•  

Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

January 22, 2020   |   Ithaca, NY

Opinion

Commentary: Journalism education must include empathy

Within my first week as a freshman in Ithaca College’s Department of Journalism, I learned about the importance of accuracy. I learned that journalists must remain transparent and that one of my primary responsibilities as a journalist is holding powerful institutions accountable for their actions.

For centuries, these ideals have remained central to the practice of journalism, and the program works hard to make sure students adhere to them. But in promoting these ideas, the department also discourages students from incorporating their own experiences, values and perspectives in their reporting — a departmental practice I believe is both irresponsible and fundamentally flawed.

Truth and accuracy play an important role in journalism, but they are only one half of what constitutes conscious and responsible storytelling. The other half hinges on our ability to empathize and genuinely connect with those whose stories we are helping to tell.

As journalists, our storytelling ability relies on our sources’ willingness to open up to us and to reveal their struggles, their experiences and the most vulnerable parts of their identities. To help them feel comfortable doing so, we have to establish a sense of mutual trust. We need to let them know that we hear them and understand them. This is impossible if we, as journalists, are not willing or able to bring our own human experiences and emotions to the table.

Despite the industry’s general focus on objectivity, our individual perspectives play an essential role in the way we tell stories. Whether it be conscious or not, it happens through the context of our own cultural understanding — an understanding that is primarily informed by our own experiences. Rather than shy away from the idea that our own mindset might influence our storytelling, we should embrace it, as it is the very thing that will help us share stories in the most authentic, genuine way.

In my two and a half years at the college (and, from what I have heard, many years before I arrived), the department has consistently failed to prioritize this idea, setting an extremely dangerous precedent for the next generation of journalists.

Every day, the world is growing more and more divided. Journalists have the tools to help combat this divisiveness and inspire connection and understanding through human-based storytelling. The only way we can do this effectively, however, is by actively listening and practicing empathy.

This is no easy feat, and it requires discipline and practice. To help us become truly responsible storytellers, the department should lay down the conceptual framework for young journalists to understand the benefits of connecting and empathizing with the people whose stories we are trying to tell.

This could include creating a curriculum around how we can responsibly report on communities we may not be a part of. It could mean offering workshops on how to respectfully interview sources about the most intimate parts of their lives while also maintaining a level of professionalism, or even having more in-class discussions about how to find a balance between maintaining journalistic integrity while also adhering to our own values. Yes, we should pursue truth, accuracy and independence. But this does not mean we cannot be empathetic storytellers as well.

Brontë Cook can be reached at bcook4@ithaca.edu