Wick Communications

The role of empathy

In Writing techniques on 1 Nov 2012 at 2:59 pm

I don’t suppose I have much to add to the fine words of James Murray, an AP freelancer working in New Zealand. As you can see in his column, he makes the case for empathy and some degree of emotion in our journalism.

I think he’s right to suggest we, as journalists, are too quick to retreat to our cocoon of dispassionate unbiasedness (to mangle a word) whenever we are faced with tragedy. It makes it easier to work if we don’t think of the fire or earthquake or flood victims as our neighbors but rather characters in a story.

There is a place for that. I think first-responders often carve out a hollow space in their hearts just so they can get through the day, but it’s also important to understand what is at stake for the very real people in your stories. You can find tragedy in any news report. Today, people are devastated by the storm that just swirled through the Northeast. Tomorrow it will be something else. Don’t allow yourself to grow too tough.

Don’t be too quick to remove yourself from that emotional tumult. I think Murray’s right. You may be a better journalist if you fully comprehend what’s at stake for people in such dire straits.

Here are a couple of tips for covering disasters that might allow you to empathize and also get through the day.

  • Get the news and then get out of the way. Everyone on the scene is at least as busy as you are. Get phone numbers, particularly of victims, so that you can call them back later when they may have more time and energy for you. …
  • Eat right, get rest. Don’t work yourself into a stupor. If you are a supervisor, plan out several days  after a disaster. You can’t have all hands on deck and expect everyone to show up for another 14-hour shift the next day and the day after that.
  • Avoid crowds of reporters. You have to cover the mayor’s press conference, but then seek out seams in the coverage. Find a family one block over. Write about things that only you can write about because of your familiarity with the community.


  1. A real life experience example of in-the-heat-of-the moment news reporting

    A good news story can happen in an instant. A great news story comes from preparation. Preparation can help get a reporter through a difficult and sometimes violent situation.
    In 1984, during copper industry worker strikes in southeastern Arizona, violence erupted on a large scale. Every television news station and most of the top reporters in Arizona where in Clifton/Morenci for what many anticipated to a violent interaction with strikers and authorities, which consisted of 2,400 National Guards men and 250 Department of Public safety officers.
    Two young men at the local radio station in Safford, 45 minutes from ground zero, had the inside track on information coming out of the area. The decision was made, based on information from both sides of the conflict, to pay for and set up a dedicated phone line from a private home overlooking the field of conflict.
    Vital information on the actions of those involved was considered in the preparations. The first piece of information was that strikers would seal off the town at pinch point. Second, strikers would be taking out public phone banks. These actions would leave all news personnel trapped and not able to report with immediacy. There were no cell phones and satellite uplinks available yet.
    When the anticipated actions finally happened late in the day, the two guys from the little radio station were ready. On the scene was Dan Herrera, who did get blasted with tear gas when the DPS marched on the strikers. He was able to clear himself from the melee and get to the house overlooking the action. It was like a press box at a football game. Herrera made the call and back at the studio Jay Murphy facilitated the local broadcast and phone links to both KTAR and Associated Press nationally.
    For the next 24 hours, the news of this event was the lead for AP’s Broadcast on the hour with this little radio station and two guys on the lead story. Once the dust cleared, the network, television crews and other reporters finally got out to start their reporting. It was the number one news story that year in the State of Arizona.
    That little radio station, with two people, won the Associated Press Governors for the number one story in Arizona for 1984. The reason they achieved what they did, was a case of a little preplanning, preparation and just crazy enough to think they could pull it off.
    But the preparation also was factor in telling a professional story. Herrera, who got a face full of tear gas was beside himself on the initial call. But Murphy, quickly laid out the preplan of broadcast and Herrera was able to pull himself together and do an outstanding job of in-the- moment reporting. The first few hours were insane on the field of conflict, but because of the plan in place, reporting went on without disruption. Even though they were both deeply ingrained emotionally in the story leading up to the event, both were able to produce clear, concise and non-biased copy due to the plans in place.
    It was only after the event, that they pause for reflection of some scary moments and shed a few tears for their own safety and those involved in the story. Without the preplan, the story would have been zero for 24 hours with nothing but speculation by those not present.
    Every news or sports event should be approached with a plan of execution. Staying on point will open up avenues of the story which might go unnoticed. Sometimes even the most benign event can turn into a huge story. An example this past week was the train in Texas that slammed into a float with Veterans on it. Was there a local newspaper person covering this event?
    Don’t let apathy guide your story choices, let empathy rule the choice and let preplanning lead to telling a great story.

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