Audience Engagement
9 mins read

What can publishers learn about empathy from social media? Ask Notre Dame.

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The year is not even mid-way through and yet we’ve already seen an event that’s likely to become synonymous with 2019: on April 15, Notre-Dame burned. The news sent wave after shockwave across social media channels. News feeds teemed with on-the-spot reports from private citizens, which were received with outcries of sadness, solidarity, and support.

It’s a sad irony that more restoration money was pledged almost immediately after the incident – over €700 million in the first 24 hours, to be exact – than over decades of regular donations. Paris won’t be needing another Hunchback of Notre-Dame to divert public attention to the cathedral’s urgent restoration. Why? Because while literary epics are nice, the power of social media has an edge and many fail to recognize it as a potent tool for engagement. It’s this:


Famously, Victor Hugo spent 12 years crafting Hunchback, and while it’s a seminal piece of literature, it was also conceived as a way to raise awareness for the preservation of Gothic architecture at a time when these buildings were falling into disrepair. As a fundraising initiative, it was successful, but it pales into insignificance when you compare it to just one day of concentrated social media activity.

There is immense power to be found when we can appeal to our humanity, and modern-day gadgetry has provided us with the means to effortlessly rally under a common cause. The extraordinary amount raised in such a short window of time shows just what a force for change social media can be, and how effectively it can engage people around a single issue or crisis.

Clearly, what this outpouring of support on social shows is that people show up when they feel moved by events, appeals or crises. We hear a lot about newsrooms struggling to connect with readers. Engagement isn’t scarce: the calls to action might be.

Make no mistake, even though times of adversity bring out the best in humans, we don’t need a disaster to instigate social engagement. Banding together is, after all, what sets us apart from other species further down the food chain. One human will never be able to accomplish what two or more can.

How do we appeal to other people’s empathy and how far can it really reach?

It takes one to know one, and – as childish as that seems – our ability to relate to other people is somewhat limited. We cannot sympathize – let alone empathize – with every single predicament in the world. When we do feel moved, it often has a lot to do with our proximity to the event and its relatability. A 2014 study in the European Physical Journal Data Science assessed emotional reactions on Twitter following another tragedy – the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing – and found a link between firsthand experience and compassion on social media.

There is also a distinct correlation between geographic proximity, social network connection, and firsthand personal experiences – meaning that if people lived close to Boston or knew people there or had visited the city themselves, the greater their emotional response was on Twitter. Of course, this seems obvious: it’s hard to relate to a place if you have no way of connecting it to your own life – however tangentially.

This explains why Notre-Dame’s fate exploded on social media. Not only does the cathedral have cultural, religious, and symbolic significance to western society but we most likely know someone who lives, lived or at least has visited Paris – and that’s before we start to factor in the Disney connection.

It also demonstrates why some equally devastating yet geographically distant events haven’t had the same outpouring of support as those which hit closer to home. For instance, the 2015 Paris attacks were nothing compared to the Boko Haram massacre in Baga, Nigeria in terms of casualties. Even though both events occurred within the same week, the empathetic outreach to Nigeria was in no way on the scale as it was for Paris, where #jesuischarlie quickly became a rallying cry of solidarity. In Baga, support through social was nowhere near as strong. It wasn’t that people didn’t care, it was just that most Europeans hadn’t traveled there, didn’t know the people personally, and didn’t have so much to relate to culturally.

As quick as some people are to [rightly] point out the double-standards here, empathy by its very definition isn’t generous and all-encompassing but reserved for things you can relate to because you have personal experience of it.

Before & after: how exactly did Notre-Dame’s fate echo across social media?

Let’s put our content intelligence to good use and crunch those numbers!

We looked at 83 different media outlets that wrote about the Notre Dame disaster in the second half of April. Their articles on the matter generated a total of 16.6 million Article Reads with roughly 275,000 hours of true Attention Time. This is a tremendous traffic spike for a short amount of time – but how tremendous exactly?

Well, if we take a look at the top 10 domains with the highest Social Actions metric, in the year 2019, only 10 posts mentioning Notre Dame were published prior to the event – and even then, these appeared only on 5 of those top 10 websites. Ironically enough, one of these articles were about the famous French Spider-Man – Alin Robert – who free-climbed a 185-meter office building in Paris in order to raise awareness and funds for the cathedral’s necessary restoration.

Those same 5 domains produced a total of 321 posts about the fire between the 15th, when the blaze started, and the end of the month (though other domains from our database quickly picked up the story). This goes to show just how impactful the tragic story was.

In fact, from the moment the first bystanders started live-streaming the smoke coming from the cathedral, the news spread like – and forgive the choice of wording here – wildfire and people immediately took to their social media platforms to express their concerns and send their condolences. Our analysis shows that as much as 14.3% of traffic on Notre-Dame stories came from social media with almost 2.4 million Social Article Reads and 1.28 million Social Actions. It is highly likely that almost every European citizen had his or her news feed jammed with reports of the fire and its aftermath.

The measure of Page Depth (the metric which describes the average number of pages visited after a reader opens the initial article) is a useful way of showing how eager people were to dig for any additional news or information. Articles about Notre Dame de Paris have an average Page Depth value of 2.14 (meaning they opened at least one article after that first one). While we may not be able to measure empathy, what we can see is interest: people took the news to heart and were engaged enough to begin to read into the subject.

Can publishers get people to hop on social media’s bandwagon of empathy?

When disasters strike, social blows up. This isn’t meant to sound flippant: the immediacy of Facebook and Twitter is part of the appeal, but they cannot be controlled. There’s an immediacy and an authenticity to these interactions, which is refreshing, but it’s also unwieldy. It’s not a surprise that modern-day media outlets, newsrooms, publishers, and community journalists are attempting to create the exact same effect. Genuine engagement is the holy grail. How do you replicate those organic outpourings?

Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessarily experience or uniqueness that helps publishers stay afloat, but the ability to portray the stories behind the stories and their relatable qualities – something which a lot of publishing companies fail to accomplish. The central idea of social journalism is to create content which engages readers, yet in order to do that, it is crucial to understand the issues which affect them. It takes a great deal of listening and collaboration to find solutions to a public’s needs. Without the empathetic approach, it is woefully easy to be out of step with the demographic.

A great example was the, let’s say, surprising outcome of the 2016 US presidential election. Critics say journalists were too mired in their own marginal point of view and that they completely underestimated and misunderstood Trump’s massive appeal, especially among poor white communities and the right-leaning parts of the Midwest. Meredith Clark, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia, explained in her column for Poynter:

Until there are newsroom executives and leaders who better reflect the swiftly changing demographics of our country — ethnic, racial, linguistic, socioeconomic, you name it — mainstream news media will continue to miss the mark.

The relationship between newsrooms and underserved communities can be crippled by various editorial and business actions, such as botched interactions between sources and reporters, one-dimensional story view, or staff diversity only in entry-level positions – and that’s just a few.

The key is, therefore, to connect with the community through representative reporting. The obvious solution might be to hire in locally – the issues around ‘helicopter journalism’ are well documented – but the paramount point is that journalism needs to resonate with readers. It needs to inspire them. Move them. They need to empathize to truly engage.

People can rally round a local issue, but can empathy reach a global scale?

As daunting as this task may seem, yes, there is a way! Global effects require global feats. The latest best example is BBC’s series Our Planet with the revered Sir David Attenborough at the narrating helm. Each episode goes straight for the conscience’s jugular by documenting how human activity has screwed over various ecosystems – and I don’t use the term lightly. Seeing thousands of beached walruses trample each other and fall from steep cliffs because their natural habitat – polar ice – has drastically receded, is heart-breaking. As a way to engage the audience, it works.

Confronting these facts and – more importantly – emotions can instigate action and solidarity. Indeed, 88% of people who watched the BBC’s Blue Planet II said they changed their lifestyle as a result of the program.

We are all hardwired to empathize with individual stories. On the other hand, it is extremely difficult for us to empathize with large numbers of people.

Whenever things get statistical or quantified, our cognition goes into analytic mode and we tend to stop processing things in a human way, and look at them much more dispassionately. This is perfectly normal, (otherwise, we’d be probably worried sick about everything and everyone) but if you want to tell a story that really grips your readers, you have to be able to wear your heart on your sleeve and approach storytelling in a way that your readers can relate to on a personal level – otherwise, they just won’t buy it.

Best of all, thanks to editorial analytics – publishers now have the opportunity to measure their readers’ level of engagement and truly understand their behavior. They can see how stories resonate with those who read them. There is no tool for measuring empathy, of course. But empathy can be clearly seen in our actions when we are moved by words. Journalists can use data and insights about their content to measure the performance of their stories, and then use this knowledge to monitor when articles aren’t resonating as they should, so they can refine or alter their approach.

Abandon all expectations and start with your inner dialogue

We often forget that empathy is a two-way street, especially on social media – until natural or man-made disasters cut us down to size. But when we do remember, we can move mountains. No matter where you are or what you do – we all trade in human emotions.

What happened to Notre-Dame is tragic, but Our Lady of Paris is not irreparable. In fact, she reminded us of a valuable lesson – never underestimate how the masses can unite with a single cause when the cause is the right one.

Countless imposing structures have been lost in fires, but that didn’t stop us from erecting more. Countless publishers have gone out of business, but that hasn’t stopped new ones from emerging. The only thing which cannot wane is our sense of purpose.

Can publishers take lessons from social media? Without a doubt. Empathy is often most visible in times of crisis, and humans at their most humane. The passion and support in those times is often honestly and candidly revealed on social media, and it’s those qualities which are the most relatable. If publishers can harness that power, they can write relevant stories which propel engagement even further. After all, how else will you connect with your readers if you cannot appeal to their human nature?

by Marko Dorić

Republished with kind permission of Content Insights, the next generation content analytics solution that translates complex editorial data into actionable insights.