: I’ve been thinking about it as an empathy block or gap, but exhaustion rings more true. I think we all want to be empathetic. I think we all want to be in tune with each other. But it seems so hard right now, especially when people can’t seem to answer the question, “How are you?”

Cheryl: Well absolutely it is hard. And actually, I’ve heard people say it’s just wrong to say “I’m great,” because it suggests that you’re not in the big stew that we’re still all in, which is 420,000 people dead in the pandemic and lots of unresolved issues with politics.

Mel: So how do you deal with empathy exhaustion as a leader?

Cheryl: If you do feel empathy exhaustion, or compassion fatigue, you need to pull your leadership team close and really use the power of the group to reignite or reenergize whatever you’re feeling is missing. Because there is power in that teamwork, especially in a trusted leadership team. Pose a question and get everybody to talk about how a certain population might be feeling so that it becomes a shared conversation.

Mel: Can you help me understand more about why empathy exhaustion would be happening right now?

Cheryl: It’s not atypical to feel empathy exhaustion. Another way that happens pretty much is, if you believe there might have been an ending for something. What we thought was a sprint is an endurance race. So you do get exhausted. I’ve found that some people generally don’t want to talk about it anymore.

Mel: Some things have certainly ended, like the Trump presidency. But I think that just means maybe we’re able to process more now. It’s not over. What was once compartmentalized is out in the open.

Cheryl: By the way, compartmentalizing is a good coping mechanism when you have things to do. The work of journalists handling the vaccine distribution and concurrently handling the COVID death and positivity rates — you still have that work to do, which is crucial and a potently local story. And so, to compartmentalize is probably one of the ways you get through it. Covering COVID remains one of the most important missions we have.

Mel: How does fear play into all of this? Our peers experienced very real violence on Jan. 6 and the FBI warned that all 50 states could see attacks leading up to Inauguration Day.

Cheryl: It made every journalist believe that Inauguration Day was a very local story. Are there going to be protesters everywhere? Are city halls going to be overrun? Nobody knew what to expect. It is a concern that the political divisions will endure and that journalists will be the target. That has added a new layer of anxiety, absolutely. This is going to affect us for years to come.

Mel: What is the advice you’re giving news leaders right now?

Cheryl: We can’t give up on empathizing as leaders because we’re exhausted. The people who work for us need that from us. I’ve never met a good journalist who wasn’t curious. Use your curiosity to connect.

I know it almost sounds too tired to say again, but we have to take care of ourselves. We have come off an election, a challenge to an election, an insurrection, and now we’re at the beginning of a second impeachment. And, underneath all that, we have had 420,000 Americans die and lots of people affected by that. We can’t stop saying: Take care of yourself. Withdraw, take some time on your calendar, walk away. We can’t stop saying that.


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Mel Grau is the senior product specialist at The Poynter Institute, focusing on Poynter's training experiences and newsletters. She previously edited The Cohort, Poynter’s biweekly…
Mel Grau

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