How a technology journalist creates empathy

4th Jan, 2022#8

Technology has permeated almost all aspects of our lives and, with the current advancements, it’ll seep into even more layers of society. Sometimes, tech holds a mirror to us, as humans. Just like us, it can’t thrive in isolation. Similar to us, tech expands and evolves through the sustained work of communities of users and developers.

The only way to truly understand how this interdependence is impacting our society is to talk to people about their personal experiences with technology. Few other people do this as consistently and in depth as great journalists do. 

So I invited the kindest one I know to talk about empathy in cybersecurity and beyond. 

Andrada Fiscutean, science and technology writer drawn to stories about “people with very few resources, building things out of thin air” is today’s guest. She has over 13 years of experience and has written for Nature, Wired, Vice, Motherboard, CSO Online, BBC Radio and so many other publications. Her writing offers unique perspectives of how people shape technology while also making outliers’ stories relatable and offering new ways to be in the world. 

In this episode, you’ll find out how Andrada practices empathy as a journalist covering stories at the intersection of society and technology. You’ll also hear about why it is important to get perspectives from all sides while dealing with tech-related topics and the difference it makes. And we also discuss the role of empathy in promoting mental health within cybersecurity, with a couple of takeaways you can apply no matter your field.

In this episode, you will learn:

  • How practicing empathy as a technology journalist looks like (06:23)

  • How Andrada gets people to open up and share their stories (07:36)

  • The importance of gender equity when approaching technology-related issues (13:20)

  • How cybersecurity communities tackle mental health issues (16:49)

Guest

Photography of Andrada Fiscutean.

Andrada Fiscutean

Science and technology journalist trying to find stories nobody else is writing. Writes deeply researched features about hackers who attacked the Pentagon or stole millions of dollars to buy Porsches, journalists targeted with malware, politicians trying to block plagiarism checks, and North Korean scientists.

Transcription

[01:29] Andra Zaharia: What a pleasure it is to bring you today an episode with Andrada Fiscutean, Science and Technology Journalist for over 13 years, who has written stories for Nature, Ars Technica, WIRED, Vice Motherboard, CSO Online, The Outline, The Economist, BBC Radio, and so many other publications, whose stories have an incredible ripple effect throughout the cybersecurity and tech community. They bring a lot of empathy. And they build bridges between incredibly talented and hardworking people in science and technology and the communities they serve. She is also a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the MIT - Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Andrada went on to cultivate her remarkable skills and incredible observational attitudes, which she manages to combine in just heartwarming and perspective-shifting stories that I hope you'll get to discover throughout our conversation today. We talked about a bunch of important things when it comes to practicing and cultivating empathy through journalism and through the important stories that deserve a place in our minds, in our hearts, and in our brain space. We talked about mental health. We talked about what it takes to get people to open up and to tell their stories for one of Andrada’s articles. I think that you will be delighted to discover what a determined and modest and incredibly talented and hardworking person Andrada is. Her work ethic, her involvement in the community, and her just simple desire to help people, to give them a voice is just brilliant and inspiring and heartwarming. I’m very, very lucky to be able to bring you this conversation in this episode with her. So, let's meet Andrada.

[03:52] Andra Zaharia: Andrada, I've been waiting for a long time to talk to you in a more formal format. I know this is not a formal context but I have been lucky enough to be close to you for a few years and to learn from you and to see you have an increasingly bigger impact in cybersecurity but far beyond that as well. You’re one of the people that I most admire and I'm just so very thrilled to talk to you today.

[04:22] Andrada Fiscutean: Hi, this is super touching. I'm happy to be here. Hopefully, we're going to have a nice conversation. There's some construction work here in my building, but hopefully, we're going to navigate it. And I know somewhat casual conversation.

[04:39] Andra Zaharia: I am sure it will be. We’ll power through. I'm sure that we can do it. We all have things that are going on around us. But I feel like this is like a small way of being more self-empathetic towards ourselves to carve a space where we can have these conversations while all of the madness is blocked out, at least for 20 to 30 minutes, that's still an improvement. So, you're one of the most empathetic people that I know in the sense that you are able to create experiences and convey nuance on a level that very few other people can, especially when it comes to topics around technology and cybersecurity and things that are usually perceived as quite dried and dry and devoid of human feeling or that human touch that we all need. You managed to bring out incredible stories that give power to these things, and that helps us connect emotionally to them. And one of the things that I wanted to ask you around your own practice of empathy in your work as a technology journalist is tied to something that the MIT fellowship program wrote about you when you joined the program, which is, this is where you're going to find the best story, and not in a person who has everything and creates everything but in a person who has nothing and manages to do something. I felt like that was a statement of empathy that was truly powerful. So, I wanted to ask you a bit about what that looks like in real life in your work as a technology and cybersecurity journalist.

[06:23] Andrada Fiscutean: So, I do like stories about underdogs and stories that sit at the intersection of technology and society. And I kind of want to choose these kinds of stories, and to look at some of the people that maybe don't have a lot of resources but still manage to do something with what they do. I'm not in this business of journalism of writing because I love writing, I actually hate writing. And those days in which I have to put down a few words on paper or on a digital format are some of the worst days of my life, because it's you there with all your limitations and all your frustrations and all the things that you don't thoroughly understand and you still need to do something with what you have. But I am in this business in order to meet people and learn from them. And I have to say that I got something out of every interview that I took from every person that I talked to, be it casually or professionally. So, I'm here to meet people, I'm here to learn their stories. And if their stories are connected to something they do at work, then even better. So, this is some sort of statement that I want to make through my stories that good things happen at the intersection of technology and society, and also bad things happen there.

[07:56] Andra Zaharia: Absolutely. And thank you for your honesty. I don't think that many journalists or content creators, in general, would admit that the actual writing part is the toughest part of that experience, which sometimes I find to be true as well. So, we thought that was very, very candid of you to share that with us. How do you get people to open up as a journalist you interview, like you mentioned so many people? You go talk to them and you ask these probing questions to get to that core story, those, let's say, moments of personal difficulty, maybe, because that's where a lot of value is in those shifts that happen in our behavior and our mindset. How do you get people to open up and to trust you that you will tell their story in a way that is true, and that is not taken out of context, as it often happens? I find that is a very, very difficult thing to do that requires you to be very tactful.

[08:57] Andrada Fiscutean: I do feel that it helps if you show people that you're going to treat them fairly. So, you're going to show them that you are a person they could trust and that you're going to not necessarily say everything they said or show the full perspective, but do your best to give them a fair occasion to say what they feel is important to them. So, you also need to make them comfortable and they won't open up to you from the very first moment of the interview. You somehow have to calibrate this. I also try to make this a personal challenge in a way that I want to have dry stories that I'm working on and try to give them a spin, try to do something with them in a way that they incorporate some sort of human element. And I wrote a story about logs recently, best practices for keeping logs, which is probably a super dry subject no one wants to read about. But I had a very nice interview with a security researcher named Veronica Schmidt. And at some point during our conversation, I asked her, “So why are you into logs? Why are logs important to you?” Which is a super basic question you should ask someone. After I asked this question twice, she told me that she started having an implantable cardiac device. So she has some issues with her heart. And that device malfunctioned but the logs that it kept didn't show that, so she wanted to search those logs and be a hacker and really try to understand what was happening. This is why she got interested in keeping logs. And then she built the whole thing around her experience. It was a super-touching interview and a super-touching moment for her to share that with me. And it eventually made it into the story. And I remember emailing my editor Michael Neto at CSO Online and telling him. So, I started the story a little bit unusual. I kind of feel that we would like to tell this story and tell it nicely, giving it enough space.

[11:18] Andra Zaharia: It definitely was something that was unexpected. And I love that you bring so much of the human value behind all of the, let's say, technical aspects that we're usually trained to see when it comes to technology or cybersecurity. You do this beautifully. And this example is the best one that I could have ever thought of to really show how the human element and how personal stories play into our development as professionals, how they shape our choices and our perspective and our commitment to making a stronger contribution to the field that we work in, whether it's journalism, or cybersecurity or technology, or usually the intersection of many, many things that we actually share the two of us but not just the two of us, obviously. And they think that building these bridges is just so important.

[12:19] Andrada Fiscutean: I do agree with you on this that empathy fuels connections, and it kind of helps us get another person's perspective, which is super important. The world would be a better place if we could all try to see through other people's eyes. And also think about showing empathy towards people that are under cover. Because I mentioned Veronica earlier, I try to talk to, at least, a woman for every story that I'm publishing. Sometimes this is not necessarily the case. But I'm still trying to find if I have to choose between two researchers that are working on the same field and doing the same kind of work, I'll probably tend to favor the women. Because during the history of humankind, they weren't maybe allowed to speak their mind, so I'm trying to incorporate people who are not necessarily covered well by media, in general.

[13:20] Andra Zaharia: I totally know what you mean. I'm trying to do the same with this podcast because I think that it is so important to have multiple perspectives on what it means to cultivate and practice empathy in cybersecurity and online privacy, and every other thing that ties into this. And I found that sometimes it is difficult for me to get answers from women because they feel less confident maybe about their abilities because they want to maybe not feel as exposed towards potential online harassment or all of the other things that come with this. And I hope that the women who listen to this conversation know that there are so many people willing to help give create that avenue for their voice and their opinions and their perspective and their experience to shine as they deserve. And that's a small act of kindness and empathy that we can make for each other. So, thank you for mentioning that. I feel that that's very important.

[14:23] Andrada Fiscutean: Speaking of which, I do think that it's super important to involve men in our conversations about women online and women in cybersecurity because I do feel that if they get to learn more about women's perspectives, then every workplace is going to be better; risk assessment is going to be better when it comes to cybersecurity incidents, and everyone will have a lot of gain from this. A lot to gain. 

[14:50] Andra Zaharia: That is absolutely true. And I've seen it to be true from my experience as well. I hope we can replicate that bit by bit, so it has that ripple effect that we're looking for. You've already shared so many examples about how to practice and cultivate empathy. I think that one of the things that doesn't happen often enough in cybersecurity is that we don't talk about the positive experiences. So, if from what you've seen; being pitched stories and working with so many people in cybersecurity and in tech in so many roles, what does cybersecurity look like when it is an empathetic experience; when it builds on empathy as a core principle instead of using fear, uncertainty, and doubt; when it actually creates a positive experience that works? Because I think that we need more of those positive examples to fuel our optimism.

[15:42] Andrada Fiscutean: From where I'm standing, I feel that there's a strong sense of community within cybersecurity researchers. They're super collaborative. We all see a lot of examples when people are helping each other. I do feel like that the general feeling is positive that people try to encourage and support each other. I recently read a book by Rutger Bregman, Humankind: A Hopeful History, in which he talks a lot about empathy also, but the fact that we are meant to do good things and our default position is a positive one. And there's also something about the Pygmalion effect, so people tend to become their best selves. And if I'm going to say to you, Andra, that you're a fantastic writer and fantastic person, then you're going to try to live up to my expectations. It's kind of nice to organize your life and your close connections through these lenses.

[16:49] Andra Zaharia: That is such a wonderful example. I absolutely love it. Thank you for mentioning this. We’ll make sure to add the books, and then everyone can add it to their to-read list because it's been on mine for a while, haven't gotten to it yet but will do.

[17:03] Andrada Fiscutean: And I do feel that people also talk a lot about mental health issues. And the pandemic has opened a few doors for us to explore these possibilities. Some of us struggle with depression, with anxiety, frustration, fatigue, loneliness. And I've seen examples on Twitter, for instance, in which people supported each other through these challenges ever since the COVID pandemic started. I do feel that the community can be super supportive when it wants to do that. There's also this concept about being a mental athlete that I've learned from one researcher to think about your mind like you think about your body – so, you need to feed her the right information, you need to train it, and you need to allow it to rest.

[17:59] Andra Zaharia: Beautiful example. I think that yes, now that I think about it, some of the most thoughtful conversations around mental health I’ve seen in the cybersecurity community. And I feel like they're very much ahead in terms of the openness that they use when they talk about their personal issues, the detail in which they go, the nuance they include in their personal stories in account of what happened to them and how they found a way out. And I think that is beautiful because it is one of the most complex jobs that you can have no matter where you work in cybersecurity. It gives you a sense of meaning but it also challenges you on every aspect because you can never know it all and you never feel like you have a strong grasp of things because they keep changing and new things keep happening. And it's tied into ethics and business and everything else that happens around it. So, having that ability to look at yourself from a distance and to figure out how you need to protect and maintain your sanity and health so you can continue to serve the community and continue to show up for your colleagues and customers, and friends and family, and so on. That couldn't be more important as a key lesson for us to really let sink in.

[19:21] Andrada Fiscutean: To me, as a person struggling with anxiety and performance anxiety when it comes to doing my job, it's super helpful to see that other people are going through the same experiences right now. There was even a podcast during the pandemic with Marco Figaro, who's now at Sentinel-1, who invited hackers to talk about their mental health issues. The kind of podcast in which you would say, “How are you doing today? How was your day? What sort of hacks do you have in order to power through this and get some work done?”

[19:58] Andra Zaharia: Exactly. And kind of still maintain the human aspect of things. Because when we're burned out and when we're overwhelmed, I found that our, let's say, automatic triggers and those shortcuts that our brain uses, which are not the most mindful ones and the most empathetic ones, they become stronger simply because our body has to cope. So our biology kicks in and takes over and puts on autopilot as many of the things that it can in terms of behaviors and reactions. So, we might not be as mindful in this kind to others as we usually are simply because we don't have the resources for that. So, I think that acknowledging that and then making sure that we have that supportive community or the support group in our lives, whether it's friends, or family, or people on the internet that you've met and become friends with. I think that that is such an important lifeline. And not just now but in the future as well because we need some perspective. And we need these stories to make us feel less alone and less stuck in our own personal struggles, which we all go through. So, thank you for sharing these beautiful examples, which actually leads me to something that I wanted to ask, which is, if you can share one of the examples – of course, this was one example but perhaps another example – of when you were at the receiving end of an empathetic experience in cybersecurity as a journalist who comes to kind of meet people in their context and tell their stories.

[21:31] Andrada Fiscutean: I often find myself under a tight deadline. And I do need a quote or I do need to better understand the concept. There are a lot of people who jump in to help, who maybe schedule a Zoom call with me to explain something to me or reply to my emails, maybe in 30 minutes or so, which is super helpful. And oftentimes, these are people that I've never met, I've never maybe emailed before. This is one of the ways that I find helpful and empathetic if you want. I do imagine one researcher receiving an email from me and deciding to reply right away, although he has probably a super-long to-do list for that day. So, yeah, I think people are super helpful. And the more time I spend talking to them, I feel that the level of empathy increases throughout the community overall.

[22:40] Andra Zaharia: Oh, that is a perfect way to round up our short conversation. But I hope that we get to do this again. And hopefully, it'll give people, who are listening, insight into your work and what it means to truly practice and cultivate empathy throughout your work as a tech and cybersecurity journalist. And I cannot wait for people to discover more of your work as you do and you achieve so much. It is just incredible. And I know how big of an impact your stories have, not just from personal experience but from talking to other people who understood things and saw things from a different perspective who had clarity moments and who had that switch, just a flip in just how things connect because your stories created that space for them to think about things in a different way. So, thank you so much for sharing all of this today, and for just being such a kind, generous voice for those who don't have a strong one themselves. And I cannot wait to see what you do next.

[23:52] Andrada Fiscutean: Thank you so much. It was a great conversation. And I do hope that people within the cybersecurity community will spend more time talking about the human aspect of their job and also the mental health aspects that are maybe connected to what each of us is doing on a daily basis.