“Stories are data with a soul”
I love this Brene brown quote. It applies to her life as a qualitative researcher and how the stories her subjects tell her are leading her groundbreaking work in the understanding of shame, vulnerability and living wholeheartedly. She is intuitive and empathetic which is why her TED talks have gone viral and her books are required reading for therapists.
Her approach is not dissimilar to the approach of my favorite journalists and what I strive for in my own story-telling. It is one thing to stand on the edge of tragedy and write sympathetically about those impacted but the best journalists I know try to climb down into that situation and use their gifts of empathy to allow raw emotion to channel through them. It’s not easy and not always pleasant but it leads to the type of understanding and soulful storytelling that not only draws viewers in but keeps them there with you, soaking in the information as they invest in the story.
Empathy doesn’t mean getting sucked in or becoming an activist. Empathy is a tool that allows for connection with other human beings. It is a portal for experience…not for absorption. It is not helpful to story subjects for the journalist to be overwhelmed by the experience. Empathy is not becoming part of your story subject’s circumstances, it’s allowing the emotion created by those circumstances to channel through you long enough to convey the meaning and data with human connectedness, the “me too” factor, not impersonal facts. That’s not to say some of that emotion traveling through the journalist doesn’t stick….like tiny particles that latch on, eventually becoming indistinguishable from the rest of the body.
I look forward to the experience every time. This week I will interview a whistleblower who cares for veterans. I know she is preparing to tell me painful stories about young combat veterans who are not getting the care they need and she will be afraid while she tells me about her life’s work. I will open myself to her experience and do my best to honor those veterans and her bravery.
There is a co-evolution that happens to both storyteller and story subject when you strive for empathetic journalism. I continue to be impacted by the people I meet and have met over two decades of storytelling and I can point to many past and present colleagues who display pictures on their desks of people they met through a story. Before the days of revolving door newsrooms, veteran reporters often had a decades-worth of pictures and clippings of people they sometimes met only through relatives because the person had died in some tragic, horrific way. Rap artist Macklemore says in his song Glorious: “I heard you die twice, once when they bury you in the grave and the second time is the last time that somebody mentions your name”. There are names I think of daily, Theron Hicks, Michael Garcia, Bryan Chadaris, Lacy Peterson…young men and women who will never die twice because I am one of many journalists who remember who they were. Even in death, their names and the humanity they left behind becomes part of our structure.
A journalist without empathy is a cold practitioner not unlike a doctor with questionable skill and poor bedside manner. That journalist stands apart from the story subject in a lecturing, “…well that sucks for you”, stance. A journalist that allows empathy to cross into activism or over-identification infects the story until it is no longer journalism. The story becomes commentary and the data is “dirty”. The skill comes in walking the line between those two extremes, using empathy as a tool to open that conduit of connectedness long enough to give the data a soul and tell the story as it deserves to be told.