Guest post by: Mary Temiloluwa Ajayi
Lova Rakotomalala, the editor of the Francophone region for Global Voices, returned from the 2015 Global Voices Summit in Philippines with a question: How can media professionals create empathy through their work?
In letters to a colleague, Rakotomalala explored this question and specifically looked at how to “create a media of empathy.” We followed up with him to learn more about his work and his thoughts on how empathy plays into storytelling. Here is our edited conversation:
Mary Ajayi: It’s an honor to have this conversation with you, Lova. Your work with Global Voices and your dedication to connecting everyone to news globally is commendable. There’s a lot I want to ask you, but let’s start off with a basic question. How do you approach storytelling at Global Voices?
Lova Rakotomalala: Thank you for having me. We try to focus on the lesser covered stories at Global Voices, the stories that Web users feel compelled to share on social networks even though it might not be as widely talked out as other stories. Therefore, if our authors care enough about a specific subject to write about it, that is enough evidence for Global Voices to see it as worthwhile story. We trust our authors’ judgment above all and we ask them to emphasize the human element in their stories so that it is palatable to our worldwide audience.
What do you make of these concepts – “telling a story right” and “telling a story well”?
I believe both concepts are intertwined. One cannot tell a compelling story if the story is incomplete. Likewise one cannot provide the full scope of information to the readers if the format is lacking.
Global Voices authors usually pitch an idea to the editors and we would brainstorm with them to unpack what makes the story outstanding. We then evaluate the different formats we can use: a review of netizens reactions, an interview, a multimedia-centered publication, an explainer or a first-person narration. There are other formats that we are looking into as well.
In your conversation on the media and empathy, you touched upon the need to make stories more “digestible” to the world. Can you talk further about this?
Global Voices was created because we saw a need to have local viewpoints translated and amplified to a global audience. We saw the issue with stories being oversimplified in mainstream media because they were lacking the local context. The trick with starting with local viewpoints is that often the author is so knowledgeable about a specific topic that they often forget to remind the readers of the basic background of the story. Our role as editors is to remind the authors that our audience is global. That is one aspect of making stories digestible. But a “tasty” story is also easier to digest so we try to focus on a lead that is striking and palatable to everyone. We have a check-list of basic items we want to see in a story.
Photography is a powerful storytelling tool. The media has been accused of insensitivity when publishing photos of victims of disasters. What are your thoughts on “capturing the moment,” especially in relation to traumatic news? Are there ways journalists or media outlets can censor pictures while telling stories?
It is a complicated manner and we are having a conversation with our community on how to address this the best we can.
We have basic guidelines on what pictures we do not want to publish on Global Voices. If an image or video shows death, serious injury or graphic violence, we believe it is best to describe the content and provide a link, plus a warning.
On the other hand, a picture sometimes touches readers in a way words cannot. So in these cases, we take more time to discuss it internally and try to get it right.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about empathy’s role in storytelling. You’ve written about this topic and have some interesting thoughts on it. As storytellers, we sometimes feel sympathetic but not necessarily empathetic. How do you make the shift from sympathy to empathy?
This is an important point and I am not sure that we have figured it all out yet. We are trying to make sure we close each post with a call to action (with a link or contact info).
But it is a process. We already have an uphill battles with information overload, disaster fatigue, and “Not in My Backyard” syndrome to name a few. If we can raise awareness and sympathy for the struggles of fellow humans, we would already help prevent the increase of polarization of ideas worldwide.
Who should be at the forefront of this movement for empathy? Owners of media outfits or freelance journalists? Is it also possible to be empathetic as journalists without individual bias influencing our work?
It would make sense only if it starts at the grassroots level. The hope is that a grassroots movement finds a proper echo in the media. It would be nice for a change if empathy were recognized as just as newsworthy as some of the extremist movements out there. Media can set the agenda. It does not have to follow the “if it bleeds, it leads” mantra. We could start a “if it empathizes, we advertise” mantra.
Let’s look at factors that may affect empathy, and also the “Not in My Backyard” syndrome. Social class, race, and gender can all factor into a person’s level of empathy. How can we take these factors into consideration?
If you mean to ask whether we need to create bridges across these categories, I believe we do. But the gap between social classes seems to grow wider, and that could help breed extreme views within isolated groups. How we can prevent this gap from growing is a tad too vast of a subject to tackle. I would just say that some threats will have to be tackled as one planet (environment, energy, food crisis) and we cannot afford to have a “Not in My Backyard” syndrome to prevent those threats.
In creating empathy, the issue does not seem to really be about getting people to understand and relate, but taking a step further, which is what differentiates empathy from sympathy. One thing that stands out in the reactions so far, especially to traumatic news, is how vocal people get. How can the media, especially local media, help to channel the initial reaction of much talk, to real-time practical actions?
As you rightly point out, two different skills set are required here. The description and analysis of the situation is one set, the planning and implementation of action is another. Everyone needs to be in a position to carry out their tasks the best way they can. There is also the spontaneous call for action from the general public.
From my limited experience with disasters in Madagascar, spontaneous calls for action can help but only to a certain extent. Nothing can replace local expertise when it comes to implementation of a rescue and recovery plan. But it was empathy that was at the source of the creation of Ushahidi and the Crisis Mappers Movement. Those citizen media initiatives have been instrumental in linking general public and experts in the field and harness crowdsourcing for information or funds.
As you may know, Images & Voices of Hope has been doing work around Restorative Narratives — stories of resilience and recovery in the aftermath or midst of difficult times. What are your thoughts on this genre?
I think it is a much needed effort and I wish there were more of this. The reason why we talk about disasters should be clear from the start. It is about the needs of the people in distress. One of those needs that is often neglected for the sake of attracting readership is the respect for human dignity and agency. Focusing on the positives naturally turns the spotlight back on the people’s agency. A disaster already took a lot out of the population. The least the media should do is not deprive them of their agency.
What do you think Restorative Narratives can do for the media and the world at large?
I don’t want to overstate the potential for Restorative Narratives, but in my opinion, the largest threat to peace and stability worldwide is the exponential rise of extremism and inequality.
Restorative Narratives can (and should) play a big role in building understanding between communities and invite everyone to a global conversation.