Empathy: A Journalist's Most Important Tool

It happened while I was scribbling furiously away on my notepad, trying to keep up with my interviewee, a Syrian refugee living in Paris.

We had agreed to meet on a Friday night -- exactly one week after the terror attacks of Nov. 13 -- at Place de la Republique.

After shaking hands and exchanging niceties, we ducked into a nearby cafe and settled into a table near the back wall for privacy.

Once we settled in, it didn’t take long for Oday Ghalyoun to launch into his tale at a breathless pace.

I expected his story to be a sad one, likely punctuated by persecution, perhaps even torture.

What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was the 24-year-old’s strength, earnestness, and optimism.

I was already hunched over, scribbling down his interview at breakneck speed on the notepad I had resting on my knees so thankfully he didn’t see.

But my eyes were starting to sting and my throat was constricting.

It was the combination of his story, his strength and the atmosphere of that Friday night, that brought up the waterworks and produced a powerful mix of emotions that included sadness, awe, humility and gratitude.

“This is why I love being a journalist,” I remember thinking to myself..

There I was, holding the power and privilege of relaying this man’s inspiring life story to a mass audience, at the tip of my pen.

As a freelance correspondent covering the Paris terror attacks for The Toronto Sun, I had interviewed dozens of people by then. But it was Ghalyoun’s story that moved me to tears, and stayed with me long after we parted ways.

After fleeing persecution and torture as an outspoken activist against the Syrian regime, Ghalyoun arrived in France two years ago only to find himself stuck in the crosshairs of the terrorist attacks on Nov. 13.

He was on his way to his friend’s house when he heard the unmistakeable pop, pop, popping sound of Kalashnikov rifles -- a sound he knows well from having been fired at in clashes back in his city of Homs. While locals may have mistook the sounds as firecrackers, Ghalyoun knew better and immediately sought shelter in the nearest building.

As he did in Syria and Lebanon before arriving in France, Ghalyoun would end up helping wounded survivors caught in the crossfire, using his undershirt as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding until help arrived.

Never did it occur to him that he would be forced to flee the same persecutor in his new life in Paris, he said.

But with the same conviction and passion that helped him stand up to the oppressive government during the Syrian uprising, Ghalyoun would electrify the air around us in that Paris cafe, rousing the interest of nearby patrons and staff alike with impassioned views on the importance of not turning our backs on the refugees fleeing his country, and fighting a common enemy so that he and his people can return to Syria and help rebuild the country they love.

It was in that moment that I was reminded, with striking clarity and force, of my role in all this as a journalist.

We are conduits. Messengers who wield significant power in deciding what kind of information people will read.

We make difficult decisions every time we sit down to the keyboard and choose what kind of information to include, and the kind that we omit -- particularly when we’re hamstrung by strict word count limits.

For this particular story, for instance, I had to distill a two-hour interview filled with disturbing details of his torture, flight from Syria and observations on the refugee crisis, into a tidy sum of 400 words.

While the din of protest against accepting refugees was growing louder in France and abroad, his was a voice that was begging to be aired.

If my paper had relied wholly on wire copy, Ghalyoun’s story -- and many like his -- would have gone unheard.

The media’s overdependence on wire stories and online rewrites muzzles voices like his, because outlets are publishing the same articles from the same sources.

In the same vein, journalists have a responsibility to avoid dipping into the same pool of resources, witnesses and experts when writing our stories -- a trap I’ve fallen victim to myself.

But as imperfect are we are, as maligned as our profession is at times, it’s during times of crises that the public turns to us to sort things out and help them make sense of chaos.

Likewise, in times of crises and disaster, while the rest of the world flees, many journalists risk their freedom or their lives to tell the story. Last week, the US-based press freedom watchdog Committee To Protect Journalists said that 55 journalists have been killed because of their work this year. A further 199 are imprisoned, silenced for telling stories somebody didn't want the public to know about.

When false alarms sparked panic at Place de la Republique just a few days after the attacks, I watched with admiration as TV reporters like Channel 4’s Matt Frei largely kept their cool and continued filming live as a sudden wave of people rushed toward them.

Instead of fleeing, they stood their ground, trying to evaluate the situation as best they could for the distressed viewers who were watching the events unfold live before their eyes.

That’s not to say we won’t succumb to our own emotions.

In his stand-up, BBC reporter Graham Satchell choked back tears as he spoke about the hope felt among Parisians following the attacks and abruptly cut his live report short. In a follow-up tweet, Satchell thanked viewers for their support and added that he was “slightly mortified.”

If there’s one important lesson I’ve learned in my time as a journalist, it’s that one of the most important tools a good journalist can possess in their arsenal, is empathy.

It’s the capacity to understand another person’s perspective that produces the most compelling reports. It will invariably show in the writing and the way the information is presented.

And at a time when the industry is becoming increasingly automated with reports generated by computer algorithms, the only assurance journalists have for now; the one distinctly human trait that can’t be automated; is the capacity to empathize with a fellow human being and share their story with others.

Support the Committee to Protect Journalists here

Support Reporters Without Borders here