Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Responsible Journalism

There is a big difference between telling a story believably and telling it truly. I had to learn the difference quickly in 2003 when I left higher education for a stint at journalism. I had published some fiction and one of the novelist’s main concerns is making his plot, characters and situations seem real. In other words, the fiction writer must discipline himself to be a great liar. William Faulkner, for example, said he was always such a convincing liar he had a lot of trouble telling the truth. An Oxford, Mississippi native, a contemporary of Faulkner, said the novelist once told her, “I create much more interesting characters than God ever did.”

Writers often excuse their prevarication by saying that their tales illustrate a deeper truth than verifiable reality. Perhaps a lie is not a lie when it is not intended to deceive. Our willingness to suspend our disbelief as we read a fictional story is evidence that we feel it is permissible for people to lie to us if the lie entertains. It seems particularly non-blameworthy if it enlightens.

A strange thing happens to fiction writers after they get into their plot: characters have a way of coming to life. In a way they take a kind of control of the story. The consummate American literary giant, Mark Twain, explained it this way to a little girl who had asked him how he wrote stories: “I create a few characters and turn them loose in a manuscript and before long I have a story completed and it never costs me an idea.”

But journalism is a different matter. The newspaper reporter has to deny himself, take up his notepad and record the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Oh, there are many times when he may be tempted to improve upon the story in a police report, or jazz up the proceedings of city council or organize the random thoughts of a politician—but he must resist the temptation. The “who-what-when-where-why” may seem bland, but those elements of verifiable reality must remain paramount in the reporter’s consciousness.

For this reason, newspaper people ask a lot of questions and make a lot of follow-up telephone calls. If his memory fails or if his penmanship is faulty, he has to do further research. With deadlines breathing down his neck, he tries to get the story right the first time, but he dare not go to print with incomplete data, erroneous details or garbled thoughts. The reporter becomes his own best critic, insisting that everything he turns in to be published would make sense to those with a basic English vocabulary.

When the reporter goes to the courthouse to attend a trial or to look at the circuit court docket, he walks on eggshells. He dare not err for three reasons. First, he must respect the absolute truth absolutely. Second, he must not offend his neighbor by getting the facts wrong at the expense of reputation. Finally, he is responsible to thousands of people who read his report and believe it—any swerving, deliberate or otherwise, has unknown but potentially profound consequences.

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