Can stories be empathy generators? Has the shift from print to digital (and the subsequent increase in videos, audio, interactivity) helped us empathize more with the people we read and hear about in the media? Is there ever a downside to empathy when reporting and telling stories?
These are some of the questions we’ll be exploring during an empathy panel at ivoh’s Restorative Narrative Summit later this month. One of our speakers, Columbia Journalism Review’s Lene Bech Sillesen, has been studying the intersection between empathy and storytelling as part of a yearlong fellowship with Columbia University’s George T Delacorte Center.
Sillesen and her two colleagues, Chris Ip and David Uberti, recently wrote about what they’re learning. They’ve looked at a variety of stories as part of their research, including The New York Times “Invisible Child” series — which focuses on child homelessness through the eyes of 11-year-old Dasani Coates.
“The story’s reporter, Andrea Elliott, says she never could have anticipated such reactions to her story,” The Columbia Journalism Review reported. “Her own inbox crashed, while readers sent envelopes of cash to Dasani and her family, and offers for trips to Disney World. Support and donations extended beyond the family and were offered to Dasani’s school, as well as the Brooklyn shelter where they lived. ‘Invisible Child’ is an example of the power of storytelling. It’s also an example of what motivates many journalists, what we believe is possible through our narratives: to extend empathy for the individual to the group, to correct injustice and inspire change, or at least awareness.” (Elliott and “Invisible Child” photographer Ruth Fremson spoke at ivoh’s 2014 media summit.)
The CJR piece goes on to say:
“From stories about living conditions in New York’s slum tenements of the 1880s to the plight of children in contemporary homeless shelters, empathy is an integral part of journalism. Stories have powerful effects on us. We feel empathy for characters just as we do for flesh-and-blood people, and the act of reading about them might even make us more empathetic in real life, change our opinions, and push us to action.”
Psychologists interviewed for the story said that experience and time both influence empathy.
“Once engaged and transported by a story, readers are more likely to change their beliefs about the world to match that narrative. In magazine journalism, this makes perfect, intuitive sense. We know that longer narratives with complex characters and strong storylines can have a deep impact on readers who take the time to read from start to finish.”
As part of their project, Sillesen, Ip, and Uberti are conducting an experiment that will look at whether consuming news digitally makes us more empathetic than consuming news via print. Their findings will be published in the July/August edition of The Columbia Journalism Review.
We’re eager to learn more about Sillesen’s work during the empathy panel at ivoh’s summit. Sillesen will be joined by msnbc.com reporter Trymaine Lee; social psychologist Melanie Green; author and journalist Kim Cross; and journalist John Yearwood, who is also an ivoh trustee. We will be covering their panel and will publish highlights on ivoh.org.