February 6, 2006
What Do Journalists Know About Suffering?
By Doug McGill
The McGill Report
ROCHESTER, MN Ė Like any journalist, I see human suffering a lot. Iím
attracted to it, I suppose, in the same way that doctors and social workers
seek to encounter suffering, to try to understand it and lessen it.
Yet the more I think about suffering in relation to my profession, the more
I think we donít know much. There is a certain arrogance we journalists have
about suffering. Not that we think ourselves above it, but rather that
somehow, although we never sat down to think it through, we still think we
understand suffering and its ways.
Hereís an example. An old journalistís trick for getting good quotes in
interviews is to keep silent during that awkward pause after a person has
answered a question and is waiting for you to ask another question.
Usually the person blurts something out at that point just to fill the
vacuum in the conversation. Itís not usually something he or she planned to
say, which is exactly what makes it a good quote. Itís often self-revealing
in a way the person never intended.
It is profoundly the right thing to do, of course, to listen carefully to
what our sources tell us. That usually means not jumping in with a new
question but rather to spend some time, instead, to reflect and to some
extent empathize with what we have just heard.
But if itís right to listen and empathize, is it right to grab the juicy
bits a person blabs out in these unguarded moments and publish them? How
exactly should we use the unguarded self-revelations we pride ourselves on
extracting from our sources?
The more general question for journalists, then, is at what point are we
extending suffering or cheapening suffering, instead of using our
reflections and human empathy in more responsible ways?
Nature abhors a border. When you stay silent after a source asks a question,
you are creating a border, and you are creating the impulse in your source
to cross that border and thus come flowing into you, your ears and your
soul. As often as not, what comes flowing into you are stories of suffering.
Maybe, just as we delay responding to a question in order to elicit better
quotes, we might also delay writing and publishing our stories a little bit.
We could take that time to process the stories of suffering that our sources
tell us, and to reflect on our role as journalists in the great chain of
global causes and effects of which we are a part. Then we might write better
How much of our subject matter as journalists is human suffering! Of all the
Pulitzer Prizes awarded each year, how many are stories or photographs of
people struggling, people in horror, people in pain? If we removed every
story about human suffering from our magazines and newspapers, how much
paper would be left? Not enough to wrap a fish.
Yet how much do we as journalists really know about suffering, one of our
most frequent and, for our readers, most popular subjects?
Can we responsibly deal with a subject about which we have no special
expertise beyond what, perhaps, we have experienced personally ourselves?
Even in our own personal cases, though, have we handled suffering well? Does
the fact that we have suffered personally make us somehow expert at
translating the suffering of others into words and images that later, when
they are read in a newspaper or viewed on a television screen, radiantly
flower in the imaginations and souls of millions of others?
Do we really understand this process? When and how does suffering become
entertainment? How can we be journalists if we canít answer this basic
question? If we are uncertain of our skills in this area, how come we stride
into the public square so confidently day after day to interview people, and
then publish stories made from pieces of their pain?
The best medical training includes lessons for physicians on how to deal
internally with the suffering of their patients. A doctor skilled in these
methods helps patients play an active role in their own recovery.
The best training for police, hospice workers, nurses, relief aid and social
workers includes similar kinds of lessons. Because journalists also meet
people at crisis points in their lives, maybe we could learn from the caring
professions about how to handle the suffering of our sources in a
compassionate and helpful way.
Copyright @ 2006 The McGill Report