The Spectrum: Treat all stories with empathy, not just those close to you

Michelle Zhang, Op-Ed Contributor

This essay is part of The Spectrum, a weekly forum in our Opinion section for marginalized voices to share their perspectives. To submit a piece for The Spectrum or discuss story ideas, please email [email protected].

My high school district has a painful history with suicide. During my senior year, two peers I’d known for years took their lives within three months of each other. One of them went to my elementary after-school program, the other was in my sixth-grade homeroom and had been in many of my high school classes.

In total, three students and one recent alum from my school district committed suicide that academic year. Although my peers, teachers and I mourned for a long time, this wasn’t new to us. My school district has lost too many young people to depression and suicide, going all the way back to 2009. The district also happens to have a reputation of being successful and academically rigorous — after all, Stanford University is only a few miles away. Although most mental health professionals agree that a person’s depression cannot be boiled down to a single cause, it was easy for people to assume correlation was causation: “These students are killing themselves because they’re too stressed out from school.” Parents, community members and even outsiders rallied behind this statement, and created an agenda to reduce stress in schools for the sole purpose of saving students’ lives.

In the months following the suicides, local news became national news. Although it started with local newspapers covering the subject rather objectively, bigger media outlets — including The New York Times — saw my community’s painful history as a unique story and jumped to write about it. I couldn’t help but feel angry, knowing these companies were making money off their stories about the deaths of my peers.

The most famous example made it on the cover of The Atlantic’s December 2015 issue, during my freshman year at Northwestern. It was extremely painful to read, especially because the article read more like a dramatic fiction novel than news coverage. At one point, the article described a victim as “the last kid who’d died.” Was it fair to describe my classmate, a funny, cynical bike enthusiast who deserved a much happier life, simply as a “kid who’d died”?

I knew that, like many featured stories in magazines, readers would consume it as deep “food for thought” and then forget about it a few months later. It hurt even more when NU students asked me about the story, expecting easy answers to questions like “Did you personally know any of them?” “Why did they kill themselves?” “Was it really
because of how stressful it was?”

We are constantly told to listen empathetically to our friends and family. It has been generally accepted for years that friends who empathize are the best kind. As a teacher-in-training, one of the most important skills I’ve learned is the ability to appropriately respond to a vulnerable student. Because teachers are mandated reporters, we also have the responsibility of looking out for our students’ well-being beyond the classroom.
But why doesn’t this empathy extend beyond our direct line of sight, beyond the people we know personally?
I understand that it is inherent for us to be curious and ask simple questions, especially when dealing with confusing and scary news. But why do we immediately disregard the empathy we show our loved ones when reacting to more distant news?

Part of it comes from the fact that journalism is usually written to present facts in an objective manner. It is easy to take what journalists or reporters say at face value, especially when they tell stories from a perspective similar to our own — an outsider’s perspective. The Daily’s opinion editor Mariana Alfaro concisely explained that reporters will sometimes “just pop by, get quotes and leave — carrying with them certain stereotypes and oversimplifications.” Often, this frames a story into a simple dichotomy where one side of the story is pitied, vilified or completely rejected.

Especially in 2017, where journalism bursts into our daily lives as news break left and right, it is vital to not only sympathize, but to actively empathize with the people behind these stories. If you’re reading about a controversial political issue, try to understand the perspective with which you disagree before classifying it as wrong. If you’re reading about the tragic destruction of a city after a natural disaster, go beyond the visceral reaction of saying “Wow, that’s horrible” and instead ask “How can I help rebuild their community?” Or even if you’re just reading a story about a local restaurant closing down, support their business one last time as a gesture of thanks to the owners.

When we learn how to empathize with strangers, or even our enemies, we not only honor the integrity of the people in the stories we read, we also develop a much deeper understanding of the people around us. We become better at effectively supporting our own ideas. We need to stop skimming articles in our news feed and forgetting about the stories two weeks later, off-handedly causing pain to the people whose lives are ingrained in those forgotten stories. By reading journalism empathetically, we can spark productive conversations, become civically engaged and learn how to see the world in color.

Michelle Zhang is a SESP junior. 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.