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Brianna McNeal, a 2016 track and field Olympic champion whose recovery from an abortion inadvertently launched a World Athletics investigation, told me that past interviews on the subject had made her too afraid to say everything she wanted to say.
At The 19th, our standard is clear: We cover everyone with empathy.
I was honored when McNeal said she felt comfortable opening up about the emotional weight she had been carrying for over a year. She had had an abortion. Her younger brother had died. And an organization governing her livelihood seemed unable to acknowledge that upheaval.
“A lot of these things, I get so nervous and I get anxious and afraid, and I end up not speaking how I want,” she told me towards the end of our interview over the phone.
“And I’m later like — I wish I said this or I forgot to say this. But this was easy, I would say, to communicate about it.”
An interview that prevents someone in a vulnerable position from saying everything they want to say — from painting a full picture of their circumstances and emotions to the reporter — is another hindrance for newsrooms as they learn to accurately report on marginalized communities.
I think this is an especially important lesson for White men reporters, like myself, to learn. Responsible reporting demands “baseline literacy in trauma concepts,” as Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, wrote last month.
The importance of journalists being trauma-informed is evident in Naomi Osaka and Sha’Carri Richardson’s stories, too. Osaka, fined $15,000 for not speaking to the media, called for press conferences to be more empathetic in her TIME magazine essay on Thursday. Richardson said she first learned of her biological mother’s death from a reporter.
Establishing empathy with a source, showing that you appreciate what they’ve been through, is key to establishing baseline trust with them — especially if you experience the world in an entirely different way than they do.
“It’s hard for me not to sit here and cry, honestly,” McNeal told me at one point in our conversation, after reflecting on the emotional burdens that the case, her abortion, and losing her baby brother had put on her and her family.
McNeal’s raw emotional honesty is what propelled our story forward and connected with readers — and using empathy to earn that kind of honesty should be a priority for reporters.