Sign that reads WE HEAR YOU

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third dispatch from the 2024 Power of Narrative conference at Boston University. For the others, see deadline narratives by a Wall Street Journal podcast team, and the braided structure used by The Atavist for complex stories.

By Esther Landhuis

As a science and health journalist, I often write about contested illnesses — conditions that elude mainstream medicine because they lack clear symptoms and lab findings. That means I spend a lot of time talking with families who feel unseen. Empathy is a key motivator for my reporting. I found solace and inspiration from this advice shared by journalist and author Evan Ratliff at the 2019 Power of Narrative session and covered on Storyboard: “Report your way to empathy. If you can’t see the world through your subject’s eyes, the answer is more reporting.”

After a source discloses their struggles, I often sense a shift in our relationship. They become more candid, confessing worries about public disclosure. Some have acknowledged me in their organization’s newsletter or invited me to contribute toward related political efforts. One mother, after emailing lengthy replies to follow-up queries after a 90-minute interview, told me: “I really have to apologize for talking too much. When someone is genuinely curious and willing to listen, everything sort of pours out.”

“When someone is genuinely curious and willing to listen, everything sort of pours out.” ~ A story source to reporter Esther Landhuis

Interactions like this tug at my heartstrings. I remind myself that I am a reporter and try to enforce appropriate boundaries, even as some sources start treating me as an advocate.

In a sense, I am an advocate — simply by taking time to hear and understand what they’ve gone through and then to convey those experiences to a dominant culture in which they feel neglected or misunderstood.

Philadelphia journalist Denise Clay-Murray at the 2024 Power of Narrative conference at Boston University

Denise Clay-Murray

So when I attended the 2024 Power of Narrative Conference at Boston University last month, I gravitated toward a session titled “The Power of Empathy: How Putting Yourself in Your Subject’s Shoes Can Better Your Reporting.”

“We have been trained systematically that objective journalism is the standard we live by. But there is no part of objectivity that says you cannot also be empathetic,” said Denise Clay-Murray, a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers politics.

Clay-Murray defined empathy as “the ability to understand how people feel emotionally and see things from their point of view.”

Some tips and reminders:

  • Ask good questions. “That is 99.9 percent of storytelling — asking really good questions and using the answers to tell the story.”
  • Pay attention. “Look people in the eye. Pay attention to them. You may not agree with what they’re saying, you may be thinking in your own head, as you’re listening to them, ‘this person is nuts,’ but in the end, people just want you to pay attention. If you pay attention, there’s probably something that you’re going to learn that you can turn into a good story.”
  • Earn their trust. Sources are “not under any obligation to talk to you. You have to make them feel like if they do talk to you, what they say is what’s going to go in your story,” Clay-Murray said. Often when sources are misquoted in previous publications, “they’re not going to talk to you — and in some neighborhoods, that could mean the entire neighborhood is not going to talk to you.”
  • Do no harm. As with the Hippocratic Oath in medicine, “it’s the same thing for practicing empathy in journalism. You’re already dealing with folks who have had a traumatic experience. You don’t want to make it worse.
  • Acknowledge your own bias and know what you don’t know. Report “exactly what’s in front of you, not what you think it is.”
    Clay-Murray shared an example from a training on gun violence reporting. “This kid had been shot. There was no indication that he had done anything wrong. But because the principal at his school saw that he had been shot, she assumed that he had done something wrong and this kid was kept from his graduation, his senior trip and his senior prom because the principal refused to let him come back to school. That was her stereotype.”
  • Trauma comes in many flavors. “When we talk about trauma in journalism, we often talk about things like terrorism and war and gun violence. We don’t necessarily talk about chronic illness or life-threatening illness. It is just as traumatic knowing that you have a disease that can kill you. And these kinds of trauma probably require more of your listening skills than the stuff that’s more obvious.”
  • Prioritize self-care. If you’re uncomfortable listening to the story that’s being told to you, good. Recognize your discomfort. If you can relate so much that you’re not uncomfortable, then you might be a little too close to the story. “Empathy allows you to get close, but don’t get too close because in the end, you still have a job to do. And that job is telling the story.”
  • Don’t be afraid to say no. Empathy allows you to recognize where your limitations are. If you go into a situation where you’re trying to push through, and you’re covering certain things, that’s not going to help the communities that really need you to be all there to tell their stories. If anything, it’s going to cause harm.
    Clay-Murray gave a personal example. “One of my first assignments when I got out of college was covering HIV and AIDS. Now, these days if you’re covering HIV and AIDS, it’s bad but it’s not really harsh. I was doing this in the early 90s when the drug cocktails were not nearly what they are now, and getting HIV, especially if you were poor, was basically a death sentence. Almost everybody I interviewed died either a week after I talked to them or two weeks after I talked to them, or not so long after. I was constantly going to memorial services for people that I had just had interviews with, and in many cases, really liked as people because they were interesting. After doing this for, like, six months, I went to my editor and said, you’re gonna have to find somebody else to take this beat. Because I can’t do it. Mentally, it’s weighing me down. So somebody else is going to have to take this beat.”
  • Don’t confuse empathy with sympathy. “Sympathy is a shared emotional bond. you don’t necessarily need that bond to be empathetic. All you have to do is being willing to let the story come to you, or let the person who is talking tell you what happened.”

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    Esther Landhuis is a freelance science and health journalist based in California.

Further Reading