Feelings can be controversial territory for journalists.
Despite dealing with heart wrenching events that later have long-lasting and concrete effects, emotions have often been disparaged in the industry as being too subjective, or, worse, a sign of weakness.
But the work journalists does take a quantifiable toll on the storytellers in many cases, and, beyond that, bringing one’s visceral reaction into one’s reporting can lead to different, and in many cases, deeper and more compelling stories.
Journalist and journalism instructor Jody Santos explores this terrain in Daring to Feel, a short primer that argues against the objectivity model that has been prevalent in American journalism for a long time and for a more emotionally based and survivor-centered method of storytelling.
The Dart Society, on whose board I sit, unsurprisingly has its imprint on this work.
Center founder and luminary psychiatrist Frank Ochberg, friend and fellow board member Miles Moffeit, and other friends and fellows Kristen Lombardi and David Handschuh all appear in Daring to Feel to a greater or lesser extent.
Santos’ writing and thinking is strongly influenced by Rebecca Campbell, whose work about the emotions experienced by rape survivors I have not yet read. She also draws on the writings of prominent journalism historian Michael Schudson to trace the origins of the objectivity doctrine-a belief whose continuation she ties toward the end of the book to the underrepresentation among newsroom leaders of people of color and women-and then supplies examples of journalists like Daniel Vargas who have told stories in a different way.
A reporter for the Houston Chronicle, Vargas relied on his personal experience of having a sister who was the victim of domestic violence to tell a horrifying series of stories about a man whose estranged husband set her on fire.
To her credit, Santos cites her own journalism as an example of how she in some ways did not meet the mark of writing a sensitive story. Santos explains that a piece she wrote about a rape victim contained a number of elements that subtly shift responsibility for the attack to the victim.
This part of the book has a fascinating analysis of news coverage of the alleged Kobe Bryant rape incident that found that a high percentage of stories had at least one, and in some cases more than dozen, similar statements that shifted the onus of responsibility to the victim.
Santos maintains that post-traumatic growth is possible, and uses McClatchy Middle East correspondent Hannah Allam as an example. Allam, who is Muslim and spent part of her childhood in the Middle East, brought a sensitivity and personal connection to the deaths of children she saw during the Second Gulf War, feeling that they easily could be her family members.
The work hit her hard, and she experienced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder-an experience she has shared publicly about with other journalists. Yet, after a Nieman Fellowship that allowed her time and space away from the battle fields of Baghdad, Allam found within herself a resolve and resilience based on having incorporated her experiences into a sense of meaning and purpose.
Part of the purpose comes in helping others. As part of the spreading of the word about this type of journalism, Santos quotes Handschuh approvingly when he discusses the shampoo television commercial that talks about telling two friends, who tell two friends, and so on and so on.
This organic dissemination will not instantly transform the dominant paradigm, but it may help a growing number of journalists dealing with these issues gain support and perspective. Santos’ book is one part of that worthy process.