Augustana Journalism Students Speak at National College Media Convention

The 10 students who attended the conference, photographed in Dallas by Janet Blank-Libra.

The 10 students who attended the convention, photographed in Dallas by Janet Blank-Libra.
From left to right, Back row: Shi Almont '18, Rebekah Tuscherer '20, Taylor Olson '18, Chloe VanGerpen '20, Jessica Ruf '19 and Jacob Knutson '19; front row: Sophie Geister-Jones '18, Anna Stritecky '19, Stephanie Sanchez '19, and Destiny Pinder-Buckley '20.

Journalism professor Dr. Janet Blank-Libra says there is an apparent disconnect between empathy and objectivity in the news media — and many journalists intentionally eschew empathy in an attempt to remain unbiased. It has even come to be seen as taboo in the media. Four Augustana students, however, are bringing the discussion of empathy into the light and are encouraging more journalists to use it to bring greater truth into their reporting.

“I think using empathy in journalism is something that not enough people are talking — or even thinking — about, even though a lot of famous reporters are empathic,” said Sophie Geister-Jones '18.

They presented their own panel discussion, entitled “Reporting on the Vulnerable: Empathy as a Form of Inquiry,” at the National College Media Convention in Dallas, Texas, in October. Geister-Jones, Jessica Ruf '19, Jacob Knutson '19, and Taylor Olson '18 presented the talk, which they began developing this summer.

“Students don’t typically present sessions at this convention, so I was really proud of them,” said Blank-Libra, who led the trip to Texas.

The convention, which is attended by students from the English and journalism department each year, gives them an opportunity to learn from media professionals on a variety of topics. This year, most of the speakers were journalists from around the Dallas area; however, nationally-known voices, such as former "Face The Nation" host Bob Schieffer, were also present.

Inspired by Blank-Libra’s class, “Persuing an Ethic of Empathy in a Divided World,” the students used examples of news coverage from recent events such as the Myanmar genocide, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy and Hurricane Harvey to show how empathy is important in reporting.

“If reporters do not employ empathy as their form of inquiry, it is very easy to let barriers and stereotypes control the story they write in hopes of remaining 'distant' and 'objective,'" said Olson.

Objectivity and empathy appear at odds, but Blank-Libra teaches that while objectivity is important for truthful reporting, empathy is required to fully understand a person and their situation and to represent them truthfully.

“Oftentimes when we are reporting on a story, we take a lot of baggage with us,” said Blank-Libra.

Knutson sees empathy as an issue of image and credibility.

“Already a significant number of Americans believe that reporters are heartless news hounds, and how future journalists interact with their fellow citizens will, for better or worse, decide how that perception changes,” he said.

Talking publicly about a controversial topic can be nerve-wracking, but the students said the response was positive. “All of the people who came to our speech seemed to be interested in the idea of using empathy as a form of inquiry. They didn't search for holes in our argument or try to argue that objectivity is the only way to go — they simply wanted to learn how they might use empathy to be a better journalist and that was really cool to see,” said Olson.

Mike Shafer '18

Intern, Augustana Marketing & Communications