Want more impactful reporting? Be empathetic

By  Suzanne Marta, Poynter Institute

Consider the whole story, rather than a single narrative. Bring your tenacity, but also your humanity. Add nuance. Make resources count by focusing on stories that matter.

“Try to be surprised by something,” said Linda Lutton, an award-winning education reporter for WBEZ-Chicago. “People have really important stories to tell, and it may not be the story that you are trying to dig up.”

The Poynter Institute, with the support of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, hosted “Uncovering the Untold Stories: How to Do Better Journalism in Chicago” on Dec. 12 at The Daily Herald in Arlington Heights, Illinois. The workshop was led by a diverse group of journalists and community advocates.

“It’s not about being kind — it’s about getting an understanding of where someone is coming from,” said Lutton, whose “Harper High School” episodes chronicling students and gun violence on “This American Life” won a Peabody Award in 2014. “Make yourself stay longer than you want to, and really, truly listen; that’s when things happen.”

Two questions stuck with Dana Kozlov, a veteran reporter for WBBM-TV, a CBS station in Chicago.

“Asking, ‘What else?’ and ‘How are you seeing this?’ These are great questions I never considered before,” she said.

For William Ingalls, listening to Guardian U.S. reporter Sam Levin share strategies for building trust with sources in difficult or traumatic situations sparked a realization.

As a news intern for WREX, an NBC station in Rockford, Illinois, Ingalls hoped to turn a story about a man creating a model of a World War II plane into a full package, but was stymied when the man was stiff during the interview, unwilling to open up about his passion. Ingalls managed to develop the story into two segments, but with only one good quote. He saw it as a missed opportunity to create a story with more impact.

“Looking back, maybe I needed to do more work before the interview started, lingering to build a connection before turning the camera on,” said the senior at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, who works as a managing editor for Chicago Audible.

Levin’s presentation on “Reporting with Empathy” with Wall Street Journal reporter Erin Ailworth offered insights into writing deeply felt stories in times of crisis by building trust with key sources, emphasizing the importance of helping sources understand what their participation would mean, and being willing to share personal details and previous coverage to ensure sensitivity.

The discussions offered important reminders and tools for journalists facing intense pressure, tips Levin said he wished he’d had as he was beginning his career.

“I felt under a lot of pressure to get the story,” he said. “I wish I had mentors who told me to take a step back and consider ethical implications and remember these are real people.”

Levin and Ailworth also shared their experiences of navigating the emotional toll of covering such stories, and the importance of seeking support or even just time off to process personal trauma from what they reported and witnessed.

Seeking help or therapy “makes you a better reporter,” Levin said. “It’s investing in yourself.”

Nuance was an important theme for community advocates. Marisa Novara, who directs the Metropolitan Planning Council’s housing and community development work in Chicago, shared data about the costs of segregation and described how media coverage can perpetuate inaccurate or incomplete narratives about communities, or simply miss the larger message in complicated stories.

Pointing to stories that laud new development while ignoring the fact that it’s pushing out people who’ve lived there for years, Novara urged participants to consider the nuance of words, and to choose descriptors thoughtfully.

“What does ‘better’ mean? Higher income or more amenities? Who gets to decide what’s ‘living the dream’?” Novara asked. “Push for a more complex narrative rather than getting stuck in these conceptions of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ neighborhoods.”

Novara said the word segregation itself is fraught, used most often to refer to neighborhoods that are low-income and impoverished but rarely to describe all-white neighborhoods.

“White people don’t think they’re segregated,” she said. “They think that’s normal. The question is how do we talk about the negatives of that segregation for the people that live there.”

Poynter.org reporter Kristen Hare, left, and Tonika Johnson, a Chicago-based photographer/artist. (Photo by Jeff Knox/Daily Herald)

Tonika Johnson, a visual artist/photographer and community activist from Chicago’s South Side Englewood neighborhood, talked about her “Folded Map” project, which illustrates inequalities between corresponding north and south addresses. She challenged participants to build relationships with community-based groups and avoid relying on a single narrative.

While problems with drug use and crime are issues in the predominantly black neighborhood of Englewood, “there’s a tendency for that narrative to control the entire conversation,” Johnson said. “It’s relevant and important, but it’s not representative of the majority of the community.”

Taking a step back to focusing on nuance and complexity can be difficult in an industry compressed by constant deadlines, production demands and a decade of staff reductions.

Poynter.org reporter Kristen Hare challenged participants to audit their activities over a day or week to identify ways to be more effective by focusing attention on stories that have impact, rather than those that will be widely reported anyway.

Rethinking traditional beat coverage to focus on the community impacted can also help focus resources where they are most needed. Tapping into funding resources (such as through foundations or nonprofits) or reporting partnerships may also support focused coverage in increasingly lean times, Hare said.

“You cannot do more with less,” Hare said. “You have to rethink what you’re already doing by letting go of the rhythms of the medium we work on and instead changing for the times we live in.”

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