Alfaro: In journalism, never forget empathy

Mariana Alfaro, Opinion Editor

Last week, Medill’s Facebook page published a few comments from first-year students on what they want to accomplish before graduating. Goals included meeting alum and ESPN journalist Mike Wilbon, working for Pitchfork magazine and collaborating with Medill Prof. J.A. Adande on a podcast. Most of these goals were not only achievable, they were also bumbling with the excitement and innocence of potential journalists. It reminded me of my first days at Medill as a starry-eyed international student with no notion of the future.

There was a particular goal, however, that struck me: “I want to write a story about people who don’t get written about.” I know this thought, noble at its core, crossed my mind when I was a freshman. It is based on cliches we journalists frequently tell ourselves — that we “give voice to the voiceless,” that we are here to set records straight, that we “fight for the little guy.” The thing is, the voiceless have a voice. The challenge comes in becoming responsible journalists who take those voices and amplify them.

Four years immersed in the world of journalism have not shattered my belief that journalists — factual, honest, quality reporters — are here to serve the greater good. So many journalists I admire are out there braving floods, war zones and abuse from those who oppose them. They do that to share the stories of those who do not always receive attention.

But four years in the journalism world has also made me a bit cynical about the industry. Much has been written about the flat-out whiteness of newsrooms across the United States, and much more has been debated about the mishaps of tone-deaf journalists and parachute journalism.

I greatly value my Medill education and the opportunities that have come with it, as well as my time at The Daily Northwestern, but there are some skills that just can’t be learned in a classroom or at a student-run publication. Some of these skills already exist within us, but we must hone and sharpen them — particularly the use of empathy and sympathy in reporting.

Understanding empathy and sympathy — and knowing the difference between the two — is key to not only great pieces of journalism, but articles that can change lives. The power of empathy, particularly, allows readers to better understand what the subject of a story is going through. Empathy adds depth to stories by bringing in humanity to the narrative. When you’re an empathetic reporter, not only are you sharing facts, you are transmitting anger, joy, stress and all the emotions of your subject. Compassionate reporting does not mean journalists lose that which we most cherish — our objectivity — it just means we do not treat our sources as quote-producing machines. Empathy allows you to understand your subject, not to necessarily agree with them.

That being said, journalists can’t go around believing people owe them their stories. When a source is willing to share their pain or joy with you, cherish it. Do not demand it. Respect your source’s space and their right to privacy. Many times, parachute journalists come into a specific space with little to no knowledge of the culture, history or background on the topic they’re trying to write about. As someone raised outside the U.S., I’ve seen my country become the focus of multiple reporters who just pop by, get quotes and leave — carrying with them certain stereotypes and oversimplifications. Because their stories end up published in American publications, their conclusions often go unchecked, their reporting biases unnoticed. And this is only from my personal experience. Members of other identities that are often targeted for their “newsiness” know how draining it is to see your community boiled down to a few quotes with little context.

So, to Medill first-years, and all others interested in joining the rollercoaster ride that is a career in journalism, I understand your desire to tell stories that no one else is telling. But when doing this, keep in mind your role and privilege as a trained journalist. Being able to get a story quickly is a great skill, but an even greater skill is telling that story in full by empathizing with your sources, beyond their ability to share their experiences.

Mariana Alfaro is a Medill senior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.