Compassionate Journalism

“When we settle our attention on other people’s feelings and needs, we experience our common humanity. … I’ve learned that I enjoy human beings more if I [focus] on what’s going on in their hearts and [don’t get] caught up with the stuff in their heads.”

-Marshall Rosenberg (Nonviolent Communication, p.151)

Lately I’ve been wondering what it would look like to create a news source based on the practices of compassionate communication. What would it be like to report the news in a way that focuses attention on people’s feelings and needs rather than their judgements and opinions?

As an experiment, I started re-writing an existing news article and quickly realized that the effort would require going back to the source and performing new interviews — asking a different set of questions to try to uncover what the various parties were feeling and needing.

So for the next experiment, I took one of Marshall Rosenberg’s dialogues as the basis for a hypothetical news segment. Here is part of the interview:

Palestinian crowd: “Murderer! Assassin! Child-killer!”

American interviewer: “Are you angry because you would like my government to use its resources differently?”

Palestinian man: “Damn right I’m angry! You think we need tear gas? We need sewers, not your tear gas! We need housing! We need to have our own country!”

Interviewer: “So you’re furious and would appreciate some support in improving your living conditions and gaining political independence?”

Man: “Do you know what it’s like to live here for twenty-seven years the way I have with my family—children and all? Have you got the faintest idea what that’s been like for us?”

Interviewer: “Sounds like you’re feeling very desperate and you’re wondering whether I or anybody else can really understand what it’s like to be living under these conditions. Am I hearing you right?”

Man: “You want to understand? Tell me, do you have children? Do they go to school? Do they have playgrounds? My son is sick! He plays in open sewage! His classroom has no books! Have you seen a school that has no books?”

Interviewer: “I hear how painful it is for you to raise your children here; you want what all parents want for their children—a good education, opportunity to play and grow in a healthy environment…”

Man: “That’s right, the basics! Human rights—isn’t that what you Americans call it? …”

How might a journalist report on her experience in Palestine?

  • Palestinians View American Involvement as Child Murder
  • Palestinians Furious Over American Participation In Conflict
  • Palestinians Request Desperately Needed Supplies and Infrastructure

All of these versions are equally true — they just emphasize different aspects of the truth. The first reports on what people are thinking; the second reveals what people are feeling; and the third focuses on what people are needing and requesting.

I can feel the wide disparity in my own reactions to these headlines. The first puts me on the defensive, with tightening muscles and a desire to fight back or hurl my own accusations. The second feels neutral; it sounds reasonable. The third softens and opens my body as I imagine the difficult situation.

The news is not simply an impartial collection of facts. It reflects a series of choices about which facts are included and how they are framed. Nonviolent communication demonstrates how to look for shared human experience rather than judgements and blame. It seems possible to me that by focusing on the human needs driving current events, compassionate journalism could actively promote empathy toward a wide range of people and situations.

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