Empathy and Technology – Damned Journalists

This is the first in a series of posts about Empathy and Technology.
The next installment will be on Surveillance

As you may know, I have been following the Leveson inquiry into media ethics in the UK and it continues to yield amazing entertainment and insights. Among other things it demonstrates how very little empathy tabloid journalists possess vis-a-vis the people they are writing about. Can you imagine that one paper published the illegally obtained and utterly private diary of a mother whose child had been murdered, and then used that diary to suggest she had murdered her own child (which was utterly false), and splashed it all on the front page of a national paper? Unbelieveable. but only one among countless similar examples of depraved storytelling.

One thing that has been made penetratingly clear at this inquiry, as one journalist after another gives his testimony, is that these writers simply do not care about the fate or the feelings of the people they write about. And yet, although British tabloid journalists are obviously extreme cases, my experience in journalism suggests that lack of empathy is not just commonplace in the industry but is actually a job requirement.

Certainly, 20 years ago, when I wrote regularly for a major daily paper, I came to this same conclusion. It became clear to me after a couple years of banging out article after article under deadline, that one had a choice. One could choose to care or one could choose not to care. Certainly everybody started out caring, but caring is hard work when you’re writing 3 or 4 stories a week. Investing emotionally in each subject is exhausting. Besides, you can’t spend 20 minutes talking about yesterday’s story because you have to hurry up and write tomorrow’s. So most journalists stop caring. They make a conscious decision not to care, and that is why the profession is so deeply cynical. Not caring is a professional requirement. The British tabloids took not caring to an extreme, but the principle is the same for almost all journalists.

But what about choosing caring? Don’t some journalists choose to care? Yes, to be fair, a few do. But they are few and far between. Many more pretend to care, but actually care only about themselves. But those who do choose to care are in for a rough ride. Because caring means actually caring about each and every subject. It means recognizing that in writing about someone’s life one has a deeply-held responsibility to that individual. It means recognizing that – in the immortal words of DC comics – with great power comes great responsibility. And make no mistake, as a mainstream journalist you do have great power. The story you tell can have a huge impact – for good or bad – on a subject’s life.

Eventually I came to see that as a journalist you were damned if you did and damned if you didn’t. If you remained genuinely empathetic, and not just for the 45 minutes you needed to put it on to get the story, then you would be constantly beset by guilt, by worry, by disappointment, by regret, as all the people you met in moments of crisis continue to suffer, as the story you tell either does nothing, or accidentally worsens the situation, or because you got a key fact wrong (this happens constantly) or the person wants a follow-up story because their situation has changed but you have moved on and have to say no, sorry, we’re not interested anymore. All of these and many more trials await the journalist who insists on caring. And it is a heavy load.

Which is again why so many journalists are driven to drink, either by the pressure of caring or the soul-destroying agony of not caring but endlessly pretending to. Personally, I quit, which is another excellent option, but one many journalists resist. Heck, at least a half dozen of the journalists I knew in the 1980s are still doing the exact same job today for the very same newspaper. Amazing.

Certainly the arrival of email and online commenting has been a godsend. Finally the cloak of invincibility that weighed so heavily on journalists has been pierced. Finally the insane lack of accountability that characterized print journalism has ended. (My critical opinion went out to 500,000 people every day but if I chose not to care I didn’t have to deal with a single critic of my opinion. What an appalling and unhealthy imbalance!) Suddenly other people’s opinions mattered too! Hooray!

Digital media’s dialogical nature has broken open the monological vault of literate journalism and the results have generally been highly satisfactory. And not just because of the valuable rise of citizen journalism, but also because it offers the opportunity for young journalists to tell stories that matter and still care. Because not caring is no longer a smart option. Too many other people will take you down. Too many other people know more than you, individually and collectively. So journalists have to pay attention to other people’s feelings and they have to be humble. Or at least, they can, and without having nervous breakdowns.

It’s a good thing. And it is a direct consequence of the rise of digital culture on the back of an interactive medium. Literate journalism lacks empathy ultimately because paper lacks empathy. Paper doesn’t listen and it doesn’t respond. It only talks. Just like paper journalists. But suddenly, in the digital age,  journalists are growing ears again, and some of them may be growing hearts as well.

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