The heart of the matter

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My younger sister is 16 and has taught me more than anyone else I know. Funnily enough, I have hardly taught my sister anything – or, at least, she’s only learned a fraction of what I’ve tried to impart.

For instance, as a political junkie, I’m wont to wax wonky; at the dinner table, I have historically elicited eye rolls and glazed expressions while expounding my assessment of recent legislation or the justification for interest-rate rises. While I find politics diverting, my sister largely finds it soporific and tedious. It feels distant from her life, fundamentally secondary.

My mother has a maxim that some people interact with others in an effort to achieve a goal, while others achieve their goals in an effort to interact with others; I am generally the former, my sister the latter. So it took me years to realize that I simply wasn’t speaking the same language as my sister: I am cerebral – my sister is as visceral as a gut punch.

In many ways, my sister will make a better journalist than I ever could. Instinctively, my sister has no patience for formality; she abhors all things routine. She gets straight to the point. Whereas I take 200 words to reach my thesis, she could do so in 10.

More importantly, though, my sister has heart – the instinct to empathize, not overthink. In journalism, heart is the secret ingredient. Bad journalism lacks context, but terrible journalism lacks heart. Arguably, heart is subjective or synonymous with “voice.” I disagree. As Maya Angelou put it, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But they will never forget how you made them feel.” Heart is the capacity not merely to stand out or entertain (that’s voice) – having heart in one’s writing reminds a reader that there is another human being on the other side of their morning paper. Heart makes journalism personal.

Lately I’ve experienced a well-founded impulse in the media to cull the personal, to protect objective truth by anticipating accusations of bias and ensuring only straight facts get published. That troubles me. My favorite pundits – Rachel Maddow, Ezra Klein, Matthew Yglesias, etc – are unafraid to preface their ideas with concessions of bias then proceed to proffer their authentic personal takes. Their transparent humanity – their candor – makes me trust them, and that’s the real power of heart: It enables trust. And Americans urgently need to feel they can trust journalism.

So that has been my sister’s great education for me: She has demanded heart. She has modeled unflinching trustworthiness. She has demanded I speak to her, not at her, and is constantly skeptical of my agenda – the perfect posture for engaging with journalism. My sister has unwittingly offered a master class in how to reach people where they are.

In her world, moreover, function bests form every time. Whereas I relish the distinction between “amount” and “number,” my sister prioritizes the essence of things – her concerns are tangible, real consequences. Now, if journalists dispensed with form wholesale, copy editors like me would be out of a job, and there is certainly much to recommend form; after all, crisp, professional proofreading bolsters credibility. But ultimately, great journalism is distinguished – à la Angelou – not by the formalities of what is said but rather by the substance of what is felt. Publications earn the invaluable currency of credibility by winning trust, and to win trust, publications must win hearts first and minds second.

So thanks, Emma. The next round of life lessons are on me.

Contact Aidan Bassett at [email protected].

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