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.

Human Empathy

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.

Personal Experience

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 stories.

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?

Caring Professions

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.

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