Sympathetic Objectivity Part 4

By , posted August 1, 2013 at 6:18 am


Skepticism and its journalistic embodiment investigative journalism are essential options for the reporter. In the first place the reporter needs to reflect skeptically on his own “sympathy” – is it just a poise to manipulate interviewees or is it real? It is so easy to fool oneself about one’s own virtue.

Second, a reporter needs to be tough-minded in asking questions about the details of someone’s assertions. The reporter needs specific, concrete details to properly inform the reader and to write rich, interesting stories. Bloviation should be avoided at all costs. Then, the reporter needs the details so that claims can be checked. The audience wants to be able to trust the report that they are reading.

Effective skepticism starts with a deep insight into where the religious person is coming from. It understands the emotional structure of the person, his or her social world, and the benefits of the person’s beliefs. This is one reason sympathetic objectivity might be a better starting place an interview, even one that might lead to skepticism.

Furthermore, if the reporter has already established a genuine sympathy with the actors in a situation, the reporter has acquired a lot of trust, a social capital that can be helpful in a controversy. The audience may not like a critical report about their religion, but if the reporter has already demonstrated a genuine sympathy and empathy, many people will respond with a grudging appreciation of the discovery of a problem that needs to be addressed.

This doesn’t always happen of course. When reporters uncovered a multi-hundred million ponzi game against nonprofits and religious groups, their reports caused pain among its victims and anger from its perpetrators. The case ended up in federal court and a conviction. A friend of the criminal would hiss at reporters in court, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself! You are disgusting!” As an elder in his church, the criminal’s friend unsuccessfully tried to bring a reporter to a trial before the elders and thrown out of a church.

A reporter here in New York City chided that sympathy is destructive of good journalism. She asked, “What about Hitler? The British journalists were sympathetic to him and became enamored with him. George Orwell wrote scathingly about their pro-Hitler journalism.” Another journalist, who reports from Hong Kong, challenged, “How can I be sympathetic with people who lay off people and give themselves a bonus?”

A local editor recently observed that sympathetic objectivity would not work out in practice, saying, “I guess I am just cynical.” He believed that the groupies around a famous figure only want praise for their hero, not anything negative. He ask me, “How are you going to use sympathetic objectivity on Lance Armstrong?” The editor believes that Armstrong’s idolizers are examples of human nature wanting to believe in perfection, and when disappointed, walking away in disgust. “They were never realistic in the first place. How could Armstrong do all the things that he did without cheating?” Cynically, the editor believes that the fans demanded Armstrong to be perfect. So, Armstrong in effect entered into a conspiracy with his fans to cheat. He believes that a sympathetically objective reporter would have only elicited fawning praise for Armstrong before the scandal and savage scorn afterwards.

These were pretty good challenges by good journalists! A reporter cannot become too placid about evils or too shortsighted to see the development of cruelties within religions (and among fierce opponents of religions).

Orwell’s strength as a reporter was that he was rooted in his own empathy and fairness to the people about whom he reported. In his diaries of the World War II years Orwell wrote of his deep skepticism of the official accounts about how the war was going. At the same time he acknowledged the difficulties that the British government was having in balancing out different priorities of truthfulness and averting panic. His empathy with the British officials in no way cut off his skepticism.

The Hong Kong based reporter believes that sympathetic objectivity’s sunny disposition will end up as love for the Wall Street cutthroats.

However, even Wall Streeters have fears, doubts, guilt and moral qualms. As they marched us headlong into an economic destruction, their look at the abyss was truly unsettling to them. There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with trying to understand how they justified their actions along the way and then regretted them at the end. Before the crash one financier, the head of his company, who made money by selling derivatives based on real estate, worried, “I think we will crash but we survive this time around. Right now, I can only stretch a dollar of value into thirty dollars of derivatives. But next time, we may figure out how to stretch one dollar into a hundred dollars of securities. Not even the U.S. government will be able to save us then. I worry about what will happen to my children.”

The financier started a reconsideration of his business, but he felt that while he might be able to change his business, that it would be too hard to change the general situation before there was a crash. He turned out to be right.

On the Monday, September 15, 2008 that Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, quite a few financiers were fearful deep in their bones. The fear in the marrows also affected Wall Streeters who were rooted in their religious faith. An employee of one of the largest investment banks told a reporter about how he felt after assuring his wife on Sunday night that everything would be alright. Actually, he was not restful. As he lay with his wife in bed, he thought that he had no idea what would happen on Monday morning when Lehman Brothers would declare bankruptcy. “Maybe, I will be out of a job.” Then, he recounted, “I looked at my wife and thought of my children and realized that they and God were the things that mattered in life. As long as I had them, I had what mattered even if I didn’t have a job.”

Outside of Wall Street, skepticism about their actions was rising. Despite their protestations that they were also victims,  Wall Streeters stood accused before the principle that the “big fellows,” no matter how they feel, have more responsibility to act to prevent a crisis and fraud in their industry than the little folk. The guy furthest down the food chain doesn’t have the same ability to see through the false promises of the bankers. True, they should have used the principle that “if it is too good to be true, then it probably isn’t true.” But a sympathetically objective banker would also want to be aware of the pain that his high finance stratagems were inflicting. Further, the bankers in other departments shouldn’t just dismiss the cries of pain because “it wasn’t in my section of the building.” The turning of the blind eye by Wall Street New Yorkers was a white collar version of the way neighbors were said to ignore the cries for help by Kitty Genovese as she was stabbed to death in Kew Gardens, Queens in 1964. At the time the murder story stunned the city into deep reflection about whom we had become.

The cynical editor might pursue several different alternatives that are consistent with sympathetic objectivity. So, if his trained instinct is that someone is lying, then he should probably act accordingly. A daily news editor is used to sizing up a situation rapidly and to running across more than his fair share of scoundrels and nincompoops. However, he shouldn’t generalize his skepticism into cynicism. Second, knocking on someone’s door as if they were a friendly neighbor gets a lot more interviews and readership than knocking down the door as if on a police raid. Try knocking first, maybe with a plate of cookies as a sweetener. (I can imagine his eyes rolling now.) Third, if there are alarming sounds or disquieting silence behind the door, maybe one ought to become more objective and even skeptical to investigate what is going on. However, if you have already knocked on doors with friendship down the block, you will have back up if things go bad. Sympathetic objectivity makes reporting a lot easier and safer, and the community is prepared to more readily lend a hand.

Fast Company’s Jeff Chu tweeted a neat summary, “Get more bang for your buck with empathy first. Open ears and heart makes for better interviews. Skepticism later, if needed.”


Originally appeared in A Journey through NYC religions, March 6, 2013.

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