Kerry Sheridan was less than a month into the master’s journalism program at Columbia University when terrorists’ planes hit the World Trade Center on 9/11. She was new to New York, new to the practice of advanced journalism — and she was suddenly on the front lines of a catastrophic national event whose impact would reverberate for decades to come.
One of her professors, award-winning author and New York Times columnist Samuel G. Freedman sent Sheridan and her classmates to cover the devastation. The advice he gave them about how to do it, she says, has informed her empathetic storytelling ever since.
He said, “You’re not going to get the access that some of the established reporters have,” recalls Sheridan, a public-radio reporter at WUSF in Tampa, Florida, whose storied career has since taken her around the world and earned her acclaim. “But what you can report is the aftermath of it. And you can tell it with heart — by being a human being first, and then a reporter.”
So she began covering the funerals of the firefighters who died, taking subways and buses to countless services, sometimes even hitching rides with firefighters who had become used to seeing her at the gatherings. And as she got to know the families, friends and colleagues of those who had perished, she faced a dilemma:
She sometimes found herself crying with survivors as they sat around tables, sharing stories. They would kid her, she said, saying, “Hey, you’re a reporter; you’re supposed to be objective! You’re not supposed to cry!”
They’d chuckle, Sheridan told Freedman. But her show of empathy worried her. Did it violate the reporter’s creed of non-biased reporting?
“I asked him, ‘Is it okay to cry? Is it okay to cry with them? Is it okay to touch their hand or touch their shoulder?’” she says. “And his answer was ‘yes.’”
Reassured, she continued to immerse herself in the world of the FDNY Emerald Society Pipes and Drums, a musical band of active or retired New York City firefighters, many of whom alternated between playing their instruments at every deceased firefighter’s service and digging for the missing in the rubble of Ground Zero. Her resulting 2004 book, “Bagpipe Brothers: The FDNY Band’s True Story of Tragedy, Mourning, and Recovery,” shimmers with the humanity she brought to the project. It was praised by one reviewer for enabling readers to “grasp realities of the complexities of heroism — and [the] tragedy of personal loss.”
Sheridan says her time in New York taught her that reporting with empathy is not only permitted in her chosen field, it’s absolutely essential to its integrity.
“The way that you report a story is by really experiencing it,” she says, “so you can tell the story well enough for readers to understand it and for the subjects to feel it was meaningful for them to share it.”
Could empathy restore trust in the media?
Empathy — specifically cognitive empathy — is the ability to imagine what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes, notes British journalist Paul Bradshaw, who leads the MA in Data Journalism program at Birmingham City University and is founder of the popular Online Journalism Blog.
“It is one of the more underrated qualities of good journalists, perhaps because people often confuse it with sympathy, or with emotional empathy,” he writes. “The difference is important: It is possible to imagine what it is like to be a particular person (cognitive empathy), including criminals and corrupt officials, without feeling sorry for them (sympathy) or feeling the same way (emotional empathy).”
Empathy is as central to good reporting as persistence or curiosity, he says, because it helps journalists dig deeper into a story.
“Identifying the motivations involved in an event — part of the ‘why’ of a story — can help us better report it,” he says. “If there is a systemic problem, it helps identify what human dynamics that system needs to account for. If there is a human impact, it helps us to explore and report that.”
All of which could help restore public trust in the media, which is abysmal these days.
An October 2022 Gallup poll shows that just 7% of Americans have “a great deal” of trust and confidence in the media, while only 27% have “a fair amount.” Meanwhile, 28% of U.S. adults say they do not have “very much” confidence in newspapers, TV and radio — and 38% have none at all.
“Notably,” Gallup reports, “this is the first time that the percentage of Americans with no trust at all in the media is higher than the percentage with a great deal or a fair amount combined.”
The report echoes the grim findings of a 2021 study by the Media Insight Project, a collaboration of the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
At least, the Media Insight study suggests one way to rebuild trust:
“If stories are rewritten to broaden their moral appeal, they become more interesting to people in all groups — both those more trusting of media and those more skeptical,” the report suggests.
That can be done via deliberately empathetic reporting.
Still, it’s one thing to report with empathy a story whose subjects are obviously heroic or sympathetic, like 9/11 firefighters and their families. It’s quite another to use empathy to broaden a story to include input from interview subjects whose actions and motivations may be more morally ambiguous.
Complicating the narrative
Journalism professor Yvonne Latty faced just that situation in 2021 when she spent weeks reporting from the southern border of Arizona, where armed militia groups were stalking migrants traversing harsh desert conditions.
At the time, she was leading a team of graduate students in her role as then-director of the Reporting the Nation and New York in Multimedia program at New York University. She and the team were contributing to a podcast called “Sounds Like Hate” that Latty was co-hosting and co-producing with The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The series is about the dangers and perils of everyday people who engage in extremism, and ways to disengage them from a life of hatred.
For a two-part episode, “The Unwelcome,” Latty needed to interview Michael “Lewis Arthur” Meyer, head of Veterans on Patrol, an armed militia group that the SPLC describes as operating under “the exaggerated premise that they are rescuing children from satanic pedophiles who are trafficking children for sex, human sacrifice and organ harvesting.” The group was accused, among other things, of destroying water stations that humanitarian groups place in the border region to keep migrants from dying in the extreme desert heat.
Latty found Meyer’s beliefs and actions to be repugnant but also knew the podcast would be incomplete without his voice. By engaging him with respect, she was able to obtain unvarnished quotes that make the podcast not just a riveting piece of journalism (it was a 2022 finalist for two Webby awards) but a more complete representation of the charged tensions at the border.
Choosing to engage Meyer with empathy “was really helpful — it disarmed him — and then he was off to the races,” says Latty, who is now director of The Logan Center for Urban Investigative Reporting at Temple University. “If I had been combative or judgmental — had an attitude with him — he would have shut down and not said anything.”
One could say that Latty used empathy as a tool to “complicate the narrative,” a term coined in 2018 by journalist Amanda Ripley in a piece that went viral on Medium. It describes a reporting process that features nuance, contradiction, and ambiguity in order to “revive complexity in a time of false simplicity.”
“First, complexity leads to a fuller, more accurate story,” wrote Ripley, who last year published “High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out.” “Secondly, it boosts the odds that your work will matter — particularly if it is about a polarizing issue. When people encounter complexity, they become more curious and less closed off to new information. They listen, in other words.”
Ripley’s approach has since been organized into a “Complicating the Narratives Toolkit,” available on The Solutions Journalism Network website, to help journalists widen the empathetic lens through which they find and tell their stories. (See sidebar: “22 Interview Questions to ‘Complicate the Narrative’”)
For Latty, exercising empathy in reporting is a necessary act — radical, even, because it deliberately counters our biases. That’s why she includes this quote right at the top of her class syllabus, from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson:
“Radical empathy means putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel. Radical empathy is not about you and what you think you would do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will be. It is the kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it.”
Empathy begins with the first contact
Philadelphia Inquirer investigative reporter Barbara Laker has spent decades interviewing people in the midst of life’s most trying circumstances. Her work usually takes her into the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods, whose residents are often battered by a heartbreaking array of tough conditions like poverty, crime, neglect, abuse and unemployment.
She never knows how an initial interview will go. But she always knows how it will start.
“If I knock on someone’s door, the first thing I do is I hold out my hand and say, ‘I’m Barbara with the Inquirer.’” With warmth and straightforwardness, she adds: “I meet them eye to eye, tell them why I’m there, and ask if I can come in for a few minutes.”
Once inside, she says, “I just have a conversation — it’s just one human being talking to another human being. I let them know I care, because I actually do. You can’t do this job if you don’t. Empathy is crucial. Even if the person you’re interviewing has only an eighth-grade education, they know if you actually give a damn or are just doing a job. Once they know you care, they open up.”
Laker’s approach pays off. In 2010, she won a Pulitzer Prize with fellow reporter Wendy Ruderman for “Tainted Justice,” a shocking series on police corruption; and in 2019, Laker and Ruderman, along with colleagues Dylan Purcell and Jessica Griffin, shared a Pulitzer-finalist honor for “Toxic City,” their investigation into the environmental harms inflicted on Philadelphia’s children, most of them poor and minority.
Laker’s empathetic approach extends to alleged perpetrators of wrongdoing. It has to, she says, in order to tell a fair and accurate story.
“I try to treat them the way I’d want to be treated if I was accused of a crime,” she says. “I tell them right up front what I have — what documents or allegations, for example. If they slam the door in my face, or hang up on me, I’ll put a letter in their mailbox or send them a long email laying out exactly what I have and leave multiple voice messages. I never want anyone to say they weren’t given a chance to have their say.”
For his work at The Washington Post, national political enterprise reporter Robert Samuels follows a three-step process to help him engage empathetically with interviewees, many of whom are often reluctant
“I try to get people to come on a journey with me and invite them to tell their stories as a process of understanding,” says Samuels, who is also the author, with Toluse Olorunnipa, of “His Name is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice.”
Samuels details his three-step empathy approach in a webinar for Poynter called “Bring Empathy to Your Reporting to Cultivate Sources.”
First, before approaching a source, he says, “I draft a mission statement about why I think this story is important and then I tell the person what the mission statement is. It usually starts with, ‘I need your help,’ which takes away some of the confrontational sting that people sometimes expect.
“I say, ‘I want to talk to you because this is something I don’t understand.’ And in some cases, I tell them the dangers of what might happen if I don’t talk to [say] the president. That means someone else who’s not in their shoes will take control of the story.”
Secondly, Samuels just listens.
“I’m still an old-school guy who uses a pen and a pad,” he says. “I write things down. I look up. Sometimes I smile while I’m nodding so people will know I’m hearing them. I love to hear people say, ‘I feel like I’m rambling.’ What that says to me is that they’re understanding the impact of what the story means to their lives.” He then likes to “let the conversation breathe — give them time to answer.”
Lastly, he acknowledges just how awkward the interview process can be.
“I give them a bit of a soliloquy. I tell them, ‘Sometimes I might ask strange questions. If it gets too personal, let me know. But we’re going to do this together.’ That means meeting the person where they are and saying, ‘I’m here because I want to get this right.’”
Feature photo: Ronnie Polaneczky, shown here doing an interview, was a metro columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and Inquirer for 23 years. (Photo by Joseph Kaczmarek)
Ronnie Polaneczky is an award-winning journalist, public speaker, certified positive-psychology practitioner and enthusiastic student of compassionate listening in all its forms. She is based in Philadelphia.