There are some news reporters who say they got into the field because of romantic-sounding notions like wanting to make the world a better place. Some readers may think making the world a better place entails reporting on happy news instead of the sad stories people read all the time.
But reporters sometimes have to report news people find “depressing.”
When I was in college, all the freshman students took the StrengthsFinder personality test put out by the Gallup organization that provides people a list of their top five “strengths” that supposedly explain how a person interacts with other people.
I’m a journalist, and one of my top five strengths is “Empathy.”
Webster’s dictionary gives us this definition of the word. It is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
That’s quite a mouthful, but it’s a complicated trait.
I have been told that journalists are not supposed to be empathetic, that it’s unprofessional to “be sensitive to” or share in the experience of others.
I respectfully disagree. You see, my idea of empathy is to share various sides of an issue and various types of stories without picking sides. My job is to describe people’s experiences in ways that could hopefully have readers “vicariously experiencing” them too.
News isn’t always happy. I will freely admit that not every news story you see is the type that makes you laugh, feel good and want to share with all your Facebook friends.
I recently spent time researching the crime of human trafficking for a story, and some of the things I read left me feeling nauseated. I could not help but feel for a woman who recalled what it was like to be a 6-year-old girl facing frequent sexual abuse.
At a newspaper I previously worked for, I sometimes wrote crime stories about people getting killed in car accidents, attacked with machetes and raped.
The truth is we live in a world full of nauseating things. I’m not here to debate how best to change the world, but I am enough of a realist to point out that it’s not all roses.
I have friends and family who tell me they don’t read, watch or listen to the news much because they don’t like seeing or hearing “depressing” stories.
Though I have written some of those, the truth is that I don’t like “depressing” news either.
But crimes make newspaper headlines because somebody somewhere got murdered today, leaving a mourning family behind. Natural disaster stories blast their way onto television stations because someone’s life got washed away with Hurricane Sandy. Stories about corrupt politicians are heard on radio airwaves because a senator got caught abusing the power given to him by American voters.
News is news because it impacts somebody. We can’t simply ignore it.
That’s when empathy comes into play.
I empathize with those who don’t like hearing unpleasant news, but I also empathize with those having to live with the effects of bad news.
It is said there is a time for everything. A time to laugh and a time to cry. A time to build and a time to tear down. A time to live and a time to die.
Communities can either choose to share the experiences that time brings, or they can remain ignorant of what has been happening.
It is easy to be cynical and even want to ignore unpleasant news. But we should remember that people around us face both good and bad news all the time. That’s how life tends to work.
A Holocaust survivor named Esther Bauer spoke at Cleveland State Community College in March, and a couple of things she said really stuck with me. Though she had been through so much, she said she had decided to share her story because she felt people needed to know what had happened. She also said it is up to everyone to make sure nothing like the Holocaust happens again.
I had a chance to visit the site of a former Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, Germany, while in college. One thing I learned was that many of the townspeople outside the camp’s walls had claimed they did not know what had been going on there. After the Holocaust victims were freed, some of the town’s residents were made to visit the camp so they could see the extent of what had happened. Many of the victims had suffered and died.
The Holocaust may be an extreme example of something a community might have tried to sweep under the proverbial rug because it was tough to hear, but there may be other issues that get ignored today.
Of course, happy news can fly under the radar just as easily as the bad. For example, someone may do something wonderful to help someone else in the aftermath of a tragic event. A high school teacher may help students reach their potential and earn college scholarships. The possibilities are endless.
I argue that it is important to stay up-to-date with news not just because I write news stories. It’s vital to be aware of news in the community — both good and bad — simply because you are part of a community.
If there are positive things in the news, people may realize they can continue doing positive things to better their community. If the headlines are terrible, a community can try to make sure bad things don’t happen again.
Ignorance does not make bad news go away. In fact, it can ensure that more bad news occurs again.
And doesn’t the bad news make the good news seem even better?
Positive change in a community cannot happen if nobody knows that something needs to be changed. It is possible for bad news to eventually turn into good news, but that can’t happen until someone realizes the bad news exists.
Knowing about something does not automatically mean things will get better, but knowledge is a good place to start.