Farewell column: Practicing journalism with empathy

At the top of my well-worn Daily Cal inbox rests a short email from three years ago. It is from a former sports editor on my first-ever feature article on a women’s tennis player — an article that took about 10 hours to write and 10 more hours to edit.

“That was as good of a first feature as I have ever read from anybody in my time at the sports desk. Great, great job, my friend. Hang that cool design up on your wall and be proud of your work.”

I read this email at times for inspiration. Every time, I remember the warm glow of accomplishment I felt inside when I first read the email. As a freshman, it was hard to believe someone read — nay, liked! — my written work. Likely unknown to him, it was a massive boost of confidence I needed in a time of uncertainty.

For the next three years, I stuck around at the Daily Cal, mainly because of the people and their endless outpour of support and love to me. I climbed up the Daily Cal ladder, from sports writer to sports editor to online managing editor, because I couldn’t leave the people. I wanted to pay it forward to the next generation of Daily Cal writers.

Now here I am, writing to you one last time for this extraordinary organization of student journalism. I’ve written more than 250 articles for the Daily Cal, and I still get butterflies when my writing goes under the editor’s knife.

Every article I’ve written seemed to lead to bigger and more fantastic opportunities, like credit accumulating for big payoffs. I interviewed Sonny Dykes for 40 minutes, sat at the new press box in Memorial Stadium and traveled to New Orleans to cover the NCAA Women’s Final Four.

But it’s the people along these experiences who have made the ride such a transformative experience. The journalist I am now is a collection of all the amazing people who taught me invaluable lessons along the way.

But no lesson I’ve learned at the Daily Cal means more to me than the power of journalism with empathy.

What is journalism with empathy? It’s the ability to sympathize with all sides of the story and understand the consequences one’s article can have on their lives. The pen is mightier than the sword, and many times, lives have been ruined or hampered by an irresponsible pen.

A popular perception of a journalist is that of a cynic who ceaselessly salivates over quotes and scoops. Many UC Berkeley students think that way about Daily Cal reporters. I have been called a sensational journalist before. It is an unfortunate, but understandable, stereotype.

During my 3 ½ years at the Daily Cal, I found nothing but the opposite. If anything, Daily Cal reporters and editors are too empathetic and considerate to a fault. We missed deadlines late into the night to get the right quotes and the fairest news — even at financial costs. I’ve seen reporters break into tears after reading or writing heartbreaking stories.

As student journalists, we make plenty of mistakes. But never in my time has it been because of lack of empathy. Their tireless contributions to the paper and their boundless capacity to support and empathize each other and their subjects inspires me every day.

As I near the end of my time at UC Berkeley, I’ve also discovered professional journalists who continue to practice journalism with empathy beyond collegiate walls. People like Zach, Tim and Lowell at the Investigative Reporting Program next door have shown me that journalists can produce hard-hitting news while not compromising their morals or their empathy.

It is possible to have thick skin with a big heart, I learned.

It is with that assurance that I head to the Los Angeles Times this summer, hoping to make my positive mark in the professional world.

And on the way, I can only dream of inspiring a younger journalist as poignantly as that former sports editor once did with 41 words.

**

I owe my sincere thanks to:

Sarah and JD, for their endless encouragements and exemplary leadership.

Michael, Sean and Riley, for being my best friends and the best sports writers I’ve worked with.

the next generation of Daily Cal Sports, for their infectious enthusiasm on all things Cal sports.

Jacob and Chris, for their tireless work in making dailycal.org an award-winning website.

The Online Department, for being the innovators of the Daily Cal and making the impossible possible.

Chloe and Megan, to whom I have utmost confidence in continuing to carry the Daily Cal to new heights.

Katherine and Mary Ann, for the wisdom and youthful vigor that makes them personal role models.

Katie, for her endless trust and confidence in me as my mentor.

Jonathan, Christina, Annie, Jack, Ed and Kelly, for being people I aspired to be as a sports writer, sports editor and OME.

Stacie and Jessica, for their continued love as my best friends since the time we were floormates in Ehrman Hall.

My family, for their unconditional belief in me through the peaks and troughs of my Berkeley years.

Gabe, for the email and your lesson in empathy.

You, the reader, for your readership and support.

Come on You Spurs. Go Bears. Go Daily Cal.

Seung Y. Lee started in Spring 2011 as a sportswriter, covering a variety of Cal varsity sports. In Spring 2013, he was the Sports Editor. From May 2013, he oversaw all online operations as the Online Managing Editor. He will graduate in May as a Political Economy major with a minor in history.

Contact Seung Y. Lee at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @sngyn92.