Reverse empathy is a valuable lesson for journalists, bloggers

When we walk the proverbial mile in someone else's shoes, empathy grows.

When we walk the proverbial mile in someone else's shoes, empathy grows.

From my own experiences over the years, I'd strongly suggest that journalists would be well served if more of them went through something fairly rare in the business: having journalism done to them.

When I was in college, I served on a statewide commission that got some press. Later, I played music for a living, and my band was sufficiently popular that we appeared in the media from time to time. More recently, I've been involved in citizen-media projects that have gotten some attention from other journalists.

I've been slammed once or twice. In most cases, though, stories written about me or my work have been essentially sympathetic. Most have been fair.

Moreover, it's extremely helpful when a journalist whom one respects looks at the same events and sees them in a different way. This has happened to me several times in the past year, when solid reporters interpreted things in a way that I found surprising and, after thinking about it, instructive.

But even in the friendliest pieces, there's almost always been something slightly off - a quote out of context or an interpretation that wasn't what I meant - and small errors of fact have been common.

Now, in my nearly 25 years as a professional journalist, I made my share of mistakes. (Once, at my first daily newspaper, I spelled a company's name wrong, a goof I never made again.) But I'm convinced that my own experiences in being covered have made me more careful. As a columnist, I took strong stands and at times said unpleasant things about people and their institutions, but I always tried to be fair and precise.

The rise of blogging and other conversational media has given a platform to a new generation of media critics. Some bloggers are prone to shooting long before they aim, and others are doing it solely to vex journalists with whom they disagree. But no one can doubt that blogger-watchdogs are having a positive impact, too, as they force professionals into more transparency and hold them accountable for their work.

Some journalists, having been taken to task in the blogosphere, have made the mistake of declaring bloggers irrelevant. When attacks feel personal, that's an all-too-human reaction. Yet it's essential to separate the personal from the factual content and to remember that we tend to learn more from people who disagree with us than from people who think we're right.

If it's useful for journalists to have been covered, it might be equally beneficial if the people we cover understood more about the journalism process. The way journalism is done - an always hurried and often half-baked system - makes it difficult for even the most careful people to get things exactly right.

As more and more people in public life start writing blogs and using other conversational media, they'll learn these lessons, sometimes the hard way. But they'll also learn some reverse empathy for the people they tend to disdain today.

Dan Gillmor is the author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People. His blog is at bayosphere.com/blog/dangillmor. He is also director of the Center for Citizen Media (www.citmedia.com/blog).

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