Journalism isn’t narcissism, as Hamilton Nolan noted correctly in his Gawker headline. But as Nolan elaborated, I heard an old theme that I think has misguided lots of journalists. Journalism also isn’t machinery. Journalism is practiced by humans, and journalists and journalism professors who deny their humanity diminish their journalism.
Shapiro encourages her feature-writing students to “shed vanity and pretension and relive an embarrassing moment that makes them look silly, fearful, fragile or naked.” Nolan counters that journalism students instead need to be taught to write other people’s stories:
Your friends, and neighbors, and community members, and people across town, and across your country, and across the world far and wide are all brimming with stories to tell. Stories of love, and war, and crime, and peril, and redemption. The average inmate at your local jail probably has a far more interesting life story than Susan Shapiro or you or I do, no matter how many of our ex-boyfriends and girlfriends we call for comment. All of the compelling stories you could ever hope to be offered are already freely available. All you have to do is to look outside of yourself, and listen, and write them down.
I believe both journalists are right. Journalists need to tell the important untold stories of their communities. Most journalism should be outward-looking. But personal insight can and often should be part of the process of listening and writing down other people’s stories.
Nolan probably would have approved of the teaching approach of one of my journalism professors (who has long since died, so I won’t name him) who forbid his students from writing in the first person. No one cares what the journalist thinks, this professor said, allowing rare exceptions for columnists who have built strong personal connections with readers over the years.
I generally don’t believe in extremes and for too much of my career, too much of journalism swung to the Nolan extreme, preaching “objectivity” and telling journalists to keep themselves out of their stories. When I did some disaster reporting in Venezuela for the Des Moines Register in 2000, my editors wouldn’t let me write a first-person account that told the stories of the people I encountered but made me a character in the story.
Those same journalists who say we should be objective also preach that our job is to “seek truth and report it,” the first principle of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.
Well, here’s a truth many of those journalists overlook or deny: We can’t keep ourselves out of our stories. We’re not objects; we’re people. Those stories of love, and war, and crime, and peril, and redemption that journalists need to tell require a lot of humanity to tell effectively. Even if you never use first person or never make the story about yourself, your own humanity and the personal connection you make is essential to the success of the interview(s) that will help you tell those stories.
In this particular context, I’m not criticizing the culture of objectivity in the sense of journalists expressing opinions, though I’ve done that. What concerns me here is the call to suppress our individual humanity — the personal insight and experience that can enhance storytelling.
One of the best journalists I ever worked with was Ken Fuson, formerly of the Des Moines Register. Ken didn’t use first person a lot in his writing, but every story he wrote reflected Ken’s humanity — his empathy with the people he wrote about, his sense of humor, his sense of tragedy, his gift of using the right words and the perfect metaphors.
A group of Digital First Media journalists recently discussed the issue of journalists’ expressions of opinion and Jay Rosen‘s criticism of the “View from Nowhere” practice of journalism (Jay joined that discussion). Our recommendations call for editors and reporters to discuss whether a reporter is experienced enough in his or her beat to start writing with authority. I think that’s an important distinction for journalists, news organizations and journalism professors to make — that journalism is not a one-size-fits-all profession. Sometimes we should keep the focus elsewhere, but we should not forget the value and power of the personal voice.
And sometimes, I believe, journalists need to recognize that we are in our stories and that we have insights and experiences that not only are worth sharing, but that we should share.
When Mimi was a columnist for the Minot Daily News in the early 1990s, I gave her some Nolan-like advice, encouraging her to tell the stories of people in the community and not to spend too much time telling personal stories. It was better to leave the community wanting to know more about you, I advised her, than to reveal so much that people wished you’d shut up.
Not for the first or last time in our marriage, Mimi didn’t follow my advice. She did tell lots of stories from the community, but those stories often came mixed with personal anecdotes and insights. And some columns were entirely personal (or about our family). I thought she wrote too much about personal matters. I was more circumspect in my editor’s column, mostly writing about community matters or explaining decisions we had made for the paper.
When the publisher fired me (and dropped Mimi’s column) in 1992, reaction from the community was much stronger about losing Mimi. She had made a stronger connection in the community than I had. Four other North Dakota newspapers quickly snapped up her column, and it took me six months to find a new job.
As Ann Friedman noted in her response to Nolan, a journalist’s personal connection to the community has an economic value that Andrew Sullivan may be demonstrating in his move to take the Daily Dish independent, supported only by subscriptions and donations from the community he has built blogging for various media companies. (I recommend Jay Rosen’s piece on the Sullivan move, too. Since I’ve sworn off writing about paywalls, I’m going to refrain from my own post about Sullivan’s move, but I’ve subscribed and I think his ad-free approach to supporting a small operation through subscriptions and donations, with no charge for people coming from inbound links, has better potential than most paywall efforts I’ve seen by newspapers.)
I probably blog too much here about my family and my career, but I also know that the personal connection I have made with readers of my blog has helped my career. Journalists absolutely should tell stories of other people. Those have been the best stories of my career and they are the stories I most enjoy as a reader and as a journalist. But we need to recognize the importance of humanity in journalism, too. I encourage journalists to follow the advice of both Hamilton Nolan and Susan Shapiro.
What do you think?
This is a topic I have addressed here before. Rather than repeating those points any further, I’ll list some links (a couple of them already linked above):