Hugging the Journalist

Once I overheard a fellow reporter say, “there are no hugs in journalism.”

This gave me pause. During my career I’ve written about more topics than I can recall but they tend to fall in four basic categories: business, technology, health and people.

Business and technology interviews are always hug-free and most of the other interviews are as well, especially telephone interviews. Those never have hugs.

But some of the stories are much more personal than what company made the latest, greatest widget – the woman who was switched at birth in the hospital, the baby who received a bone marrow transplant, the recovering drug addict, the abused girlfriend, the survivor whose family was murdered, the mom who couldn’t afford Christmas presents.

These stories go beyond the what, where, when and how to dive into the who and the why. The who and the why are what interest me most.

I’ve asked questions of bereaved parents, cancer survivors, grateful grant recipients and non-profit founders. I’ve listened quietly and taken copious notes while they pour out their passions, their pain and their pursuits.

They share things that are deeply personal. And in journalism we call them sources, a semantic attempt to remove the personal in the name of unbiased reporting.

But these aren’t vessels of information like a file-cabinet drawer. They’re people. And reporting without bias doesn’t have to be heartless.

So, after a parent tells me about the day her son committed suicide or a grandmother describes the day her grand daughter received a bone marrow transplant, I give a hug if I’m asked for one.

I’ve never replied, “there are no hugs in journalism.”

While that reporter might disagree, I don’t believe this makes me unprofessional. It makes me better at my job.

People (sources) tell me things they wouldn’t dream of telling that reporter. Sometimes they tell me things they haven’t told their priests, pastors or best friends. Sometimes it’s on the record and sometimes it’s an “off the record” aside. Sometimes they cry.

Sometimes they ask for a hug at the end of the interview.

It’s my theory that this happens because I listen. In our busy society if you aren’t in therapy you might never get to sit and spill your story to someone for 30 minutes with the only interruption a few clarifying questions to direct the conversation.

During interviews I don’t advise and I don’t give commentary. I can do that in my newspaper column or on this blog.

For 30 minutes or an hour of listening these people (sources) give me some amazing quotes, perspectives and stories that I must find a way to share with a wider audience. Every time I know I fall short but it’s a privilege to do this job and I welcome the challenge.

I also welcome the hugs at the end. Journalists are people too.

What do you think about hugs in a professional context?

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  • Great topic. I think it’s fine for a reporter to give a hug when asked, for all the reasons you described. I don’t think it would be appropriate for a reporter to initiate a hug. That would no doubt invite bias.

    I’ve dealt with this type of issue in my reporting, too. Notably, there were a few controversial stories I covered, where one group or the other thought I was “on their side”. That was difficult, because they were being very friendly and warm to me, and it was hard to not be friendly back. At times I felt torn between being a person but risking bias, versus being a robot but risking my own humanity.

    Nice post!