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Posts Tagged ‘Rwanda’

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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