I’m going to borrow a quote from Ted Conover who, in turn, borrowed it from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
“If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
That notion is a central tenet of “the journalism of empathy.” (Conover quoted Lee in his syllabus for a course of that name at NYU.) Practitioners of this type of reporting include Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Katherine Boo and Alex Kotlowitz. In radio, I’d say the practice includes producers like David Isay and Jay Allison among many others.
A brand new podcast from WPLN is an excellent example of the journalism of empathy. It’s produced by Meribah Knight who cites Kotlowitz and Isay among her heroes.
Meribah, my guest on HowSound, spent nearly a year reporting on The James A. Cayce Homes, Nashville’s largest public housing project. The city is poised to re-develop Cayce, refashioning it into a mixed-income neighborhood. The city has promised not to uproot the community in the process. Meribah pledged to document that promise, hence the podcast’s name, The Promise.
The Promise is easily some of the best local reporting I’ve heard in a long time. It’s enterprising, comprehensive, and effectively serves public radio’s mission. On top of that, each episode is a good story, well told.
Here are a couple of quick tips on Meribah’s approach to empathic reporting.