Journalism has much to gain from empathy research

We may have more choices when it comes to different news sources. But that doesn’t mean we’re making the best decisions about what news we are consuming.

In fact, we’re not. The news that is winning is not always news.

Instead, the bombardment of information has resulted in decision paralysis. Users are avoiding the news because they don’t trust themselves to figure out what’s important. They are often faced with conflicting views. They don’t know how to sift through what’s high-quality vs. low-quality journalism. They view news as similar to filling a vacuum – an endeavor that will never be complete.

These were just a few of the initial insights my team and I came across during a recent class at the Hasso Plattner Institute for Design, Redesigning the News Ecosystem.

One of the techniques of doing empathy research is to identify analogous organizations facing problems similar to the one you are hoping to solve in your particular field. In our case, we identified healthy eating habits and regular exercise at the gym to help inform our design process in rethinking the news ecosystem.

What we discovered was fascinating.

Too much health information proves unhealthy

Users were so overwhelmed by the amount of information on diets, nutrition and what constituted healthy eating that they were often unable to make adequate food decisions. They were never quite sure if the information they had was trustworthy. Food choices were often driven by convenience and budgetary constraints. They regularly felt judged for the foods they did eat, especially when their peers practiced more healthy eating habits. They also didn’t identify themselves as “healthy eaters” from the outset. Admitting early on it wasn’t a core family value growing up.

Then there were users raised in families that did value regular healthy meals. But when left to their own devices at school, they made poor food choices based on convenience and accessibility. They gravitated to food that was put in front of them – Pop-Tarts, Oreos, and chips. Even though walking an extra three feet, they would have found yogurts and fruits. Often they didn’t even know those options existed. Whatever was fastest was prioritized, which was never high quality foods. They valued their time more than the effort to make a healthier choice even when they acknowledged feeling better when they ate more nutritious foods.

Gym-goers offered us an additional critical insight that news consumers also consider: Is it worth my time? For those who went to the gym, they admitted to needing a recurring positive experience time and time again. They had to force themselves to see the bigger picture and the long-term benefits. Users often made decisions based on short-term gain. If they were told they looked like they lost weight, they were more encouraged to go again. They were also more encouraged to go to the gym if they had a plan or a commitment to meet friends or a trainer. And even if exercising was of value to them, it was still a daily choice whether to go or not. Those who regularly went to the gym were valued as “experts” by their friends, so much so that it became a part of their self-identity. That in itself was enough to compel them to go to the gym every day – in order to meet their friends expectations.

Lessons for journalism

The interviews were rich with details and insights that we could apply to solving the same challenges facing reader engagement.

  1. We would have to consider how we might unclutter the current news ecosystem and make it less overwhelming to audiences.
  2. We would have to consider how we might make the news experience for users as easy and accessible as possible and drive them to high-quality journalism.
  3. We would have to consider how we might create a recurring satisfactory news experience, so that they would want to come back again and again.

All of the above must be considered if we want reader engagement to flourish, and I am keen on helping to solve these problems as part of my JSK Journalism Challenge.