'I Mostly Listen': One Key To Avoid 'Othering' : Memmos Standards & Practices Editor Mark Memmott writes occasional notes about the issues journalists encounter and the way NPR handles them. They often expand on topics covered in the Ethics Handbook.
NPR logo 'I Mostly Listen': One Key To Avoid 'Othering'

'I Mostly Listen': One Key To Avoid 'Othering'

"Othering," or "otherizing," has been a topic of conversations on the campaign trail this year and in newsrooms for many years.

I think of it this way: Othering is when a story feels like it's about "them" and that "they" aren't like "us." They're "others." It can look and sound as if the news outlet or reporter is tone deaf or condescending. The stories often feel like the reporters began with preconceived notions and looked for confirmation.

This post isn't about a case of othering. Read or listen to Debbie Elliott's piece this week about "transgender rights, the new front in culture wars." The central character is LBGTQ advocate Lane Galbraith. I didn't detect any othering, so I asked Debbie about the way she reports.

"You know, my approach is always to just try to get to know the people I'm interviewing as people first, not 'subjects,' " she said in an email. "I get rather familiar quickly, but always say something like, 'OK, now I'm going to get a little nosy or into private territory, please don't be offended and feel free to wave me off if it's too personal.' I will also be honest and admit that I'm not sure a question is appropriate, but 'here's what I'd like to know.'

"Generally, I find that people are longing to tell their story, so I mostly listen. And in this case, we had spoken a few times before during the same sex marriage battles in Alabama, so I had a bit of a foundation to build from. ...

"There are some interviews you do that are mostly about gathering facts, or (let's be honest here) getting the sound bite you need. But if you're looking to share a deeper truth, and get below the surface of the news of the day, it requires a different approach. You have to care about a person's story and give them the time and space to tell it. And that's hardly ever linear or even logical. Those kind of interviews are certainly less efficient, but can yield priceless insights."

There's a key point there: "I mostly listen." Also, yes, we tell stories. But they're not about us or our preconceived notions. As Debbie says, "people are longing to tell their story ... give them the time and space to tell it."

No news outlet gets this right every time. We should keep talking about othering and how to avoid it. Please flag "good" and "bad" examples.

Related: "Don't 'radiosplain' and other ways to report on communities that aren't your own."