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Sunday, Jun 26, 2022

On empathy and reporting: It’s complicated.

We’re not sure if you’ve heard, but this semester has been a chaotic one in the world of student journalism.

In September, students at Harvard openly lambasted the school’s student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, when the paper sent a request for comment to ICE for a story about student protests of the agency. Fearing this request for comment might have placed undocumented students in danger, over 1,000 students and organizations signed a petition to boycott  the Crimson. By adding their names to the petition, signees refused to comply with interview requests from the Crimson until the publication agreed to apologize, change its policies, and declare its commitment to protecting undocumented students.

Two months later, Northwestern University’s student newspaper, the Daily Northwestern, came under fire from the student body over a perceived lack of empathy in its reporting on student protests of an on-campus talk with former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Students called the photos of protesters that were posted online after the event “trauma porn” and criticized the Daily for reaching out to students through the directory. In response, the Daily removed the photos. In an editorial published later that week, the paper apologized for its “invasive” coverage and committed to more empathetic reporting practices in the future. 

Professional journalists responded uproariously in columns and on Twitter, condemning the Daily’s “inexperienced” apology and asserting that truth, not empathy, is the aim of reporting on any level, college or otherwise.

We’re not sure it’s that simple.

Like the Crimson and the Daily, The Campus has experienced its own fair share of backlash. We’ve had friends and classmates accuse us of spreading rumors and gossip in the wake of articles that cast them in unflattering light. We’ve had professors and classmates explicitly ask us, whether in class or at school functions, not to record what they were saying, as if we were hiding microphones under our clothes. A couple weeks ago, a professor openly criticized The Campus in his classes for publishing what he felt was a negative article about a Middlebury professor, demanding of our coverage, “Where is the empathy?”

As far as we’re concerned, these criticisms aren’t fair, or even professional. Still, they point to the intimacy of life on a college campus, which makes student journalism uniquely difficult. 

In our first editorial of the year, we wrote that, above all else, reporting is truth-telling. We stand by this. At the same time, we understand calls for heightened empathy in campus journalism. At a small college, we’re incredibly close to the events we cover (and notably more so than the New York Times and Washington Post columnists who were so quick to reprimand the Daily). When a NYT critic pans a play, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever have to confront the human repercussions of that review. When a Campus reporter publishes a critical take on a Middlebury production, odds are they’ll be standing next to the director in the same Proctor panini-press line later that week. That kind of closeness necessitates higher levels of care.

There’s a difference, though, between being thoughtful about the reporting process and sacrificing journalistic standards altogether. In our experience, exercising the kind of empathy a small school demands doesn’t have to interfere with truth-telling. The kind of empathy we see fitting into a newsroom is not one that sacrifices meaningful coverage for the sake of placating members of our community. Rather, it is one that reports both accurately and responsibly, even if it means shining light on an uncomfortable reality.

Even if we do not explicitly name it as such, empathy is a constant factor in our reporting. For example, journalists usually only grant sources anonymity in extenuating circumstances. In our work at Middlebury, granting anonymity is sometimes a necessary step toward preserving the safety of students, administrators, staff workers and professors — our sources — in and beyond our tight-knit community. 

Timing is another essential  aspect of journalistic empathy. In the Harvard case, for instance, Crimson reporters waited until the protest had ended  to contact ICE, mitigating the risk of protesters being targeted and possibly arrested. Campus editors also had timing in mind when,  in the wake of Ryszard Legutko’s controversial visit to campus last spring, we acted quickly to publish essential information clarifying that the protesters were not the reason the college cancelled Legutko’s original talk, contrary to national media coverage that was saying otherwise.

It takes empathy, too, to reach or recognize the perspectives of marginalized individuals at Middlebury. While The Campus sometimes struggles with this, we are  committed to diversifying both our board and coverage in the future.  

Other times, exercising empathy is what allows college journalists to report truthful coverage in the first place. Only through careful, human consideration can journalists build the kind of long-term relationships with others that lend themselves to effective reporting on a small campus. Sometimes, choosing not to immediately run a story, even if it’s a “scoop,” makes for better journalism in the long run.

And so professional journalists’ assertions that empathy has little place in reporting don’t quite hold true in a community as small as Middlebury. To that end, assumptions from students and staff (whether at Middlebury or Northwestern) that college reporters are unempathetic are not only unfair, they undermine the level of thought and awareness that we bring to our work. We’re not “gotcha” journalists. We represent the goings-on in and around Middlebury as faithfully as we can, with an eye to fact and the facilitation of constructive and challenging conversations.

Just as we can be empathetic and report the truth, so too can we be students and journalists.