How journalism can take a page out of acting’s handbook

It’s a little out there, but “method journalism” might be a solution to one of the news industry’s biggest problems: lack of empathy

If you saw “The Revenant,” you can relate to being grossed the hell out when you find out that Leonardo DiCaprio slept in real animal carcasses and ate actual raw bison liver for his starring role. Geez! When homeboy is committed to a role, he is com-mit-ted 👏 !

In an interview with Yahoo, DiCaprio said that he ate raw liver and risked hypothermia just to create “one of the most immersive experiences audiences will ever have with what it would be like to come face-to-face with an animal of that magnitude that is incredibly primal.” Tbh, I never wanted to know what it would be like to survive a near-death grizzly bear attack in the 1800s (yikes 😱 !), but I do appreciate that DiCaprio took it upon himself to 1) plunge us into that grueling experience and 2) inform us as authentically as possible about what motivates a person to survive seemingly unbearable conditions.

What DiCaprio did in “The Revenant” is a form of method acting and storytelling. His work in that film finally won him that Oscar the Academy was high-key withholding from him for so long. DiCaprio and many others who are considered Hollywood’s best actors have used or tried method acting to some degree and received praise for it.

“Method Acting: a style of acting in which an actor tries to understand and feel the emotions of the character he or she represents” —

This approach allows actors to invest psychologically in their roles and tell a movie’s, show’s or play’s story in what some say is a more authentic, accurate, engaging and empathetic way. So this got me thinking: “Why isn’t there something equivalent to method acting for journalists, like, oh I don’t know, maybe method journalism?”

There are certainly several parallels between the two professions — one of them being that journalists and actors are both storytellers. The Encyclopedia Britannica says the concept, originally created by Russian thespian Konstantin Stanislavsky and later amended by New York Actor Studio directors Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler, is a solution to bettering an actor’s performance for his or her audience. So why can’t method journalism be a solution to bettering journalists’ content for audiences? With the news industry facing so many problems — lack of trust and empathy, for example — method journalism is a solution journalists need to try to help restore faith in the media.

How would do we even define method journalism? Well, we could take the previously mentioned definition of method acting and replace the acting-related words with journalism-related words. Voila! You get this:

“Method Journalism: a style of journalism in which a journalist tries to understand and feel the emotions of the people he or she represents in content.

Method acting requires actors follow the signature process to embody their roles. But the goal of method journalism is for a journalist to do as many of these steps as possible given stricter financial, time, accessibility and ethical constraints. Emulating the people associated with a journalist’s content should be a priority whenever possible. Research from the University of Missouri, Columbia, supports that the effects of method journalism, or, as the study calls it, “participatory” journalism, leads to personal growth for journalists, increases their empathy and broadens their understanding/awareness of the world in regard to reporting.

“… journalists were sometimes explicitly warned not to get too close to their stories. But journalists do deal with the public. Not only do they have to interact with other people, they have to represent them as well, and as accurately as possible at that. If empathy was so critical to so many other public professions, surely it applied to journalism, too?” — Claire Hunt, “Participatory Reporting as Method Acting: The Journalism-Theatre Connection,” University of Missouri, Columbia

Let me make this concept of method journalism a little more concrete. In my journalism product development class, my classmates and I learned about the five stages of the Design Thinking process. Method journalism is basically an adapted version of the first stage in this process — empathizing — and here’s how the Interaction Design Foundation defines it:

“The first stage of the Design Thinking process is to gain an [empathetic] understanding of the problem you are trying to solve. This involves consulting experts to find out more about the area of concern through observing, engaging and empathizing with people to understand their experiences and motivations, as well as immersing yourself in the physical environment to have a deeper personal understanding of the issues involved. Empathy is crucial to a human-centred design process such as Design Thinking, and empathy allows design thinkers to set aside his or her own assumptions about the world in order to gain insight into users and their needs.” —

A huge reason why I’m even offering method journalism as a solution for the news industry is because I have personally seen its benefits. An example? The midterm assignment in the journalism product development class was to pitch an app or chatbot for USC’s Annenberg Media Center.

In order to create a product that properly serves our audience and Media Center journalists, I spent several days talking to students who consumed our content, as well as journalists in our newsroom. When the students I interviewed said they felt that the content our newsroom was producing excluded them, I went on Annenberg Media’s website and social media platforms to look at our stories through the perspective of these students. They were right. When some journalists in our newsroom said they felt left out or underappreciated, I drew upon my own experiences of feeling left out and underappreciated to emotionally and psychologically connect with my colleagues.

The concept I pitched — an “appbot” named Annie that ultimately helps our audience to feel more included in the news and the news production process — ended up becoming the product we as a class moved forward on, based on votes from my classmates. So clearly, something about my approach resonated.

Later, I was assigned to help create Annie’s editorial voice, which the class decided would be modeled after “30 Rock’s” Liz Lemon. Real talk: Before this assignment, I didn’t even watch “30 Rock” or know who Liz Lemon was. But with the goal of creating an authentic voice for Annie in a short amount of time, I binge-watched two seasons of the show. I collaborated with a cognitive science major in the class to discuss the best way to develop a personality for Annie. I also Googled and asked people what traits they loved about Liz Lemon. I researched famous Liz Lemon quotes and wrote in my diary the way I thought she would speak. I even followed up with the students and journalists I had spoken to previously to see if they liked Annie’s voice and the overall direction of the product.

All of this was done with the hope that my classmates and I would create a relatable product that exhibits empathy for our diverse audience, provides an authentic news experience, delivers accurate and engaging news for busy students on the go, and values the talent of all the journalists in the Media Center. The process of method journalism in this situation not only garnered my class praise for our work, but I believe it led to a lot of intrinsic development, expanded the way we think about news and increased our awareness and understanding of different life circumstances.

(The prototype for Annie featuring the home page, a chatbot conversation and sample push alert)

Even though method journalism and method acting have several similarities, there are still a lot of differences between them. That’s mainly because journalism is a profession held to different standards and has some strict requirements and constraints. Basically, method journalism would still require that key journalistic practices be followed (independence, grammar, factual reporting, fairness, etc.). However, it would be much more flexible than method acting when it comes to how it’s executed. For instance, journalists shouldn’t sympathize too much with their subjects and sources. They must remain independent. But we can do a better job with empathy. So think of method journalism as a mindset. It involves the following:

1. Make a more concerted effort to empathize with sources

Journalists have such a bad rep for being insensitive when it comes to talking to sources to get what they need for a story. Instead of shoving a mic and camera in the face of someone who just experienced a tragedy, method journalism encourages reporters to think about how they would want to be treated in the midst of suffering a tragedy. Giving these victims some space and saying “I’m truly sorry for your loss” goes a long way. Also, saying “I’m a reporter” like these reporters did here below does not automatically mean potential sources should talk to us and give us information. Uh, #rudemuch? How ‘bout some manners?

2. Find better ways to empathize with audiences

The news industry could do a better a job of empathizing with audiences by changing the focus of their audience research. Instead of just categorizing audience members into groups such as age, gender and socioeconomics, try to better understand what motivates them and why they care about certain things. This approach should be able to help you create more empathetic content.

3. Figure out how to emotionally and psychologically connect with a story

If you’re reporting on poverty in America, for example, you might try more than doing research just for your story. If possible, draw on your own personal experiences. Maybe you grew up poor or know someone close to you that grew up in poverty. Try to understand what it might be like for the people whose story you’re telling so you can approach the story more thoughtfully. Don’t just think about your deadline.

4.Expand your frame of reference

Sometimes when journalists are brainstorming ideas, they can get stuck in their “news bubble.” One way to get out of that bubble is to get inspiration from places outside journalism. In my product development class, we looked at unlikely sources such as exercise apps and Apple Music for inspiration when developing Annie. Outside inspiration is important because our audiences gets so much of their media from numerous places, so their frame of reference is pretty broad. Journalists need to have the same broad frame of reference when creating content and products because that shows that they get their audience.

5.Collaborate with others outside the news industry

Keeping up with broad frame of reference idea, it’s essential for journalists to collaborate with people outside the journalism industry. There is so much knowledge we can gain and varied perspectives we can incorporate if we work with others who have a different expertise. This was vital to my classmates and I when developing Annie. I liken it to working on group project, but the kind in which everyone contributes in order to get an A.

It took someone who had a communications and music industry background to emphasize that we should look outside the news industry for inspiration with our journalism product. As result, our class used memes, video games and Reddit as sources for design and content ideas. Having a cognitive science major helped us find ways we could incorporate psychological factors that create delight and a relatable, yet unique, personality within our product. If it weren’t for the business student in our class, we may not have thought to model Annie’s editorial voice after Liz Lemon. An engineering student in our class reminded us to make sure the features we pitched would be user-friendly and feasible to code. The journalism students, of course, made sure that Annie fit Annenberg Media’s brand and followed essential journalistic values. And when we had members of Facebook product team review our prototype for Annie, they were the ones that said Annie being African-American would help support her inclusive spirit for our audience.

I’m sure there are people out there who are critical of the idea of method journalism. That may be because some people who still support traditional journalism (FYI, that support is rapidly dwindling) think we only need to tweak what the industry is doing now. Others might believe it would be too subjective, impractical and/or ineffective. Or, similar to method acting, some might say method journalism in extreme cases could cause identity confusion and strain for those who try it. To these people I say this: If you’re still holding on too tightly to traditional journalism values, or you’re too skeptical to try a new technique, then that’s most likely reflected in the content you produce. That probably means your content isn’t resonating with your audience and you, too, are grappling with how to get them to trust your reporting and engage meaningfully with it.

And as for journalists taking method journalism too far to the point of an identity crisis: It’s very unlikely that’ll happen. Unlike method acting where actors need to “be” their roles, the University of Missouri research claims method journalism encourages a “double consciousness.” This involves method journalists having one part of their consciousness “present” in the roles they are assuming, but another part of their of their consciousness that realizes they are analyzing this temporary experience to report their findings.

Some people might not be a fan of trying method journalism, but at this point, the news industry needs to do something and do it fast to start restoring trust in the news again. A 2016 Gallup poll showed how people rated professions based on their honesty/ethics. Journalists are ranked 12th out of the 22 jobs listed. Some of you may say, “Hey, that’s not bad at least we’re not last.” No, this is very bad — like smdh bad. As the fourth estate that has taken a vow to be honest and ethical in order to serve the public, we should be ranked first. The fact that journalists are not means the news industry is failing our audience.

The beauty of method journalism is that by better immersing journalists into their work, they are more likely to achieve accuracy and even dispel inherent biases they had about the subjects associated with their content. Sure, it takes a little more time and effort than the news industry might be used to, but wouldn’t it be worth that time and effort if it means our audiences trusts us again? If it means we can foster better and more empathetic journalists who give our audiences the high-quality news they deserve?

For many years, the news industry has been perfecting its appearance of serving an audience, when really, they should’ve been focusing on crafting a news experience that actually serves an audience. That’s what’s at the heart of method journalism. It may take a while to see its benefits as solution for the industry’s problems, but when we finally master method journalism, it will feel great for everyone. I wager it’ll feel even better than Leo DiCaprio realizing it was worth eating bloody bison liver to finally get his first Academy Award.

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