Empathy, vulnerability, inclusiveness & more on the future of media

Photo via Flickr user "The All-Nite Images".

Photo via Flickr user "The All-Nite Images".

The Oxford Dictionaries "Word of the Year" is: 😂

That is, for the uninitiated, the "Face with Tears of Joy" emoji. When the word of the year is not a word but a picture of an expressed emotion, it warrants a moment of pause and a question: What's happening here? 

The latest episode of the WNYC radio program "On The Media" sheds some light, though not directly. It also couldn't have come at a better time in my project work. The episode is all about an area of exploration I have come to see as critically important: the place where empathy and media meet. 

The episode, titled "Feel This", is a tour through some of the ways empathy is used by media makers to trigger an emotional response. The episode explores empathy's role in the coverage of race, the development and research of new media technologies and their effects on human behavior, and the click bait and "hate read" phenomena. 

What struck me about the episode was not that it addressed empathy, but how. I have become so used to empathy as a tool to discover things about other people. It was refreshing to see empathy explored as a tool to get people to care about discovering other people. 

The segment on new media technologies hit close to home quite literally, highlighting work being done at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) here at Stanford. A project there gives people the opportunity to step into a virtual environment and assume a different race and/or gender. If you're a tall, African-American woman, for example, you can enter into a virtual world to become a short, white man. Then, you can interact with a virtual character in that role. I have witnessed the program at the VHIL in person, and it's shocking. It's a form of media that goes beyond storytelling to embodied experience as a means to generate empathy. 

Consumer technology and traditional media are catching up quickly. The New York Times's collaboration with Google Cardboard is yet another step along the trend line of empathy-building in media, taking readers through the experiences of refugee children

The radio program crystalized something for me: the future of media relies on a deeper exploration of empathy, vulnerability and inclusiveness as they relate to media making. The importance of that last component, inclusiveness, I discovered thanks to Inclusion Ventures CEO and dialogue expert Amy Lazarus. Amy has been critical in my growth and learning on the role world view plays in creating more inclusive environments and culture. 

The survival of organizations (since no organization exists without media) also depends on adopting a broader world view. This means not only more inclusive hiring, but the introduction of new tools and methods so that those in the room are more aware of how to speak across lines of difference. 

This means a few potential areas are critical to explore:

  1. How people interact in newsrooms, ad agencies, television production studios, sound stages and tech company huddle rooms -- all of the places where media is made for mass consumption and amplification. 
  2. Rapid prototyping of facilitated experiences for media makers in order to help them "see the water".

The phrase "see the water" refers to a story designer Michael Barry tells about a fish that encounters two other fish. The one fish asks the two oncoming fish, "How's the water?"

The two fish think the third fish is crazy, they have no idea what (s)he is talking about. That's because the two fish don't realize that their environment is made of water. To them, the water is completely invisible because it is omnipresent. There was also never a time it wasn't there. The story is meant to highlight the point that, in design, we need to be the fish that sees the water around us. That ability to see comes from a rigorous execution of process. 

In the case of exploring ways to grow empathy, vulnerability and inclusiveness in media, the water is a bit different. What does it look like when people step back, objectively observe the way they see the world and then zoom out yet again to see the ways in which the actions they take while looking through that world-view lens affect the world around them? In essence, how might we help people see the water that is their world view? 

This work isn't easy, and it is made all the more difficult by the rigorous work schedules of those who work in traditional media. There's little time to live everyday life, not to mention taking time to observe, analyze and reflect on one's world view. Helping them do that on a timetable and in a way that is effective for them is now, perhaps, the big challenge in this project work. 

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Emi Kolawole

Emi Kolawole earned her B.A. in international relations and theater studies from Wellesley College and studied abroad at both the Panthéon-Sorbonne and the National Theater Institute.  She joined the Annenberg Public Policy Center's FactCheck.org in November, 2005 after working as a news researcher for Congressional Quarterly on issues of defense, foreign policy, intelligence and homeland security. Previously, she was a production assistant at PBS's "NOW With Bill Moyers," and worked in the Washington area office of a defense contractor.

In addition to her work as a staff writer and researcher for FactCheck, Emi was the host, writer and video editor for FactCheck.org's weekly video feature "Just the Facts!"  She is a level 1 certified Final Cut Pro editor and earned her master's degree in producing for film and video at American University. She also led the fact-checking review effort for "UnSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation."

Emi served as the associate producer for "Washington Week with Gwen Ifill & National Journal." In June 2010 she joined the Washington Post as a producer for PostPolitics. She served as the founding editor for Ideas@Innovations (now "Innovations") and co-host for the Post's daily news program "59 Seconds." In 2011, Emi was named a Young Global Shaper by The World Economic Forum. In 2013 she was listed among The Grio 100, was named a French-American Foundation Young Leader and accepted an invitation to become the Editor-in-residence at the d.school at Stanford University. She has served for the past three years at the d.school, most recently as a senior media designer working on the media experiments collaboration between Knight Foundation and the d.school. She is currently the founder of the media and design consultancy Dexign LLC.