Posted in Journalism, Journalism education, objectivity, tagged Andrew Sullivan, first-person journalism, Hamilton Nolan, Jay Rosen, Journalism, objectivity, Susan Shapiro on January 4, 2013 |
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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.
Nolan found fault with a New York Times piece by Susan Shapiro, an author and journalism professor he dismissed as “teaching a gimmick: the confessional as attention-grabber.”
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. (more…)
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Death tends to bring out a tendency by journalists to exaggerate.
If you had asked NFL fans last week to list the players from the decades of the 1990s and 2000s who were “icons” or “legends,” they would have named Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Jerry Rice, Reggie White, Ray Lewis, Barry Sanders and a few others. I don’t think many would have named Junior Seau.
He was a star and a probable Hall of Famer, but I didn’t think of him as an icon or legend, and I don’t think most fans did. But his suicide made him both in the front-page headline of USA Today (I stayed in a hotel last night, so it was delivered to my door).
I should add that I would have no criticism of the use of either term by the San Diego media. He clearly was iconic there, with Dan Fouts probably one of the two greatest Charger players ever. But not nationally. It’s not a big deal, just an indication that journalism isn’t as objective as we sometimes portray it. Journalism is practiced by humans, and we react with human emotion, surprise and exaggeration sometimes. (more…)
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Posted in Ethics, Maya's return from Haiti, objectivity, tagged ABC News, Allen Thompson, Bill Simbro, David Goldman, Des Moines Register, Good Morning America, Haiti earthquake, Jared Taylor, Jeff Jarvis, journalism ethics, Kevin Smith, Mandy Poulter, Matt Poulter, Maya, NBC News, Nightline, Omaha World-Herald, Robin Roberts, Rwanda, Shenandoah Evening Sentinel, Shenandoah High School, Society of Professional Journalists, Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, Tyler Dukes on January 23, 2010 |
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One of journalism’s favorite notions is that we don’t become part of the story. We are supposed to be some sort of object (you know, objective) that doesn’t feel, that stays aloof and writes from an omniscient perch above it all.
It is a lie, and we need to stop repeating it. The first principle of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is “Seek truth and report it.” Here is the truth about journalism: Journalists aren’t objects; we are people. We feel. We have families and emotions. We have moral standards. When we show up for truly personal or potentially volatile interviews or events, we become part of the story and denying that violates our obligation to tell the truth.
But the Society of Professional Journalists denied it this week, somberly cautioning journalists in Haiti: “Report the story, don’t become part of it.” As I have written before, my family became a small part of the Haiti story this month. I will address the ethics of that story shortly. But first I want to write about the underlying ethical principles. I teach ethics in journalism seminars across North America (Ottawa, Canada, and Berkeley, Calif., this month), and I know that journalists sometimes like to reduce ethics to simple do-this-don’t-do-that rules. And ethics often aren’t that simple. (more…)
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The best journalism comes from the heart. And sometimes it breaks your heart.
That’s why I want to tell you about Allan Thompson’s heart-wrenching story, “The father and daughter we let down,” published today in the Toronto Star (and called to my attention on Twiter in a simple but eloquent tweet by my friend Roger Gillespie).
I have written before about the myth of journalistic objectivity. Journalists are not objects; we’re people. We write for people and we connect with those people by learning and telling stories that matter to people. The best journalism does not just fill the human mind with facts. It touches the heart. It roils your gut. It moistens your eye. It kicks you in the nuts. Objects can’t do that, only people.
Yes, we should be absolutely vigilant and stubborn about getting the facts right. And we should maintain independence from special interests. But the truth is even more important than the facts. And sometimes a human heart is one of the best tools for telling the truth.
Any summary of Thompson’s brilliant work will not do it justice. He tells how he first failed to grasp the importance and horror of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, but later became haunted by a Nick Hughes video that depicts the murders of a man and his daughter as they prayed. He tells of his quest to identify them and tell their story. I have seldom been as moved in reading a story as I was by the account of his 2007 visit to Rwanda, when he not only identified them but met with their widow and mother and — at her insistence — showed her the video.
I won’t tell you any more about Thompson’s story. You should read that yourself and watch the video. But I will tell you what his story reminded me about journalism:
- Too often, we keep the writer out of the story, following misguided notions about detachment and objectivity. We should not insert journalists into stories where we don’t belong, but sometimes we become characters or at least personal narrators. And we should recognize that. One of the best stories I wrote in my 10 years at the Des Moines Register was not published because of editors who were squeamish about using the first person. I’m not so squeamish. That’s why The Gazette has published first-person accounts by Lyle Muller, Adam Belz and myself about our involvement in stories we were covering.
- We can’t let tight budgets and high newsprint costs keep us from telling great stories as they should be told. I haven’t seen how much space Thompson’s story took up in The Star, but I know lots of editors would have fretted over whether to publish it at that length. I couldn’t stop reading and I’m sure many readers of The Star felt the same way. When you get a great story, space should be no object.
- Storytelling still matters. Often we write stories when all we have are sets of facts that could be presented in a variety of ways. But when you have a great story, employ your narrative skills and tell a great story. Thompson takes us right into the home of Rosalie Uzamukunda and you feel as if you are there, feeling every raw emotion as this woman finally learns how her husband and oldest daughter were killed.
- Don’t let obstacles become excuses (a journalism rule I have written about before). Tracking down and identifying people in a grainy video shot 13 years earlier sounds impossible. Most journalists wouldn’t have tried. Thompson persevered and found the story of a lifetime.
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