Balancing Empathy and Objectivity in a Pandemic

“Hi, how are you?” isn’t a phrase I use much over the phone anymore. Since the coronavirus pandemic began my standard professional opening has fast become less perfunctory, more personal: “How are you holding up? Are you hanging in there? How’s your family doing?”

Sometimes there’s a pause, or a nervous laugh. Other times, words come flooding out in a tumble. But on the other end of the line, I hear the uncertainty, the exhaustion, the raw emotion in people’s voices.

Journalistic objectivity can express itself as a coldness, a remove. Reporters normally don’t want to get too cozy with sources, lest we blur ethical lines, or sow confusion about what’s on and off the record. We keep in mind that our interviewees are human beings with feelings, of course, though perhaps we don’t overtly express that understanding as we press for facts, precision, and logic. 

The coronavirus has changed this calculation for me. Upending so much of what we took for granted, this crisis has shifted the way I interact with and interview sources every day. Most importantly, I feel the duty to explicitly acknowledge my source’s emotions. It’s not only the kind thing to do, it’s necessary to ascertain in what state I’m reaching someone. Are they scared? Sleep-deprived? Occupied with thoughts about their sick aunt rather than our conversation about direct-to-consumer sales platforms? 

I then need to be aware of, and forgiving of, ways in which these emotions will color our discussion. Lately sources have struggled to tell stories in a linear way, for example. (People don’t always recount stories in precise chronological order anyway, but time seems like it’s passing erratically these days, and linear thinking seems broken and inadequate in the face of global panic.) This requires more prompting and pointed questioning: “When exactly did that happen? Why did you make that decision? How did X lead to Y?”

It also requires delicacy in challenging a source’s assertions that might be rooted more deeply in emotion than fact. When a brewery owner tells me they’re going to reopen as soon as possible and get business back to normal, I try to tread lightly. Journalistically, I need to question them further. Business is unlikely to return to normal right away, and consumer polls and economic projections indicate a slow recovery. But on a human level, I get it. A lack of economic certainty can be crippling and hope is a powerful tool. Sometimes it’s our only refuge. My task is to push back, gently, and with compassion. 

I can’t say I’ve perfected it. But I try, because I need the give to go both ways. I hope sources are more patient with me when I ask difficult questions. I hope they cut me some slack if I sound anxious or impatient. Our lives have changed traumatically in the past couple months, and we’re all reeling. Failure to acknowledge that would make me a pretty callous human, and a pretty shitty reporter.

Kate Bernot is a Sightlines reporter for Good Beer Hunting and a contributing editor to Craft Beer & Brewing based in Missoula, Montana

Leave a Reply