Empathize to Understand, Not to Agree

Every day, reporters cross, or should, the boundaries that exist between self and Other.

Once a person navigates that transition, his or her world expands, and in the newly created space, the self comes to know better the potential of its humanity. At times, though, we may find the act of empathy repulsive. We may want to retreat, not reach out. Do I want to see through the eyes of a serial killer? The answer is yes, if my purpose is understanding, a goal decidedly different from agreement. Do I want to see through the eyes of the 14-year-old girl who has been trafficked, suffering sexual assault after assault, beating after beating? To be empathetic one must feel her pain, her loss, her desperation, her fear. And one must feel the evil intent that drives the abuser. One who works empathetically knows his or her purpose: to translate for the dominant culture the reality of the Other.

Michael Schudson, in his book Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press (2008), argued that social empathy ranks among the six functions of the journalist in a democratic society. “[J]ournalism,” he wrote, “can tell people about others in their society and their world so that they can come to appreciate the viewpoints and lives of other people, especially those less advantaged than themselves” (12). Social empathy, the ability to understand people from diverse socioeconomic classes and racial and ethnic backgrounds, enables “insight into the context of institutionalized inequalities and disparities” and “can inspire societal change and promote social wellbeing” (Segal et al, 2012, 541). Martin Hoffman argued in his book, Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice, that the outcome of teaching empathy would be a more moral and just society: “If caring and justice are valued in our society and children are socialized to internalize them both, and if I am right about empathy’s links to caring and most justice principles, it follows that most mature, morally internalized individuals have empathy-charged caring and justice principles in their motive system” (21). He encouraged training in the art of empathizing (24). Such training, one would hope, would lead the individual to see him- or herself as part of an interconnected world. To do so helps one understand that what happens to another human being is relevant to oneself.

Published by

Janet Blank-Libra

Janet Blank-Libra is a professor of English and Journalism at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., where she teaches literature courses (fiction and nonfiction), photojournalism, multimedia, ethics and law of the press, a variety of writing courses, and courses specific to the college’s honors curriculum. She has twice received teaching awards and recently finished a three-year appointment as the recipient of an endowed chair that the college calls “The Chair of Moral Values,” a position that allowed her to bring ethical issues to the attention of the community. In 2017 Blank-Libra published Pursuing an Ethic of Empathy in Journalism, a book she believes describes an ethic the best journalists employ naturally. Blank-Libra published in 2004 a chapter—“Choosing Sources: How the Press Perpetuated the Myth of the Single Mother on Welfare”—in Class and News, a book edited by Don Heider. That chapter became the impetus for Pursuing an Ethic of Empathy in Journalism.

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