Frenemy of the People

Are you a real millennial if you don’t have your own podcast? Well…I’m about to find out. Last week I launched Frenemy of the People, a podcast about journalism and trust. It includes conversations with reporters and editors about the work they do, plus broader discussions about “the media,” how readers/viewers/listeners relate to it, and vice versa.

FOTPart

You can hear the teaser here now, and the first episode should be dropping tomorrow, October 1!

This was one of those projects that just kept tugging at me, even when I tried to convince myself that it wouldn’t be worth the time/potential blowback. But eventually I felt like I couldn’t not do it, so I did.

I’m still figuring out the whole audio production thing. Believe it or not a big part of my graduate program was focused on audio production, but back then I had access to much better software… which reminds me, if you like the podcast – or even just the idea of it – and want it to be even better, please consider contributing via Patreon.

 

What a year.

Happy New Year, folks!

It will not surprise you to read that I’ve been struggling a bit with how to approach this blog over the past year or so. I love writing about empathy, but while writing a whole 60,000-word book on the subject the thought of also writing blog posts on the topic was exhausting. I also felt like I didn’t have much new to say here that I wasn’t saving for my book. I love summarizing research that I come across, but a) I don’t often have the time to do the proper reporting and make sure my analysis is accurate and b) that’s frankly kind of boring to a lot of people!

I think I felt like because I was writing a book about empathy I needed to specifically brand my blog that way, but it ended up just constraining me. There are so many things I want to write about in more than a few tweets, but that probably won’t get picked up as freelance articles. That middle ground is what blogging is best at, and I think as I continue to grow as a writer it makes sense to flex that muscle here more often.

I’m not going back to long descriptions of my weekend activities (lol, 2012 me…) and I’ll continue to avoid long political rants, but I need to do more here than just post links to empathy-related science articles every once in a while. I’ve been thinking a lot about transparency – as it relates to tech, but also as it relates to journalism – so in that vein, why don’t I tell y’all a bit about what this book writing process has been like?

It has been long. That’s something a lot of people told me to prepare for at the beginning but I still don’t think I was ready. I am an impatient person. It’s something I’ve kind of embraced about my personality but it doesn’t always serve me. It can be great for project management and even for reporting; it’s not so great for long projects whose steps I can’t always control. I started working on the book that became THE FUTURE OF FEELING in 2016. I think it was summer, and I was at a bar in Brooklyn with my husband talking about the next thing. That year’s thing for us had been getting married. I always seem to have a thing, and my brain was itching for the next one. I had always known I wanted to write a book, but I assumed I’d have to work diligently as a reporter at a newspaper or magazine for at least 10 years before I would know enough about anything to write a whole book on it.

I don’t know if it was the atmosphere or the beer or my obsessive need to start on something new, but that day I just decided – I’m gonna do it. I’m just gonna start. I’d been thinking a lot about how natural empathy can seem but how hard it can actually be to practice, and how the extremely online life I’d led since age 14 or so had seriously complicated how I related to and understood other humans. This idea itself wasn’t new and had been written about a ton already. But what about what was coming next? I’m always thinking (read: worrying) about the future, and looking back at how quickly tech – social media, especially – had taken over my own life and those of my peers, I wondered what was in store for us next. I’d tried to find books about this, but mostly came up empty. So, that day at the bar – Abilene, in Carroll Gardens – I just decided I would write one.

I did not suddenly feel qualified, or smart enough, or talented enough to write a book. But I had decided to go to grad school and made it, decided to move to New York and survived…maybe I could do this the same way. Make the decision first, figure out the details later. And that’s what I did. Frankly I’m still figuring out the details, but I started by googling “how to write a nonfiction book.” I also asked for help from a huge Facebook network of writers I was part of at the time. I ended up finding several websites that helped me figure out the basic process – initial reporting, proposal, find an agent, revise proposal, go out on submission, (hopefully) secure a publisher, write book, make a few bucks if you’re lucky, start again.

The first part – initial reporting and writing the proposal – took the longest. I’d say I started seriously reporting in mid-2016, and then I started the proposal on December 29, 2016. I remember because I took a photo of my laptop and coffee at the coffee shop I was at and posted it on Instagram, of course. (Funnily enough, that coffee shop was in North Carolina not too far from where I now live.) I followed a couple of guides that I found online to create a format for the proposal (overview, chapter outlines, competing titles, sample chapters, author bio, etc.) but I was kind of lost as to how to really fill it in. I was lucky to have an amazing writing group in New York that met every week – unheard of, really. Without their encouragement, accountability and criticism I might still be working on the damn thing. Thankfully they helped me get it into shape throughout 2017 and by the end of the year I was ready to send it to agents.

2018 was the year of the book. It all happened. I queried 12 agents during the first and second week of January. I got a couple of very encouraging rejections, a bunch of no-replies, and two requests for the proposal. Of those, one agent never responded again, and one said yes. I could have kept going, but I really liked the one who said yes (she had experience with books like mine, understood what I was trying to accomplish with this project, and we got along on a personal level), so by the end of January I was agented. My understanding is that this was relatively quick, but not out of the ordinary for a nonfiction book. (Fiction is a whole other story.) I remember I got the call from my agent – Jill Marsal – at work in Brooklyn while I was waiting for another call, from my now-boss in North Carolina. When my phone rang I didn’t really look at the number and just picked up, expecting an answer about the job in NC. When I heard Jill’s voice I was so surprised that I didn’t know how to respond to her telling me that yes, she wanted to represent me. (Later I got the other call, and in a couple of weeks I was down here in NC – 2018 really started off wild.)

Jill and I worked for a few weeks on my proposal, and when it was ready to go on submission she kept me updated with the responses – lots and lots of rejections! But one thing I’ve learned is that if people are rejecting you it means they’re reading your work and considering it. They know your name, they know your work exists, they read and thought about it – in the creative world, that’s no small thing. But eventually someone said yes – Little A, an imprint of Amazon Publishing. It was early May when I signed the contract to officially write THE FUTURE OF FEELING.

Then…I had to finish it. I had written a couple of sample chapters and done some research, but I hadn’t wanted to pour too much time into reporting a book that may or may not be published. Now that I knew it was real, I had to get serious. I created a more detailed outline that changed approximately 7,239 times throughout the process only to end up basically the way it was at the beginning. I set deadlines for myself for each chapter and section. I read other books, gobbled up google alerts for “empathy + tech” and “empathy + study” and reached out to dozens of people for interviews. I was happy to find that most of the experts and practitioners I emailed were happy to get on the phone or Skype and talk to me about empathy – or the lack of it – in tech, and about what they were doing to try to fix this. I interviewed people in the US, Canada and Ireland. I went to a VR conference in New York and tested some of the tech I was writing about. I had piles and piles of printed out articles and notes and thousands and thousands of words of transcribed interviews. It was a lot, but honestly, it was not as hard as writing the initial proposal. I had the foundation, I just had to build the house. Sometimes I felt like I was following very well-designed blueprints; sometimes I felt like I was throwing sticks at concrete and hoping they’d somehow form walls. Toward the end, I started just throwing my notes to the side and vomit-writing, just getting ideas out in a stream of consciousness so they’d at least be on the page. If I’m honest, that’s how I wrote most of the first draft. I just threw it into Word, questions to myself and musings about my interview subjects and all-caps reminders included.

Then I did the unthinkable – I let people read it like that. With the caveat that it clearly wasn’t done (and the persistent thought that I really didn’t know what else to do and it might actually just stay in this state forever) I emailed chapters to friends and fellow writers and asked them what they thought. I got some niceties and a lot of “oops I forgot to read it!” messages, but I also got some really helpful feedback. I started revising, using a red pen to make structural changes and tiny line edits. Then, about halfway through, I put it aside and ignored it for a month.

I felt kind of paralyzed. I was working full time throughout this whole thing, plus reading the news every day (which is exhausting in itself these days) and by November I was burnt out. I asked myself nearly every day for a couple of weeks whether I had made anything remotely readable and if I should just give back the advance and pretend this never happened. This is a very common – and some would argue necessary – part of book-writing, I’m told! And I did snap out of it. At the beginning of December I took a solo trip up north. I made the rookie mistake of telling my editor I’d be in town. She wasn’t, but suggested I send her what I had anyway. I was so close to the end…I decided I would send her the whole thing, even though it technically wasn’t due until January 4.

I went to New York for one night and one day to see a concert and connect with a couple of writer friends. We commiserated and confessed our insecurities to one another. It was exactly what I needed. I headed to my grandmother’s house in Connecticut and on the train ride there and over two days in her sun room I finished revising, reorganizing and rewriting the whole damn thing. I subsisted on Christmas candy, bagels, and ginger ale. I barely moved from the wooden table except to watch a movie with her one evening in the living room. My trip was cut short by an impending snowstorm and just as I was freaking out about this my editor emailed to say she wouldn’t have time to read anything for a few more days. With a huge sigh of relief, I booked it back to North Carolina and just as the storm descended, I finished. And I sent it. And I breathed.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was done. (That should probably be on my tombstone.) Then all I had to do was wait for my editor’s verdict. Would she see huge problems and ask me to make major revisions in the few weeks before my official delivery date? Would she love it and tell me I didn’t need to make any edits at all? (Ha! Obviously I spent significantly more time on the first what-if.) I had a lot of work to do at my day job in the meantime, and Christmas festivities were beginning, so I was blissfully distracted a lot of the time. Then on the 21st, the day before my long holiday break from work, my editor emailed to say she wasn’t done, but she liked what she saw so far, and I could consider myself submitted. I cried a little, I’m not gonna lie. And then I went to a Christmas party and got very drunk with some of my best friends.

There is still a lot of work ahead. Revisions start next week and will take a couple of months. Then there are all the parts I know have to be there but I don’t know how they work – the cover, marketing, actually getting the book in stores, etc. The pub date is still a year away. (I told you – it’s a long process!) I’m already thinking about my next book (or 2…) and a podcast project I want to do this year. And my husband and I are house hunting. And yet I still feel like I don’t have “enough” going on for 2019…!

I hope this was interesting for some of you. Maybe you’re thinking of writing a nonfiction book and you didn’t know where to start. Or maybe you just enjoy reading about my meltdowns throughout the process. I still feel new at this, but if you have any questions I’d be happy to try to help. And look out for more in this space in 2019!

The Future of Feeling

Hi all! It’s been kind of quiet here recently because I’ve been working on a pretty big project that I can now finally announce: I’m writing a book!

It’s about empathy, of course. The future of empathy and technology, to be more precise. I get to interview lots of people who are creating technology aimed at building and/or preserving empathy in our tech-obsessed world, and it’s honestly a dream come true.

I’ll still be blogging here a bit. Even 60,000 words isn’t enough to cover everything empathy ;) And I want to thank all of you for reading –  you helped me get here!

Stay tuned for updates, and more nerdy posts in the coming months.

A conversation with Sue Schardt

“My belief is that we must begin with our hearts.”

By a great many accounts, journalists failed their readers during the most recent U.S. election season. Some argue we’d been failing long before that, generalizing or simply ignoring large swaths of the electorate. Others say we have ourselves been unfairly maligned, too little attention paid to the challenges and (in some cases) dangers of our jobs. The truth, as usual, is probably somewhere in between. But in an effort to make things better, many practitioners and observers have called for the same thing: empathy. The trouble with that, particularly in the era of politicized “fake news,” is that empathy can seem at odds with the other things people expect from journalists: neutrality and objectivity.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. How do we strike the right balance, as journalists, between gaining the intellectual and emotional trust of our audiences? How do we project both objectivity and empathy? Should we?

To start getting at the answers to these questions, I spoke with Sue Schardt, president of Schardt Media and CEO of AIR Inc., a network of audio journalists and storytellers. In 2015, AIR launched the third iteration of Localore: Finding America, a collaborative multimedia storytelling effort led by 15 teams of independent radio journalists embedded for nine months in communities around the country with the goal of inventing new ways of storytelling. Sue doesn’t shy away from talking about the importance of things like love and compassion in reporting, so I spoke with her about the role of empathy in journalism and where reporters can ethically go from here. Here’s a bit of our conversation:

Kaitlin Ugolik: Please tell me a bit about your work with AIR. What’s the goal of recent projects like Localore?

Sue Schardt: It begins with the understanding and belief that we need to break away from and remake the way we create stories. AIR is a big network, but the role of any journalist is trying to reflect something of the human experience. More broadly, we are at a point in the 50th anniversary year of public media where it’s evolved into what is really a national treasure, but it’s done that by cultivating a predominantly white, highly-educated, affluent class of citizens. Our work with Localore and Finding America is very much aimed at this question of what is next on the frontier. How do we live up to the original mandate for public broadcasting, which is to serve all of the people? We’re at a really wonderful moment in that history, and it happens to coincide with the realities of this roiling, disruptive time in politics and in the world.

KU: What do you think is the role of empathy in all of that? Is it appropriate for us as journalists to embrace it explicitly, or does that compromise our objectivity in your opinion?

SS: We hire independent producers and embed them at public media stations across the country, and we are sending them out to places where public media is not deeply engaged, so they have to do a baseline first, they have to place themselves there and observe and absorb. That means allowing themselves to feel. That’s not an abstract thing. It starts, I believe, in the heart. The heart informs the brain, the direction, all the rest. I believe the outcome when one allows that sort of approach is different. This whole construct of objectivity and balance and fairness, this idea that there’s mutual exclusivity, that you can’t feel love or can’t feel a place and also be objective…I think it’s something we very much have to question.

KU: Is there any sense that it might be dangerous to risk pushing the pendulum too far in the other direction, though, and getting too involved with subjects especially when they’re already skeptical?

SS: I think now is a time where we have to give our craft people enormous permission to follow their instincts and do what they feel is right. I have a producer who relocated from Maryland to Kansas City to do a project. He said to me, ‘If you had told me that as part of this project I would be spending every Tuesday morning at Bible study, I would have laughed in your face. If you had told me sometimes I’d even be leading Bible study…that would be totally insane.’ That was a revelation to me.

KU: I can see both the benefits and potential concerns with an approach like that. What, in your view, are the benefits to allowing reporters to pay more attention to their emotional connections to people and places they cover?

SS: This idea that you can’t have objective fairness and balance as a journalist is firmly rooted. But perspective is a very essential part of being a good journalist. If you follow that thought line, you can see that that which expands one’s vision and one’s understanding will inform and advance one’s ability to practice their craft to a higher level. That can be achieved by reading more books and articles and essays and having an expanded palette of intellectual comprehension, but we have to be brave enough and have enough courage to say that equally as legitimate is this compassion component. It’s part of who we are as human beings. If our goal is to tell a different story or a more broadly reflective story of America, we have to be able to go into places and approach them in an entirely new way.

See Sue Schardt’s media predictions for 2017 here

Interested in empathy? Check this out.

Today, the Huffington Post has a big list of ways to incorporate more empathy into your life this year . I’ve been ramping up my writing about empathy, but not here. I won’t be using WordPress anymore after next week. So if you want to read more of my writing about empathy, please subscribe to my newsletter here. You will get an intro email, and then just two emails each month. I would really hate to lose the conversations with all of you when I make the move, so I hope you’ll join me!

 

It’s not just about politics

Would you say you’ve lost friends because of this election?

That’s an issue that keeps coming up on social media, and plenty of think pieces have already been written, lamenting the death of politics-free relationships and telling us that if we are losing friends we are “doing it wrong.” One recent piece in the New York Times idealized the writer’s 1950s-style neighborhood, where everyone is apparently aware that people hold differing views, but no one talks about it, so no one argues.

I think it’s worth asking ourselves who benefits from these attitudes, and who loses. Who was life great for during the 1950s, for example? And what does it actually say about me if I agree that, quoting one of the articles linked above, I wish I didn’t “know that [my] nephew is a hard-core Trump fanboy?” I understand that we value differing opinions in this country, and that we are fiercely individualistic. Personal choices are paramount. But what about when those decisions affect other people? And not just their feelings or their preferences, but their livelihood? What if the political things you’re avoiding discussing are vital to the personal things you know and love about your neighbors?

I have lost a couple of friends (and a relationship with at least one family member) during the course of this election. But just as in the past when a friend and I cut ties after a political or social issues disagreement, I can’t point to the election as the actual cause. Disagreements and elections are flash points. They are storms that highlight and uncover weak spots. I can’t pretend to speak for everyone, of course, but in my experience, and in the experience of most of my peers who have cut ties with people “over the election,” the reasons are much more nuanced than “we disagree.” I’ll just share a bit of my own experience:

I have never “unfriended” someone simply because they align themselves with a different political ideology than I do. I have, however, unfriended someone who aligned themselves with a different political ideology and regularly sought me out to serve as a “token,” to answer for all who share my views and defend them. After a while, I realized this person never seemed willing to interrogate her own beliefs, and she never seemed to want to talk to me about anything else. She was also very flippant about things that I find extremely important, and ignored my efforts to discuss these things more deeply. Why should I maintain this “friendship” just to avoid being called “closed-minded?”

I have never “unfriended” someone simply because they disagreed with me about a social issue. I have, however, unfriended someone who argued with me for hours in private messages about basic facts related to various issues and made many comments that could not be described any other way than “blatantly racist.” She lectured me about various things without allowing any disagreement, no matter how civil. Any suggestion that she consider a different view was met with defensiveness and accusations that I was insulting her intelligence. Ultimately, while trying to have a discussion about the respect we wished to have from one another, she declared that her respect for me came in the form of “not writing you off as a lost soul even though I think you are dead wrong.” Should I have kept subjecting myself – and her – to that for the sake of appearing to be “open-minded?”

Here’s the thing. We need limits on how far we open our minds. We can’t accept everything, right? We put limits on how much we will “take” from people in our personal lives all the time (or we should!) We put limits on what we will believe (at least most of us, I think!) We don’t all draw those lines in the same places, but as a society, we have generally agreed to draw some of them, at least in pencil. We have agreed that slavery is bad, Jim Crow was bad and shouldn’t be replicated, stealing is bad, murdering is bad, all individuals have rights, etc. There will be individuals who don’t agree with these things, but generally, as a rule, we accept them in order to move forward.

The thing about this election – this particular flash point, this particular storm – is that it is highlighting those individuals. It is giving a larger platform to people who believe that slavery is bad, but; Jim Crow was bad, except; all individuals have rights, unless. Some of this is about fear and misinformation. I’ve read all of the pieces humanizing Trump supporters; I understand that there are legitimate economic horror stories that have led some people his way. But this is not an ordinary election. Politics aside, the derogatory things Trump says about women, immigrants, Muslims and people of color are not part of our generally accepted agreements that help move society forward. When I bring this up, I am regularly reminded that it’s “just words.” All I can say in response is that it is not “just words” if you are a woman, an immigrant, a Muslim or a person of color. It is not “just words” when those words incite fear and violence, and when they inform actual policies that do actual harm to people.

I don’t think life is better when we avoid talking about politics, because, as the old adage goes, politics is personal. Especially in a year like this, when the personal livelihoods of so many are at stake. I want to talk about these things with people who are different from me. I want to consider the skepticism of people who don’t believe these things are true. I want to listen to their fears, their concerns, even their conspiracies. I want to take these things in and use them to keep building the ever-evolving context of this election, of this cultural moment, in my mind. I don’t want to be a sounding board for slurs, logical fallacies, blatant untruths or manipulation. I don’t want to entertain homophobia, transphobia, racism, or misogyny. I want the same respect and open-mindedness that is demanded of me. And that’s where the break – when it comes to that – happens.

I understand that often, people I know will hold views that I believe are dangerous, and that they will disagree on that point. They will believe that what they believe is right and fair and OK. I accept that I have a responsibility to have conversations about these things with these people. For me at least, the unfriending happens when those conversations are not honest, when the other person insists that I self-reflect and learn but refuses to do it themselves, when they are combative, and when they belittle, condescend to, chastise and insult me. Those are not the qualities of a friend or relative with whom I can have a real relationship. That’s not a closed mind – it’s a healthy boundary. And it’s a risk of talking openly about politics that seems worth taking.

* * *

While I was in the middle of writing this post, I came across this similar piece on HuffPo that expresses my own feelings, with some exceptions. I hope I’ve been able to articulate those exceptions above.

What we can say, and whether we should

I love the First Amendment. I really do. It’s why I have my job. It’s why you get to watch bro movies and cooking shows on Netflix. It’s a big part of the reason that this country even exists. Obviously, with the good comes the bad. The First Amendment – the inability for the U.S. government to make laws that abridge freedom of speech, religion and assembly – is also the reason we have things like Donald Trump and naturalnews.com. It’s give and take, but ultimately it’s worth it.

In college, I took a media law class that included a moot court experience. It was SCOTUS role play, and I was nicknamed “Ruth.” If you know me, that’s probably not surprising. I don’t remember what case we discussed, but I remember it was about the First Amendment, and I remember grappling with this idea that yes, even horrible things people say are, for the most part, legal, and cannot be censored by the government. At the time, I was still learning what it really meant to be a journalist, and what kind of power a writer can have. I was learning my own voice, and the responsibility that I would have once I published something – anything, journalism or not. I remember sitting in the small auditorium, channeling RBG but fielding so many emotions. Some things are just wrong, I thought, and we should discuss why. But in that class, and in my brief encounter with studying for the LSAT and my 3+ years writing about the law, I learned that there’s a big difference between what’s legal and what’s “right.” There is overlap, sure. But while Little Kait once believed that laws were made only to help people and ensure everyone got along while living the American Dream, Grown Up Kait understands there is nuance. Thankfully, there is also ethics.

Today, an essay on xoJane in which one woman shared her opinions and feelings about another woman’s mental illness and death, went viral. The author of the piece concluded that this person – who she didn’t know very well and hadn’t spoken to for a while, and didn’t particularly like – was better off dead, because she was so mentally ill she must have been miserable, and also quite a burden to her family. I’m paraphrasing, but if you Google “xoJane” today, you will see several response pieces and probably also a cached copy (xoJane took the piece down and replaced it with an apology after the obvious blowback). Apart from the obvious question – why is this an “essay” worth publishing? – this brought out a lot of concern in the online writing community. One reason: it essentially encouraged the idea that if one is extremely mentally ill, one may be better off dead, something that people who are already more likely to consider suicide really don’t need to hear. The second reason: it’s yet another symptom of the clickbait outrage manipulation machine. Media critic Jenn Pozner calls these #clickbaitcrimes. Sites like xoJane and YourTango mine for the juiciest, most scandalous stories and opinions (or stories and opinions that they can make juicy and scandalous with wild headlines) and throw their authors to the wolves. And sometimes those wolves are rightfully hungry.

This piece was obviously horrible, and it started a lot of good conversations about mental health and media ethics, hopefully before it did any damage. But it also brought out the trusty First Amendment argument, and its little sister “censorship!” I was really disappointed to see several writers – including journalists – argue that unpublishing an essay like this is censorship that puts publications on a “slippery slope” toward silencing any “unpopular opinion.”

It is my hope that most people can see this situation for what it really is – not just an unpopular opinion or poorly-written essay, but a missive that could cause real harm to vulnerable people, and not a government-sanctioned silencing of protected speech, but private companies and groups choosing not to associate with such content. Not all writers are journalists, or go to journalism school. And I understand how attached we are to the ability to share our thoughts and opinions through the written word. But I think deep down, most of us understand that doing so is a privilege, not a right. If a publication or group decides that they think we are dangerous, or unfair, or simply not good at writing, they are within their rights to say so, and take action. And the great news is that we are within our rights to spread our views elsewhere. As much as it pains me to say it, there are dozens of other websites that would publish this woman’s words and not think twice, no matter the response. And no law should prevent them from doing so. But, ethics…

Ethics aren’t something that can be forced on anyone. In the writing community, we don’t have any kind of code that we have to sign in order to publish. We do have the Society of Professional Journalists, which does a great job of setting standards and best practices, but not all writers are journalists, and not all journalists agree with what the SPJ has to say. Ethics, in general, are often very personal. They come from experience, education, empathy. They take work to cultivate and truly put into practice.

My worry is that with the current clickbait outrage manipulation machine, in which publications like xoJane and its parent company Time Inc. want you to be upset, want you to comment, want you to share indignantly, people aren’t taking time to develop these ethics, or implement them. And I don’t just mean writers – an editor had to say “OK, sure!” to the piece celebrating an ex-friend’s death. I think the solution to this is better media literacy, which is a huge issue that I am working on getting more involved in. But in the meantime, I hope writers – who I know are tired, and broke, and struggling – will be more careful with the way they treat the First Amendment. Bringing it up as a reason why someone like the author mentioned above should not be criticized, or asked to leave a publication or group, is inaccurate, and it’s frankly a cop out. The First Amendment is vital, it’s important, and yes, it protects even words we do not like. But it’s not a substitute for ethics.