PBS NewsHour foreign affairs correspondent and Pulitzer Center grantee Nick Schifrin met with students at the University of Richmond and offered advice to them in a talk titled “Tell Me About Your Son: Empathy and Resilience While Reporting War."
Shahan Mufti, associate professor and chair of Richmond's journalism department, introduced Schifrin at the event on April 11, 2023.
Schifrin's talk focused on his experiences reporting about war and conflict around the world, most recently in Ukraine.
He described some of the scenes he witnessed while covering the ongoing war in Ukraine, including a moment when a mother watched as investigators exhumed the body of her deceased son, a Ukrainian soldier, to document the torture Russian soldiers had inflicted upon him.
“It was awful: the scene, the smell, the horror on her face,” Schifrin said. “I can still smell the scene … I can still see so many scenes of trauma across a half-dozen war zones or natural disasters.”
For journalists to remain resilient through their own trauma while covering horrific events, they shouldn't exploit a source, Schifrin said. Instead, they should foster empathy within themselves and their audience.
To do this, reporters must go beyond just expressing empathy and be willing to fully understand a subject’s pain, according to Schifrin.
“Empathy is figuring out how to shine a light on trauma,” Schifrin said, citing author Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. “We must not only voice empathy, but also figure out which questions to ask. We must find the trauma so we can understand that and hopefully communicate it in a way that is memorable with our audience.”
Having covered war and conflict for years, Schifrin acknowledged that he is still deeply affected by the violence and turmoil he sees. But among the several coping strategies Schifrin identified, the most important is the belief in the importance of a journalist’s purpose to share stories that restore humanity, he said.
Schifrin said his work is not only psychologically taxing on himself, but also on his loved ones who watch as he broadcasts from war zones.
He concluded his talk stating that despite the emotional strains, empathy supplies the purpose that inspires him to continue his work.
“I’ve come to believe that the same empathy that made me vulnerable also helped heal me,” Schifrin said. “Therein is a purpose I hope for journalists—and those who hope to become journalists can find as well—that allows you to transform horror into healing, that allows you to recapture stolen dignity and humanize that which has been dehumanized.”
Following the talk, Schifrin answered students’ questions about the journalism industry, his career, and how he covers war.
First-year student Sophie Dulog said she enjoyed learning about Schifrin’s methods of telling stories and the emotional aspects of journalism. Sophomore Sydney Boehman said she has a newfound understanding and admiration of what it takes to be a foreign correspondent.
Reflecting on his time at the University of Richmond, Schifrin said he enjoyed speaking with students about the journalism industry and incorporating humanity into reporting. He reiterated what he hoped they learned from his talk.
“If there’s anything to take from this it’s to work hard and give a s--t,” Schifrin said. “It's important for journalism students—and anyone—to realize that journalists experience their own trauma … I hope that admitting my own pain or being exposed to trauma makes it a little bit more accessible and a little bit more understandable.”