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.”