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Monday, April 12, 2004

Empathy and good journalism

I just finished reading Anna Quindlen's column in Newsweek and simply muttered aloud, "Wow."
She recalled interviewing a New York couple who, in 1981, lost their 6-year-old son, who vanished on his way to the schoolbus stop. "I have often thought about the effect the Patzes had on me as some reporters have brought disgrace upon the profession. And it has made me wonder whether good journalists always have that moment in their background, the moment that merges humanity and story in an indelible way. Or the opposite: are the frauds always of character, not craft?"

Most of the writers I know and really respect have a story that changed how they see the world and others. Try as we might, sometimes the subject of our stories touch our hearts as well as our pens. And it's not always the big story. Quindlen talks about Tom Brokaw's interview with a young black woman who decided to march in the streets of Americus, Ga., during dangerous racial unrest there. "I'm often asked to name my most memorable interview," Brokaw says, "honestly, I always bring up that young woman. I was just 25 at the time and she taught me so much that night."

I spent a Saturday night a few weeks ago with the children and sister of a woman who was recently deported to Venezuela. The mother's presence was physically felt in their Lakewood duplex, the smell of her cigarettes still hung in the air. Her 12-year-old daughter was fighting a headache and tears while talking about seeing her mother in jail. Her 5-year-old little brother, who is autistic and not wholly comprehending of the situation, was infinitely curious in the contents of my purse, in touching my hair and asking about my own kids. I didn't mind at all. He was a little boy missing his mother and unable to verbally express his thoughts. So I gave him my tape recorder to play with and showed him pictures of my 5-year-old little boy. As I was finishing the interview, the girl started to cry and shake with the anguish of knowing she was alone in this world. And the mother in me wanted to give her a hug and smooth her hair and tell her she will live and she will do great things with her life, it's what her mother would want.

This young girl's mother lost her battle to stay in this country. More surprisingly, she made the gut-wrenching decision to leave her children in America where they can live a so-called better life. I couldn't imagine being faced with that choice. It was hard not to put myself in her shoes, not as a writer, as a mother and as a human being.

"All this makes you wonder if journalism schools should teach not just accuracy, but empathy. But the truth is, you really get that by covering stories, not studying them, by imagining yourself in the place of the people you interview. Still (Stan Patz) he clips the stories out of habit. The original impulse is gone: 'To create a history for Etan.' If you're a reporter I leave you with that image for those times when you think what you do is fleeting. The closest thing this man has to the body of his son is the body of your work. If that doesn't make you want to do better job, then find another job."

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