A Conversation with Sue Schardt


"My belief is that we must begin with our hearts."

By a great many accounts, journalists failed their readers during the most recent U.S. election season. Some argue we'd been failing long before that, generalizing or simply ignoring large swaths of the electorate. Others say we have ourselves been unfairly maligned, too little attention paid to the challenges and (in some cases) dangers of our jobs. The truth, as usual, is probably somewhere in between. But in an effort to make things better, many practitioners and observers have called for the same thing: empathy. The trouble with that, particularly in the era of politicized "fake news," is that empathy can seem at odds with the other things people expect from journalists: neutrality and objectivity. 

This is something I've been thinking about a lot. How do we strike the right balance, as journalists, between gaining the intellectual and emotional trust of our audiences? How do we project both objectivity and empathy? Should we? 

To start getting at the answers to these questions, I spoke with Sue Schardt, president of Schardt Media and CEO of AIR Inc., a network of audio journalists and storytellers. In 2015, AIR launched the third iteration of Localore: Finding America, a collaborative multimedia storytelling effort led by 15 teams of independent radio journalists embedded for nine months in communities around the country with the goal of inventing new ways of storytelling. Sue doesn't shy away from talking about the importance of things like love and compassion in reporting, so I spoke with her about the role of empathy in journalism and where reporters can ethically go from here. Here's a bit of our conversation:

Kaitlin Ugolik: Please tell me a bit about your work with AIR. What's the goal of recent projects like Localore?

Sue Schardt: It begins with the understanding and belief that we need to break away from and remake the way we create stories. AIR is a big network, but the role of any journalist is trying to reflect something of the human experience. More broadly, we are at a point in the 50th anniversary year of public media where it's evolved into what is really a national treasure, but it's done that by cultivating a predominantly white, highly-educated, affluent class of citizens. Our work with Localore and Finding America is very much aimed at this question of what is next on the frontier. How do we live up to the original mandate for public broadcasting, which is to serve all of the people? We're at a really wonderful moment in that history, and it happens to coincide with the realities of this roiling, disruptive time in politics and in the world. 

KU: What do you think is the role of empathy in all of that? Is it appropriate for us as journalists to embrace it explicitly, or does that compromise our objectivity in your opinion?

SS: We hire independent producers and embed them at public media stations across the country, and we are sending them out to places where public media is not deeply engaged, so they have to do a baseline first, they have to place themselves there and observe and absorb. That means allowing themselves to feel. That's not an abstract thing. It starts, I believe, in the heart. The heart informs the brain, the direction, all the rest. I believe the outcome when one allows that sort of approach is different. This whole construct of objectivity and balance and fairness, this idea that there's mutual exclusivity, that you can't feel love or can't feel a place and also be objective...I think it's something we very much have to question. 

KU: Is there any sense that it might be dangerous to risk pushing the pendulum too far in the other direction, though, and getting too involved with subjects especially when they're already skeptical?

SS: I think now is a time where we have to give our craft people enormous permission to follow their instincts and do what they feel is right. I have a producer who relocated from Maryland to Kansas City to do a project. He said to me, 'If you had told me that as part of this project I would be spending every Tuesday morning at Bible study, I would have laughed in your face. If you had told me sometimes I'd even be leading Bible study...that would be totally insane.' That was a revelation to me.

KU: I can see both the benefits and potential concerns with an approach like that. What, in your view, are the benefits to allowing reporters to pay more attention to their emotional connections to people and places they cover?

SS: This idea that you can't have objective fairness and balance as a journalist is firmly rooted. But perspective is a very essential part of being a good journalist. If you follow that thought line, you can see that that which expands one's vision and one's understanding will inform and advance one's ability to practice their craft to a higher level. That can be achieved by reading more books and articles and essays and having an expanded palette of intellectual comprehension, but we have to be brave enough and have enough courage to say that equally as legitimate is this compassion component. It's part of who we are as human beings. If our goal is to tell a different story or a more broadly reflective story of America, we have to be able to go into places and approach them in an entirely new way.

See Sue Schardt's media predictions for 2017 here