Empathetic journalism for the right

empathy-dogs

I’ve said — to the horror of surprisingly few journalists I know — that the mere fact of Donald Trump’s candidacy is evidence of the failure of journalism to perform its prime function: informing the public.

Here I want to ask what we could do about that. I’ll explore ways to better reflect and inform the worldview of the petri dish that bred Trump: the angry, underemployed, conservative, white man. I’ll argue that the answer begins with empathy — empathy not with Trump’s racism, misogyny, and hatred, of course, but with the real lives of at least some of the people who are considering voting for him.

Of course, it’s true — and I want to underscore this — that many unreflected and under-served communities deserve to be addressed ahead of angry white men: African-Americans of many ages and locales, Latinos of many diasporas, the disabled of many needs, LGBTQ people, women, youth. But none of those communities fostered the movement of Trumpism, which — no matter the electoral outcome — will continue to fester after November. They have spawned a civic emergency. The phenomenon must be confronted. Decent Americans of the right need to be better informed, for ignorance breeds hate. The first step to doing that is not lecturing but listening.

I’ll explore four paths: (1) reflecting communities, (2) diversifying media, (3) serving people, and (4) convening communities. My thinking here is greatly influenced by what I have learned from teaching Social Journalism alongside Carrie Brown at CUNY.


Reflect communities: I wrote recently that as an enthusiastic Hillary Clinton supporter, I now know better what it feels like to find myself not reflected in media. I’ll repeat that my experience is, of course, trivial next to that of minorities and under-served communities who should have received more attention for generations. But this moment has helped me better understand how journalism also failed conservatives by not reflecting their worldview, circumstances, needs, and goals. Because media demonstrated that we did not hear, care about, or understand them, they did not trust the rest of what we had to tell them. Because we did not better reflect their lives, we could not help other communities and political leaders understand, empathize with, and grapple with their needs.

In Social Journalism, I have come to call this task externally focused journalism: We tell your story to the rest of society so others can understand and take into account your needs in negotiating policy and politics. That is what journalism has always done and will continue to do. It is helpful. However, externally focused journalism also can be exploitative: the journalist helicopters in to grab a good but random story and then leaves with no assurance of change. This is why I also emphasize the need for internally focused journalism; I will get to that below.

If you want to better understand the rocky soil that fertilized Trump, I recommend reading J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a highly personal tale that also explains the context of declining hope for a large class deep inside America. At the same time, to understand what necessitated #BlackLivesMatter, I recommend Between the World and Me by my former CUNY J-school colleague Ta-Nahisi Coates.

These books are credible, eloquent, and effective because they spring from experience. They demonstrate why American newsrooms must diversify their staffs. But it’s not as if every slice of the nation will be represented in every newsroom. So it is vital that we also teach journalists how to seek out, listen to, and empathize with people who are not like them. That, we’ve learned, is the essence of Social Journalism: taking a caring heart and an anthropologist’s cool eye and ear to observe and listen to a community’s situation so we can improve the connections that community has with others and improve the relationship of the journalist to the community — to say: “I want to understand you.”

As an example of such journalism, I commend to you New York Times religion reporter Laurie Goodstein’s recent story: Torn Over Donald Trump and Cut Off by Culture Wars, Evangelicals Despair. As Slate says, it is written with gentle empathy. I don’t agree with the stands against gay marriage taken by the people in the story. I don’t need to. Thanks to Goodstein’s story, I can at least understand their world a bit better. Assignment editors should have been devoting journalistic resource to just such stories during this election, and to reporting on the issues that matter to many communities across this land. That would have given us all a better understanding of what is at stake in the political struggle over the nation’s future. It would have been a better use of resource than predicting the horse race day after day.

To see how true to life Goodstein’s story was, I called one of her sources, Pastor Ryan Jorgenson, who emphasized to me that her reporting and the story were effective and empathetic. He had only three additional observations: First, his parishioners noted that the Times headline — “Evangelicals Despair” — is oxymornic; if you understand evangelicals, they said, you would know that because of their faith they do not despair. Second, though Jorgenson said the photographer shot the life of the church, the photo editor in New York selected only photos that reflected the headline — despair. Third, though he was glad that the story quoted him saying Jesus’ name, Jorgenson was disappointed though unsurprised that it did not quote scripture as the best explanation of evangelical thinking. (“We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair.” 2 Corinthians 4:8.) When was the last time you saw the Bible — or the Koran — quoted in media? Note well that it is the structure of news organizations — namely, editing — that can separate the journalism from the community it would cover. Our processes interfere with empathy.

When this election is over and when we enter into a post mortem for the truth, we need to examine how existing media can better reflect the many diverse communities that make up America: their lives, worldviews, concerns, needs, goals. But that will take us only so far.


Diversify media: Not only must newsrooms be diversified but the landscape of media should be diversified. There is not enough — there is almost no — major conservative media that is responsible, fact-based, and journalistic. We in liberal media — and, yes, for God’s sake, let us be honest enough to confess that media are liberal — left a vacuum that was readily and eagerly filled by the far and alt right, by political movements masquerading as media: Fox News, Breitbart, Drudge, et al. Fox News just turned 20 years old; see what it has done to civil discourse and democracy in a generation.

The closest thing the right has to a responsible major media outlet is the Wall Street Journal but it’s still a business newspaper, its coverage is locked behind a pay wall for the well to do (not many Trump voters), and it is owned by the proprietor of Fox News and the New York Post. No, it won’t do.

So I have an odd suggestion: liberal media and liberal funders should invest in responsible conservative news outlets staffed by journalists and commentators who share a conservative worldview: an intelligent and reasonable Fox News, a right-of-center New York Times, an American Telegraph, and a civil and honest Rush Limbaugh.

The idea of “balance” in any one media outlet has turned out to be as deceiving and bankrupt as the idea of “objectivity” — indeed, worse, for false balance is used to justify friction and fighting on the air and the damaging, uninformative scourge of the “surrogate” in this election. After helping tomanufacture the Trump phenomenon, CNN actually believes hiring Corey Lewandowski provides balance. That’s not about informing the public. That’s not about journalism. That’s about producing entertainment.

No, there needs to be balance in the ecosystem of news: different perspectives, experiences, and worldviews represented and served by their own outlets. What enables each of these entities to work legitimately under the banner of journalism? Intellectual honesty: the willingness to share uncomfortable truths; an ethic built on facts; a mission to inform.

Yes, I had hoped that blogs, my beloved blogs, would provide an outlet for such diversity of viewpoint. To an extent, they have and I still celebrate that. But this, too, is not nearly enough.

Keep in mind that if reasonable people do not start media to serve reasonable conservatives, the market will be dominated not just by the present noxious media movements but soon possibly by one even worse: The Trump News Channel. Beware!

Why bother? you ask. Surely I don’t think that we are going to be able to turn all of Trump’s 40-odd million voters into informed, reasonable neighbors who now see the error of his ways. No, I don’t. But if we could better inform a quarter, a tenth of them, imagine the benefit. When decent and smart conservatives set about the task of detrumpification and rebuilding their party and movement from the ashes, where can they turn? Today, all they have is a news hell. That is what we have left them. We have a responsibility to serve them.


Serve people: What does journalism serving people mean? It doesn’t mean talking to or about them. That is externally focused journalism. Journalism as service means helping people improve their lives and communities by serving their information needs so they can solve their problems and meet their goals. That is internally focused journalism.

For the sake of example, let’s take one adjective from my earlier characterization of Trump’s angry, underemployed, conservative, white, male constituency. Take “underemployed.” How could journalism better serve people — any people — who need jobs?

In the old days, we in the news business exploited unemployment by charging high rates to advertise jobs. We considered this a good because it supported journalism. But once my friend Craig Newmark came along as — in his description — a philanthropist of classified ads and more importantly once the net killed the middleman, newspapers’ jobs classified business (which could earn any one metro paper in the U.S. upwards of $30 to $50 million a year) collapsed.

Now I would suggest that a news operation should create a data base ofevery job available — for free. Let’s not just post short, uninformative ads (which said so little because we charged so much). No, collect data about every job and every job requirement: what skills are needed and what prior jobs people held to prepare them for posts like these. Let’s create a matching service that collects job-seekers’ skills and qualifications. Let’s create a service that helps the unemployed see what skills they need to get jobs. Let’s consider creating online education to help people build skills; that is one way we can make money.

Do media have the power to solve unemployment? No, of course not. But we can help. That should be our goal always: to contribute to solutions. The real benefit of doing this is that we can build trust. We can show that we do have the interests of the underemployed at heart. Then perhaps we can begin to have discussions with them based on facts over emotions. They might listen when we show them that their competition for work may not be immigrants but technology. We can have an informed discussion about the jobs that would be lost if foreign trade were curtailed. Maybe then they’d be more informed and less prey to the fear-mongering, bigoted, xenophobic likes of Trump, Breitbart, and Drudge.


Convene communities: At a news editors’ convention in Philadelphia a few weeks ago, I helped run an exercise in so-called human-centered design. After listening to some folks from gentrifying neighborhoods in the city, the editors in the room could clearly see something that was missing: conversation among the communities there. They could also clearly see the need and opportunity: convening those communities into dialogue.

Let’s say that we have diverse newsrooms that do a better job of reflecting communities’ concerns. Let’s say we have a more diverse media ecosystem that better serves many communities. Let’s say that media outlets do a better job of serving their communities and building trusted relationships with them. All this does only so much good if communities become more isolated.

Our next job in media is to convene communities into conversation. I’ve learned this in our Social Journalism classes at CUNY, where our students have taught me that serving a community also means connecting that community with others.

Thus media should convene and inform conversations among whites and blacks, young African-American men and police, immigrants and the native-born, evangelicals and liberals, consumers and corporations, left and right.

A week ago on Meet the Press, Chuck Todd teased a conversation between Michael Moore and Glenn Beck. Oh, no, I thought: here comes the ultimate cable-news war segment, the return of Crossfire — war! But no, it was the opposite. The segment was thoughtful, even peaceful. Michael Moore lamented the large swaths of America who believe they are unheard (see above). Then Glenn Beck appeared — separately — saying he didn’t necessarily want a record of agreeing with the prior guest he would not name, but he did agree with Michael Moore about the frustration of the unheard Americans. Watch. Here we saw a moment of bridge-building. That, too, is a responsible media’s job.


I’m pursuing this because I’m suffering an existential crisis as a journalist, ashamed of the role my profession and industry have played as Trump’s publicity agents, worried about the record-low measures of trust in American journalism, and most of all deeply disappointed by the only measure of journalism’s impact that matters: whether the public is informed.

We must begin by confessing the problem — and indeed the emergency. I recently attended two journalism conferences — one for the old newspaper industry, the other for the newer digital news industry — and neither tore open the agenda to grapple with this civic and journalistic emergency. In media, I see many specimens of its denial of responsibility.

I do not think we can just make incremental fixes to our old ways — a little more investigation, a little less sexism, a tad more intelligence, another dash of honesty (finally calling lies lies). We must fundamentally reinvent journalism: its relationship with the communities it serves, the forms it takes, the business models that support it.

Where to we start? Not with story ideas and pitches, not by assigning a reporter to a new beat, not by allocating space in a paper to more stories — all the things we used to do. I would start by sending a team made up of the smartest and most open-minded people from editorial, technology-design-data, and business (because this needs to be sustainable) to spend time with the community they will serve. I’d give them strict instructions: Listen. Observe. Don’t talk. Don’t test your ideas. Don’t interview them to get quotes. Just watch and listen. Learn about their problems and goals. Find out how they try to accomplish those goals now and what frustrates them. Ask what they believe they need to know. Listen for where they’re confused, wrong, worried, and curious. Empathize. Don’t come back until you can give me insights about their lives and needs. Bring me evidence of what you find out. Then build a new journalism around them.

If we can do this — better informing and building trust even with Trump’s community — we can do the same for any community.

  • arjun moorthy

    Great article Jeff. Particularly impressed by your humility and genuine desire to make journalism better. I’m working on a company that fuses civic capabilities with journalism. Care to chat? @juicemoorthy

    • Vinicius Covas

      I am not, Jeff, but curious about your message. Lets chat! @viniciuscovas

  • sstrasser

    Jeff, your comments section is getting spammed …

  • Brandon Fenty

    Jeff- I wanted to take a minute to respond to your thoughts in this article. First, I want to say that I respect your integrity very much. Well you and I may not agree on everything, I know that your heart is in the right place. I am one of the rural evangelicals that you talk about in the article, but I work in the city. I feel this gives me a somewhat unique perspective.

    Something that you said in your article struck me. You made special mention of many other groups besides the rule white man that deserves attention. Well I do not disagree with you, I want to say that The fact you think those groups deserve special mentioned in an article that is not about them, is part of the problem. People here feel like everyone else’s problems are put in front of their own. Well there certainly are hateful racist and bigots, I don’t think that is the majority of the people here. I certainly know no one who fits that description. However, resentment grows for a group who is concerned about which bathroom they can use, when people here are losing their homes and no one seems to care. In fact, the rural white man is being blamed for many of these other groups problems, when he has had nothing to do with them.

    The perception is somewhat that “City folk” Think they can make decisions for everyone else. There is a difference in the way of life between the country and the city. One is certainly no better than the other, but people choose one that suits them. I know you often speak about diversity in the workforce. Racial diversity is certainly important, but seemingly, for most tech and journalistic companies, there is little to no representation from rural communities. This makes sense, because Text Giants concentrate in large cities- but they often Forget about a large portion of the population. I am lucky enough to have a DSL connection at my house, but for most people in my area, they have to drive to the library to even get Internet access- and foremost, that situation is unlikely to change in the future. We simply aren’t worth the cost. I hope I am giving you a sense of how forgotten and left out we feel.

    The Republican Party has not represented us for quite sometime now. Neither have the Democrats. For many, Trump is seen as A disruption in the current political system. They don’t care if he is good or bad, just that he is different. Both parties have failed the nearly 50% of the population that is rural for the last decade or two, and that is why they are voting for Trump.

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  • Realspear

    Excellent article but I take issue with this statement – “the angry, underemployed, conservative, white man.” These people are not conservative. They tend to be both nihilistic and in constant demand of government handouts for someone, often people far better off than themselves.

  • Crubear

    Before you can fix journalism you will need to educate the “journalists” about civics, impartiality, investigation, and journalistic integrity.

    You need to learn about American civics so you can understand that sometimes the majority will have it’s way. Not because it’s a specific race, but because 75% of a population has a certain amount of authority to choose who it wants to have represent it. That it wasn’t race that decided who we are voting for, it’s issues that are important to us. The vast majority of us only notice race because it’s a part of what that person is, not because it makes them different. We don’t vote to make everyone happy, we vote to protect the things we find important.

    Impartiality? You and yours made up your mind and went from there. You should be ashamed of what you all did and the way you did it.

    You didn’t investigate the inconvenient, just the events that defined your agenda.

    You didn’t fail because you didn’t write enough, you failed because you took sides. My history classes when I was a kid called it “Yellow” Journalism. You learned the lessons of William Randolph Hearst, not as well, but you tried.

  • James R. Hester

    CNN, Fox, MSNBC….. where is the unbiased reporting? CNN colluding with the Clinton campaign? Fox…. well, Fox is a bit out there sometimes and I’m a conservative. MSNBC…. do I really need to offer an example (think Fox but on the other side of the spectrum)

    Your journalistic opinion isn’t what I want to read or hear – I want the whole story. Independent journalism with a new purpose is needed. Leave your political affiliations and ideals at home when you go to work.

    Why? Imagine what our country would be like if the military paralleled journalism. Would we even have a military? Or depend solely on diplomacy and HOPE.

    Neither HOPE nor HATE are actionable strategies. We’ve had 8 years of left-leaning divisive politics from elite and obviously much better educated folks under a banner of HOPE. Trump tapped into the resultant fear, anger and hate of everything wrong with this country from the viewpoint and experience of the 48% (isn’t that ironic?) who didn’t agree with the direction our country was heading.

    You want to better inform the people? Then provide neutral examinations of all the facts and perceptions from each view point then let the viewer or reader decide.

    Don’t tell me what I should think or draw conclusions for me. I’m educated – masters degrees from a Jesuit university plus a bunch of certifications from various professional associations. I’ve served – Marine Corps and Navy. And I’m a white man with biracial children – one with autism. So my world view isn’t narrow or uninformed. I’m conservative. I despised BOTH candidates. But my lesser evil was Trump. Yours obviously was Clinton.

    I appreciate your desire to provide me with left leaning propaganda; however, I have more than enough from the left and right. I can continue to read the Economist and occasionally rolling my eyes and throw in a few minutes of CNN or Fox here and there. Your heart is in the right place, but your needs analysis is a wee bit off. We don’t need to be led like mindless sheep or young, overzealous college students, what we need is journalism that unites us as a nation for the greater good of not just US citizens, but the entire world.

  • LCaution

    deleted by me. just an angry rant about the media’s treatment fo Hillary.

  • patty thomas

    Jeff, I agree with your points completely. This entire election cycle left me more frustrated than any I have gone through. At 64 years old, I’ve been through a few. I, too, am a liberal Democrat but was not a Hillary fan. However, trying to find balaynced reporting was a nightmare. I WANT to know what the opposing viewpoints are. I WANT honest discussions on the issues and I could only find other opinions from foreign news. Fox and MSNBC are both horrible. I used to love the “point/counterpoint” type discussions seen on the nightly news. I remember when papers would present both sides of important issues. Now, everyone just wants to entertain me. I don’t want to be entertained, I want to be informed. The Democrat party needs a major makeover and they need to distance themselves from Wall Street. Completely. I never even got any mailers from either party laying out their strategies. I think this was the most uninformed voter election I have ever witnessed. This was an election of the least of 2 evils. I think we got the wrong one but I don’t blame the American people as much as I blame journalism… on both sides.

  • Robert Mehner

    Jeff, certainly empathy and understanding are good things in and of themselves but I find that what people really appreciate most is appreciation itself. I believe that it may well be a sort of staging area where from we all start out fresh and diverge into life mostly alone and through our senses and a very complex set of algorithms form opinions, beliefs and a sense of right and wrong. To think too much about it may be missing the point entirely — although I am not sure.

    In my journey so far I have noticed that people seem to paint themselves into a little corner all too quickly and allow themselves very little latitude for being wrong or a slight course change.

    I think that true empathy and appreciation leads to a better place altogether — one where we are not so alone stuck in our little corners and much less bothered by politics, beliefs and other such things. It’s not easy for anybody and I think we should cut ourselves a little slack and rather than focus on our differences (because that is as impossible as it is unproductive) just revel in the fact that we are at all.

  • James Manseau

    I am a fan even though many times my views are diametrically opposed to yours. (I listen to TWIG every week). Having said that, another error the press has made throughout this election process is labeling Trump supporters as white, rural and uneducated. I live on Long Island and if you look at the voting here, a vast majority of the population voted for Trump. Our demographics are anything but white, uneducated and rural. This is a highly educated, diverse suburban population that voted for change. While I am not a huge Trump supporter, I voted for him because my conscience could not allow me to vote for Hillary. (I won’t get into particulars, because on this topic you and I do not agree) I think before we can have a factual conversation regarding the election, we have to get our facts right on who voted for Trump and why. With the press constantly repeating misinformation, most people begin to view it as fact.

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