Reporters know well the frustration of going out to report a story, with a clear idea in mind of what’s going on, only to find their interviews don’t support their concept.
The same happens in newsrooms, when leaders determine in advance what their audiences will want. A different, and perhaps better, approach, is a form of empathetic journalism that puts the audience, or the interviewee, first.
“It’s about really listening and trying to see audiences for who they are, not who we think they are, and letting them direct the coverage a little bit more than we ever have before,” says P. Kim Bui, director of audience innovation for The Arizona Republic. “We used to do pedestal journalism — we know best, let us tell you what the news is. Empathetic journalism takes the other tack: I don’t know about this, please tell me more, we want to hear from you, I want to learn from you, as a reporter, as I do this. It takes the ego out of journalists a little bit.”
Empathetic journalism also involves a deeper level of listening and trying to hear an interviewee’s story not just on the surface, but to try and better understand that person in a particular moment of their life.
“If you’re writing a story about a drug addict who killed two people, try to understand the motivation behind that person, what drove them there, to see them as human, as a character, as a person, and trying to relay that to the audience,” she says. “I think we can sometimes get lost in trying to tell the story we want to tell. Every reporter does that.”
The same goes for newsrooms and which stories get covered. As organizations try to figure out how to cover more with smaller staffs, it’s easy — and common — to go with what’s been done before.
In the process of trying to find their way forward, “we’ve kind of forgotten about the audience, and that we’re not typical consumers of news. You’ll get journalists saying ‘the audience doesn’t want this.’ How do you know? When’s the last time you talked to a regular human? Being able to tell stories that are useful, empathetic and newsworthy in a quick manner on multiple platforms is a challenge right now,” she says.