Empathy compels fair treatment of sources

Marc Ian Barasch, author of Field Notes on the Compassionate Life, defines empathy as “our ability to feel and perceive from another’s point of view.” At the Jaipur Literary Festival in India in January 2011, David Finkel, Washington Post reporter and author of The Good Soldiers, told a rapt audience that he was obligated to be empathetic not only with the soldiers in Iraq but also with the policy makers in Washington, D.C., including then President George W. Bush. He noted that it might be more difficult to summon empathy for Bush than for the soldiers but that it was no less important that he do so. In saying this, he acknowledged the most basic precursor for empathy: recognition of human equality, no matter the differences, and no matter one’s personal perspective. “It’s impossible,” he said, “not to have empathy for American troops and Iraqis.” It is more difficult, he said, to have empathy for those making policy in D.C.—but “you have to.” Somehow, one has to “keep empathy for all the players.”

His point is key to two parts of my definition of empathy: First, empathy allows one to gain understanding, and, second, it does not require that agreement follow from the connection. In addition, empathy, given this definition, compels fair, unbiased treatment of all sources.

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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