Journalism: The Empathy Question

1340707824_b7aa33cb7a_b

Empathy, the word Lee Hancock murmured that morning, is more difficult. Because empathy requires that we approach our subjects from the inside. We try to enter into the emotions, thoughts, the very lives of those we write about. We try to imagine what it must be like to be them. Only by living in their skin at least briefly, by walking in their shoes, can we begin to see that person as he or she is. This requires moral imagination. It is what the good fiction writer does. And it is, I argue, what we writers of nonfiction must do.

There are learned people who will argue that this is impossible, and they may be right. How can we ever fully know another person? But the impossibility does not erase the obligation to try. That obligation demands that our actions as journalists not only be ethically sound, but — taking a word from Janet Malcolm — that they be morally defensible. Ethics is the rules of the game: fairness, honesty and disclosure. Morality is what we owe one another, not as writer and subject, but as fallen human beings. It demands self-knowledge, humility, and charity.

This, I think, sets the bar on its highest peg.

-At Gangrey, Bill Marvel reflects on the ethical questions of narrative journalism.

Read the story

Photo: shuttercat7, Flickr

Editorial, Automattic / WordPress.com / Founder, Longreads
Get the Longreads Weekly Email

Sign up to receive the Top 5 Longreads of the week, delivered every Friday.