You decide where to draw the line. You decide what’s acceptable and what isn’t. And being mature adults, you’d think no one needs to talk about the ethics of storytelling. But when we start to stoop to these lengths to sell… Well, I think it does need to be discussed.
You see, I believe that when we have storytelling skills and the power to influence others, we have an unspoken obligation to use this power carefully. I believe we need to have respect for others and consider the potential consequences of telling our stories and using them to pitch sales.
I don’t believe every story should be told – or sold.
As a reporter, I find myself debating the story-worthiness of ideas and details almost daily. Should I say that this person charged with a DWI lost her brother to a DWI accident? Do I include that the man charged with sexual assault of a child knew her as a leader in their church? Do I repeat that this intoxicated senior wasn’t wearing pants when the cop asked her to get out of the car? (Yes, these have all come up, even pantsless granny. I think she had some weed, too.)
Our newspaper staff regularly deliberates what should become public and what should remain private.
Even when dealing with public records, you still have to ask yourself whether elements of a story should be told. This is a matter of both effectively and ethically telling a story.
Sensational stories sell papers. But sensationalized writing is not ethical.
If the bottom line of our editorial judgment is selling more papers, our editorial bottom line has sunk far too low.
In the newsroom, we try to tell the right stories by asking ourselves: why is this news? The answer ought to be because the story brings needed information to the community.
All writers should ask themselves: why does this story need to be told?
The answer will reveal a lot towards deciding whether the story should be told in public. (I think private writing is fair game for any story, but that’s a different blog entry).
Here are some of the worst reasons I’ve heard as justification for publishing stories:
- We need to fill the space (In the newsroom this is often paired with, it’s better than pulling from the wire.)
We once ran a religion column that spiritually denounced parents of AD/HD children. The author, a local man known for writing either incomprehensible or intolerant columns, essentially said that biblical parents wouldn’t have those problems. I felt that the column would not facilitate intelligent discussion but simply spread bigotry.
Regardless of whether I was right or wrong, I feel strongly that justifying the printing of that piece merely because we couldn’t fill the space was clearly wrong. There needs to be a better reason.
- Inaccuracy is the columnist’s problem, not ours. On more than one occasion, the paper I work for has run columns with facts without sources. We would never cite these facts without a reference in our front-page material, but my editor has justified this by stating that it’s a column. If people have a problem with it, it’s the columnist’s fault, not the paper’s.
To me, this is beside the point: we are still publishing that writing under our reputation. Unless it’s next to cute cartoons on the editorial page, people should be able to trust what they read in our paper across the board.
Also, readers do not innately recognize different kinds of writing like we do. Opinion, editorial, and any column should be clearly labeled as such. Period.
- I need the money. Writers sell their work. It’s part of the starving-writer complex we’re all trying to solve (right?). While writing for income may be legitimate, it’s not the real reason that a story needs to be told.
- I want to be published. Writers are dying for validation – many of us struggle to believe in our writing if it’s not being published. Humans inherently crave recognition by our peers. But, like the money issue, this is not a reason a story needs to be told. It comes from the writer’s ego, not the piece itself.
- Because I’m tired of working on it. The writing process can feel never-ending, especially if you realize the value of rewriting. But it’s far better to put your work aside to marinate while you refocus elsewhere instead of haphazardly sending it off into the publishing abyss. This is your baby; don’t leave it on someone’s doorstep when you get fed up.
Just like there are poor reasons for bringing a child into the world, there are poor reasons for bringing writing into the world.
The trend in poor reasoning for writing is that they are self-serving justifications.
While authorship matters, solid writing ultimately should be able to stand on its own – without an ego to back it.
More optimistically, there are real reasons to present stories publicly. Look for the next post for good reasons for publishing work.