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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Practicing compassion in an unbiased journalism


In the 1880s, Joseph Pulitzer hung a sign in the newsroom of his paper, the New York World, which read: “The World has no friends.”

It is an historic example of journalistic independence, a value that became intrinsic to the field and is still a highly regarded principle among journalists. It is a notion that goes hand in hand with objectivity – a word that, for better or for worse, was chained to journalism for much of the 20th century. Objectivity, in its traditional sense, is the ideal that journalists are unbiased, keeping their values and beliefs out of their work. These goals of independence and objectivity left little room for compassion. But in today’s changing media environment, the principle of compassion is gaining credibility.

“The World has no friends” gives the impression of detachment, perhaps even disconnect from community. These are disconcerting qualities for a craft that is built on a trusting relationship with its audience. Despite this, these concerns have just begun to be addressed seriously in journalism. This is because, for those who subscribed to traditional objectivity, compassion was simply not possible. Acknowledging emotions and allowing those emotions into a story was not compatible with objectivity.

But this view of traditional objectivity in journalism is outdated. The idea that journalists can truly be “objective,” completely disregarding their own ideas, beliefs, and experience, has largely been rejected. The legacy of objectivity and independence that made it difficult for journalism to usher in new traditions, such as compassion, is changing as journalists abandon such black and white ideals.

“I don’t think that having a compassionate outlook is in any way at odds with doing one’s job as serving the public interest,” says Romayne Smith Fullerton, a professor of information and media studies at the University of Western Ontario. “I think not to have compassion might, in fact, undermine your ability to do your job as a servant of the public interest.”

A major reason for this is that the journalist’s ability to understand and connect with people is essential for learning about stories, and compassion allows journalists to do this more fully. In our current media environment that so often deals with victims of tragedy, a sense of compassion undoubtedly plays a part in journalists’ ability to understand people in the news.

Empathy as a tool

Patrick Lee Plaisance, a professor of journalism and technical communication at Colorado State University, believes empathy is an important tool for journalists.

“I’m a good journalist when I can empathize, when I can truly grasp the predicament of my subjects. And if I’m blind to that, then I’m failing in some way as a journalist,” he says. “It’s critical for journalists never to lose sight of their own humanity and that means understanding and empathizing and connecting on a human level, not just as instruments of stories.”

Plaisance is clear that this must be done within the context of broader journalistic goals such as telling the audience a relevant story in an unbiased, informative manner. But he says, “If I’m clear on my professional duty to a broader community, a broader audience, then I’m hoping that compassion is appropriate and I’m not too lacking and I don’t become sympathetic, rather than empathetic.”

Though the difference between sympathy and empathy may seem trivial, there is an important distinction that the journalist must make between them. To be sympathetic means to feel remorse for someone’s situation. It is dangerous territory for a journalist because, in sharing suffering, one’s own motives might become affected. But empathy is the understanding and recognition of another’s feelings. This allows the journalist to be more connected and perceptive.

However, being an empathetic journalist can be challenging. A real sense of empathy requires understanding the spectrum of ideas, events, and communities related to a story. Regardless of a reporter’s intelligence or skill, if they are thrust into a situation and have had a short time to conduct background research, they cannot be expected to be as empathetic as someone familiar with a particular community or situation.

Fred Brown, a former president of the Society of Professional Journalists and currently the vice chair on its ethics committee, has noticed a decline in the connections journalists have with their communities. “One of the things that disappeared over the years is there are a lot of beats that no longer exist, and so reporters tend not to see the same people day after day.” This not only puts them at a disadvantage in terms of information, but also doesn’t allow them to approach the stories and characters with the same sense of compassion.

Fullerton agrees that beat reporters have an advantage. “I think we need to do a better job of reporting things in broader contexts, more detail, less reporting necessarily in times of crisis, trying at times of peace as well, or quietness, to open up lines of communication between and amongst communities so that journalism generally can foster better understanding all of the time.”

This is different from the oft-used technique where a reporter briefly tells a story of crisis and never revisits the issue. Focusing on a broader perspective can ultimately lead to a more informed and compelling narrative for the audience.

“The whole mission,” says Plaisance of journalism, “is to, as accurately as possible, inform and reflect the community that it serves. And compassion’s role is to help establish a connection that is required to perform that service.”

Compassion in the hierarchy of journalistic values

While compassion should perhaps become more prevalent in journalism, it cannot be at its core of values. If it were, journalism’s purpose would be defeated. Important information that the public should know would often not be exposed for fear of harming someone. To this end, Brown says that though compassion is important, accuracy and truth telling are paramount.

The idea of “minimizing harm,” a value put forth in many journalism ethics codes, is subordinate to these. “You can’t be too compassionate. You can’t ignore stories just because it’s going to hurt somebody. Every story, or most stories, have some harmful effects on somebody simply because that’s the nature of news.”

Compassion must also be an informed emotion. It serves little journalistic purpose if it is not linked to relevant information. “Intellect and emotion are connected. You engage one without engaging the other at great peril,” says Lee Wilkins, a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri. Eliciting compassion through a photograph of a starving African child, for example, is not conducive to the goals of journalism. If a journalist wants to evoke compassion from such a story, it should be done in the context of facts such as why the child is starving, if there has been an ongoing problem, and how the problem can be resolved. Evoking compassion in the audience without this context can leave the audience feeling helpless.

Compassion also inherently biases stories to a more local, relational level because that is where compassion is felt most for both journalists and audiences. Compassion is more prevalent on smaller scales with homogeneous audiences. “It does get trickier to do, the bigger your community gets,” says Fullerton.

Both these issues of becoming too compassionate or getting “too close” to a story, as well as instilling a local community bias, threaten journalistic independence. This is why many journalists are uncomfortable about the idea of compassion. So while it may be an important value, if pursued blindly and without regard for other news values, it can eclipse the broader goals of journalism. “Journalism is not a popularity contest and when people assume that it is – that journalism is done to make audiences feel good – that’s a problem,” says Plaisance. “Journalists don’t need their sources or their audience to be their friends,” echoes Fullerton.

Negative image

While journalists might not need to make friends as Pulitzer held in the 1880s, their public image is important. Journalism is responsible to the public, while the public is asked to trust, and hopefully respect, journalists and the institution of journalism.

But the public’s image of journalism is not healthy. A study from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 32% of people surveyed thought news organizations were immoral. “If I were to go outside the school of journalism and bump into somebody, what they’d tell me is that journalists will do anything to get a story, that all we care about is making a buck,” says Wilkins.

Brown believes part of this image is because when journalists are in public, they are not often in a position to display their best “manners.” They can be seen as belligerent, stubborn, disrespectful – and certainly not compassionate. But this is because often when they are in the public eye, they are interacting with officials, press agents, and celebrities that require such actions. Dealing with people in such roles doesn’t require as much compassion.

Part of exercising compassion professionally for journalists is to be aware that different subjects need to be treated with different levels of compassion. “The big distinction is between those who seek attention, and those who get attention simply because of what’s happened to them,” says Brown. Unfortunately for journalism’s public image, it is often the group of people that requires a lesser extent of compassion that journalists interact with in the public eye.

The other group is those who are vulnerable or who do not seek attention. Children, the elderly, victims of tragedies, and people who are not fully aware of the workings of media should be afforded more compassion than those who seek the spotlight. But the public does not often see how journalists treat these people. To exercise compassion when dealing with those who are vulnerable often means conducting an interview in a private setting as opposed accosting the victim in public or even at a scene of an accident or crime. It is often when journalists are not seen by the public that they are most likely to be acting compassionately.

While a greater sense of compassion within journalism may be helpful, the public’s image of immorality may be excessive. “I’m always struggling with what I think is a very tragic disconnect between what journalists do and what the public think journalists do. It’s a pretty wide gulf,” says Plaisance.

A Changing Value

One way to dispel this negative public image and alert the audience to journalism’s use of compassion is through transparency. Fortunately, the Internet has allowed an opportunity for a massive increase in journalistic transparency. Emails, blogs, feedback, comments, and other easy forms of communication can create a connection with readers that allows them to see when journalists are compassionate, to whom, and why.

For Fullerton, compassion is a great tool for showing the audience that “there are things at stake here that we need to care about.” But despite its efficacy in journalism, compassion is not a newsroom staple. Fullerton explains that this is because, “By and large, it’s hard to draw a line. It’s one of those extremely gray areas that no one feels completely comfortable about so we just sweep under the rug.”

Fortunately, compassion is a value that need not be taught. As a human emotion, compassion is something that everyone identifies with – including journalists. But some journalists have been taught to ignore compassion in the interests of traditional objectives. Now, many journalism critics agree that there must be a balance between being compassionate and employing such news values. When this is achieved and balance is used in a professional manner, it is useful.

Compassion can establish valuable connections with sources that can help journalists get beneath the surface of a story. It can aid in relating stories to the audience, and triggering an informed emotional response that encourages civic engagement. And while journalists need not make friends as Pulitzer thought, a mix of compassion with other established journalism values may go a long way in putting a human face on journalism. It may convince audiences that journalism is not immoral, rather, it is a noble craft connected to the people it serves.

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