The intersection of empathy and storytelling has become a point of interest for many media practitioners and researchers as of late.

During ivoh’s annual media summit, we explored this topic on a panel with the University of Buffalo’s Melanie Green, author Kim Cross, and Columbia Journalism Review’s Lene Bech Sillesen. (’s Trymaine Lee was also scheduled to speak on the panel but couldn’t due to a reporting conflict.)

Green and Sillesen have researched empathy’s role in storytelling, while Cross’ reporting for her book “What Stands in a Storm” required a considerable amount of empathy. Ultimately, she said, her book also led readers to empathize with the people who were featured in it.

We captured video of their talk and have included some highlights below:


  • “The big question that my research looks at … is what do stories do? One of the quotes that I’ve liked to use recently is that the answer to that question is, ‘stories make children go to sleep and soldiers go to war.’ And of course for this group, I think we need to alter the end of that: ‘stories can help people recover from war and build peace.’ … What my research has also focused on is the fact that these stories that sometimes can be so simple and easy to understand can also have these broad effects; they can change people’s minds, they can change people’s attitudes, they can change people’s behavior, and even spark these social movements. The way that we’ve examined how stories work is what we’ve termed ‘transportation into a narrative world’ — this is that feeling we get when we read a wonderful story and we’re not sitting in a room anymore; we’ve been mentally taken to the world that the author has created.” ~Melanie Green, who is the first speaker in the video.
  • “Tornados are kind of the Russian roulette of storms. I think that they produce extra empathy from people who don’t get hit because there’s that sense of, that could have been me. A house can be leveled next to one that is standing with a few shingles missing. They’re acute and erratic and I think people who don’t get hit almost get survivor’s guilt, so they go out of their way to help other people.” ~Kim Cross, who you can hear at the 10-minute, 30-second mark in the video.
  • “When we read and consume information on digital media, we tend to skim and scan when we read. We tend to get easily distracted; we jump from link to link. And some researchers are even suggesting that these short attention spans that we’re developing online are even invading our in-depth print reading, meaning that we’re becoming worse and worse at focusing and worse at in-depth reading. At the same time, neuroscientists at the University of Southern California have shown in a study that empathy takes time, meaning when you sit down and read a story, the degree to which you feel empathy for the characters in the story depends on whether you spent time with the narrative and how focused you are. So the scientists behind this study wondered if these shorter attention spans may have some long-term effect on our ability to feel empathy when it comes to stories.” ~Lene Bech Sillesen, who you can hear at the 22-minute, 30-second mark in the video. (You can read Sillesen’s related research here.)

You can watch the full video here:

How empathy factors into reporting and storytelling from Images & Voices of Hope (ivoh) on Vimeo. Video created by Vanessa Trengrove, Scott Schuler, and Josh Hammond.


For more summit highlights, click this link.


Related stories: How empathy factors into reporting and storytelling | What it means to create ‘a media of empathy’ | Gates: ‘Let your empathy and talents help you make a difference in the lives of others’ | New study to look at how video games increase mindfulness, empathy