Ethics: a hazy dilemma

At Southern Miss, I have not taken a media ethics class yet. So I am really glad the assigned reading was about ethics in journalism. I like to think of myself as a very accurate reporter. I only want to tell the story as a the truest sense of reality to the reader and to the subject. I always make sure to double check my quotes and observations in my notebook. When I took my first reporting class last semester, I learned how to be ethical through finding credible sources and asking open-ended questions.

But, nothing has prepared me for the grey areas of reporting until I read this chapter “In Telling True Stories.” I was not prepared when Anne Hull told her reporting experience with a family in deep poverty. I was completely dumbfounded. When Hull describes the scene when the family’s baby has a high fever and the parents could not afford to drive her to the hospital, I wondered what I would do in this situation. Human instinct would tell me to immediately offer to drive my car to the hospital. But, Hull stood back and did her job, even though I predicted this was one of the biggest ethical dilemmas she has dealt with. 

So where do journalists draw the line between remaining ethical and remaining human while reporting? I do understand how intervening the situation changes the story completely. In Hull’s situation, the universal theme of her story, a poor family living on the edge could have been altered by her actions. And if the baby’s fever would have gotten worse, she would have intervened. This reporter’s situation made me realize that the basic framework is we are here to do our job. We cannot let the story suffer because we altered a situation that distorted its context. 


Outlines are essential

I find I cannot write a story without a structured and focused outline. Depending on if it is a short feature story or long feature story, the outlines will be different. The long feature story would be more detailed and possibly include more potential sources. Outlining can be tedious, but I find I write the best stories when my thoughts are clearly writing down and laying right next to my laptop. 

In “Telling True Stories,” I appreciated how the authors talked about the editor-writer relationship because it is good for writers to understand that the relationship is not meant to assert authority. I am an editor myself and I always find myself constantly improving my writing. Also, it was interesting how they said editing can take more than two or three drafts for a piece to be publishable. It is a process that takes patience and immense reflecting on myself. As far as style goes, I was intrigued how the author made the suggestion always keep Strunk and Whites, “The Elements of Style” nearby your writing desk. I also enjoyed the other style ideas presented such as embody the ideas in the nature of language, restore worn-out words, take an art class (really?), use concrete detail and compose the piece. These elements really make a feature piece coherent and interesting to the reader. Our audience, after all, is the most important. 

Lead the reader or lose them

The “The Art of Feature Writing” and “Leading the Way” give some great examples of different leads to use in feature writing. The leads I use the most are the setting lead and the descriptive lead. I love writing in scenes and painting a picture in the reader’s mind. These two sections make me realize that these leads are just guidelines for a good feature story introduction. They help the writer focus on the central theme of the story. But, the main theme for a good lead is to draw the reader in and grab their attention. The lead has to make the reader feel something and for them to clear all preconceived notions about a specific topic to read on. It has to be simple and concise for them to understand. 

In my travel feature story lead, I decide to become a screenwriter for 20 minutes and write down what I see, what I smell and what I hear. I feel this is where I produce my best writing because it is completely honest. This technique produces my most creative, descriptive writing. A descriptive lead is by far my favorite because it makes me be honest with reader and “show” a story, rather than “tell.”

Therefore, I enjoy reading about different leads because there is a place for each one of them. Depending on the topic of the story, a dramatic or surprise lead can be appropriate. The most important thing I have to remember is to capture the audience’s attention or I will lose them all together. I always think to myself: If I am reading this lead, would I want to read on or flip to the next story? I put myself in the reader’s shoes and discount myself for a few minutes. After all, the audience is what keeps me moving forward in my writing. 

Structure is the writer’s foundation

The first quote in Part IV: Constructing a Structure really stands out to me even though it is written informally and quite vague. Walt Harrington says, “I have to write crap before I can write anything that is not crap.” This quote resonates with me because it is difficult to find a good starting point when I am writing a story. Therefore, I think the best thing to do when writing a story is to just write even if it is a jumbled mess of fragments and quotes. It is also helpful that the author said to write the conclusion first because the ending is the goal I am reaching for to wrap up my main points and themes.

The section “What Narrative Writers Can Learn from Screenwriters” is inspiring because Nora Ephron tells her aspiring screenwriters to not become a screenwriter, but to become a journalist. This is interesting because when one is a journalist, they show what is happening in the story rather than just telling it. When one is a screenwriter and has experience in the journalism field, Ephron says this contributes to better structure of an overall script. 

I also appreciate the section about endings by Bruce Desilva. Endings are tricky. In journalism, endings can be non-existent, especially in a news story. I like how Desilva mentioned that using a quote to end a story should not be done often. He is right, I don’t want give someone else the last word to my story. The examples of a good ending are helpful for future stories. My two favorites are a vividly drawn scene and a compelling crafted conclusion in which the writer addresses the reader directly and says, “This is my point.” Therefore, the ending completes the entire structure of the story, so I plan to be more creative with my endings in the future. 

Comments on writing commentary

I think writing commentary is one of the most exciting features to write. Basically, you take an idea in the news and write the story in a different perspective. I really appreciated the advice the author gave about writing commentary: “Collect facts, ideas and thoughts you want to include in your work. And then devote time to reviewing them and establishing their importance.” Honestly, this is a challenge for me sometimes when I have a commentary idea. I may think it is a wonderful idea, but the readers may think otherwise. It is important to think of the audience first. 

I absolutely love writing humorous editorials because I really show my personality in the story. But, I now have a different view of humorous commentary. Humor pieces can be persuasive, informative and interpretive. To execute humor well in a story, it must have a purpose and a focus on one central idea. The “writing to persuade” section was helpful in that it laid out a basic outline for persuasive commentary stories. I now feel more confident in presenting idea because the outline will keep me on track with stating the problem and my position and then presenting the arguments or evidence. 

Also, the section in Chapter six about a standard review format was very helpful. I am in the process of writing a movie review.  While most think writing about a movie you saw is simple, it requires more work than you think. Yes I saw the movie and I have mixed reviews about it. But, what are those underlying views? That’s the difficult part. I like the how author was straightforward and said to talk about appraisal of work, intent of the artists, synopsis of the work, evidence supporting your approval and if the artist’s intent was accomplished or not accomplished. 

Writing profiles: More than meets the eye

I had never had a lot of knowledge about how to exactly write a profile story. I have written one personality profile and I will admit, it was not half bad for my first go-round. My subject for the profile was Owen Bowen, a employee who works in the Southern Miss Athletic Administration. I had never met him before, but I had wonderful stories from other people I had interviewed about him. The most interesting part about interviewing him was asking the details and the questions no one else would usually ask him. 

If I could rewrite his profile story, I would do a few things differently. One, I would describe the people and the place. In Telling True Stories, Jaqui Banasynski says to locate the characters, to describe them physically and to explain their motivations. I met O.B. in the Fresh Food Company while he was eating lunch and talking with his friends. I should have described the environment in more detail and how interesting it was that O.B. ate at the same place and same time every day. 

Also, I would make O.B. a storyteller. I merely just interviewed him rather than asking open-end questions to dig deeper into his life. Banasynski says to ask questions so layered, so deep and so odd that they elicit unusual responses. I found it interesting when the author said you interview right, you will feel exhausted after you leave an interview. 

Therefore, it is difficult sometimes to see interviewing as a real job. Most see writing the story as the hard part. I had this mindset since I came to Southern Miss. But, now I realize the interview is just as important as the story. If you have a good, meaningful conversation with your subject, then the story is already formed. It makes our jobs as journalists a lot easier. 

So being a fly on the wall isn’t so bad

Anne Hull brought up a good point when she discusses that reporters should be humble with their writing. She uses humble in a context I have never thought about before. Hull said it honors the person you are trying to observe. Now I see that fading into the background sometimes is the best way to observe people, just like a photographer taking photos. 

Also, I am intrigued by the Hull’s story about spending a lot of time with the Paloma women from Mexico who traveled to North Carolina to shell blue crabs ten hours a day. I now see reporting in a different way because it is foreign to feel something you have never experienced or live like someone else. Hull illustrates this well when she said if a reporter can feel what the subject is feeling, it really opens their heart and makes the reporter understand the subject. 

It is comforting to know that many experienced writers struggle with the writing process. I can write stories and meet deadlines, but are they my best work? Probably not. Hull explains that when a writer has an extended deadline, they can spend time making each word count and recrafting their sentences. 

When reporting in a different city, I believe finding a sense of place is the most difficult. Hull said most journalists tend to be self centered and want questions, answers and are on a specific time clock to jump to the next assignment. Now I see how reporting for feature stories can be exciting way to travel and learn about new cultures. 

Hull’s quote really said it all. “You want to have a sense of place, not just give a laundry list of details.”

The art ‘speaks’ for itself

I thought the Art of Interviewing chapter was helpful because it prepares a writer for every type of interview such as telephone interviews and even celebrity interviews (though I could not imagine having a celebrity interview). I was glad the author reminded me that “good research is good armor.” A writer knowing their source before they walk into the interview is the key to asking great questions.

But, when the author discusses that being persistent is essential when a reporter needs to get important information for a story, I felt slightly uncomfortable. I understand that the information is significant to writing the story, but maybe there is another way to go about gathering information from sources. Honestly, I would feel like Veronica Corningstone, the hardcore journalist, from the famous comedy, Anchorman.

The overall theme of this chapter does speak volumes: Good things happen when you let people talk. Interviewing is an art form in the sense that the interviewer is letting the interviewee speak for themselves.

In telling True Stories, the debate was to tape or not tape. I personally admire the tape recorder and all of the wonderful things it can do that I cannot remember or write down. Although I remind myself to be a good listener with the tape recorder on, it is my safety net in capturing everything my source says.

As I read the seven phases of interviewing, I was surprised by how effective      these phases could work in a real interview. Phase three: moment of connection and Phase six: declaration stick out to me the most because they are turning points in the interview. They reveal the most valuable information to add to the story.




Research is the key to fresh ideas…Really?

As a writer, I believe we must be connected with many resources depending on what topic we are writing about. But, this chapter somewhat contradicted with the first chapter I read in “Telling True Stories” a couple of weeks ago. “Telling True Stories” encouraged the writer to find inspiration and fresh ideas from the world around them. However, the search for information chapter discussed that a freelancer in today’s world must learn great research and reporting skills. Otherwise, we are not generating fresh ideas. While this is insightful, it is not how I generate ideas. I find ideas from my observations every day.

While going to the library and searching through infinite links on Google is helpful, where is the fun is this? This chapter could make a freelance writer feel forced to find information for a story. On the other hand, if a writer is digging for information about a government investigation, thumbing through police and government records is essential for the story to be accurate. 

Maybe I just enjoy the freedom aspect as a freelancer because this chapter does not appeal to me. The resources made me feel confined to specific sources. Only one time did the chapter mention, “oh by the way, you can use human sources.” Well I am aware that human sources tell the writer most of the story! The information discussed is important for background information such as statistics and police records.

The chapter would have been more appealing if the author had emphasized how important it is to still use human sources as primary sources. 

A freelancing career isn’t easy, yet it is rewarding

In “The Art of Feature Writing,” about the business side of freelancing, I did not know how much work it is to make freelancing a career and pay the monthly bills. The business side gives a lot of information about how to submit a query letter, what reputable markets to sell your stories to and how to take rejections and keep writing no matter what. Honestly, it would be difficult for me to be only a freelance writer, especially if I am a rookie and just starting to send my work to various newspapers and magazines.

I think it is helpful that the chapter explained how to follow up about a query letter or story submission. Before I read this, I always felt unsure of when and how I should follow up with an editor. Therefore, a freelance writer has to sell themselves to get their work published. They have to be “politely” aggressive and accept rejections and move on to the next newspaper or magazine.

In “Telling True Stories,” Jim Collins gives a brighter perspective to being a freelance writer. Collins seems he is very good at his career because when he admitted how much he was paid for feature stories and a book advance. These various pieces added up to a decent salary. I appreciate how Collins expressed that freelance writers need to start reporting before they pitch an idea to an editor. This would give the writer a good story angle to pitch to the editor if he or she is interested and asks more details.

I also admire his strategies when approaching a magazine for the first time. My favorite strategy is thinking of a story idea that I can only write. Sometimes, I think too outside of the box, when I should be just observing and reflecting about my life experiences. But I believe the great aspect about freelancing is complete freedom in what you write. This is certainly rewarding.