Tim Stenovec was a graduate student studying journalism in New York City. He had just started the police beat for a news blog produced in collaboration with The New York Times and, as part of his assignment, had access to a service that emailed breaking news alerts to reporters across the city.
One Monday, Tim received news that a man lay dying on a sidewalk. “*Fatal Stabbing*,” read the news alert on Tim’s cellphone. “East 8th Street & Ave D.”
“On my way,” read Tim’s text message to me, his editor, just a few minutes after the alert.
Within a few hours, Tim broke the news that police had identified the victim and were searching for his killer; and after about a week, he secured an exclusive interview with the victim’s sister.
The work of journalists, he said, “is, in every sense, not just a job; it is a mission.”
Tim’s qualities can prove helpful for young journalists: his readiness when that first news alert landed in his inbox; his doggedness in working his still-developing police sources; and, perhaps most important, the compassion that he showed when interacting with the victim’s family.
Nearly a decade has passed since our work together, but Tim often comes to mind when I read about the erosion of public trust in mainstream media. In the years right after the Watergate scandal, upward of three-quarters of Americans indicated that they had a high level of trust in the media; today, that number has dropped to about one-fifth.
As journalism educators and people in the industry chart a path toward restoring public trust in the media, it is worth taking a closer look at the role of compassion and empathy in journalism.
After nearly a decade at The New York Times and teaching stops at five universities, I am now a professor at the University of Notre Dame, where educating the mind as well as the heart is baked into just about everything we do in the classroom.
Working in collaboration with Victoria St. Martin—a former Washington Post journalist who is my teaching partner and my partner in life—Notre Dame’s journalism program has developed a course that we call Covering America. It is built around experiential learning and is designed to give students a sense of what it takes to cover large-scale national stories, often about traumatic events.
We have to teach future journalists how to break down that wall, how to walk into rooms with compassion.
In March, the class embarked on a reporting trip to Puerto Rico. Students covered the island’s continuing recovery from Hurricane Maria. They interviewed displaced schoolchildren, the residents of a shelter for victims of domestic violence and the members of a youth baseball team that earned its way to the Little League World Series despite the storm.
We also visited the newsroom of El Nuevo Día, where journalists provided heroic coverage of Hurricane Maria. One journalist, the business reporter Joanisabel Gonzalez, told our students simply: “Stay human, stay human. You have to stay human to find the story.”
And as Pope Francis recently reminded journalists, finding those stories is vital.
“Informing others means forming others; it means being in touch with people’s lives,” the pope said last year on World Communications Day. The work of journalists, he said, “is, in every sense, not just a job; it is a mission.”
A way to refocus that mission is to find a renewed sense of compassion.
Ms. St. Martin, when talking with our students, often recalls a memorial that she covered for a boy who was struck and killed on his sixth birthday.
When she went to interview the boy’s relatives, several journalists were already there, afraid to approach the family. Ms. St. Martin walked right up to the family, offered her condolences and gave them a sense of her concern, and they shared their story.
We have to teach future journalists how to break down that wall, how to walk into rooms with compassion and how to see their faces reflected back at them in the faces of the people they interview. This, too, is our mission. This is how we promote goodness. This is how we generate trust.