Journalism’s Biggest Lie and How to Fix It

What do science fiction author Robert Heinlein and Heisenberg have to do with journalism’s biggest lie? They’re both part of the solution to a fundamental problem with journalism, communication and storytelling in an era of fake news, propaganda and hyper-divided audiences.

Journalistic Objectivity is Fiction – And That’s Just Fine. – Center for Digital Ethics and Policy | Loyola University Chicago

All journalists, from their first day in class or on the job, are taught a sacrosanct principle that’s spoken of in reverential tones and repeated as if part of a monastic ritual: objectivity. It’s almost as if working journalists must become the Fair Witness of science fiction author Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land.”

Reposted courtesy of the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University, Chicago.

When Enron Collapsed

Here’s just one of hundreds of stories I wrote about the collapse of Enron. This one comes from the start of a very long period that gave me gray hairs at a young age.  By the time Enron executives were in jail or dead, the gray hair had gone. It was the business — and crime — story of a generation.

Dynegy Scrambles to Save Enron Deal

Energy: Shares of the acquisition target have fallen 45% since the merger was announced. Analysts say the companies might renegotiate. HOUSTON – A long weekend of work faced Dynegy Inc. and proposed acquisition Enron Corp., whose worsening stock woes Friday heightened fear that the deal could be renegotiated or collapse entirely.

The One Important Reader Writers Forget

Crawford Hull, MD. 1925-2001

Crawford Hull, MD. 1925-2001

Finding the Magic in That Missing Audience Member

As a professional journalist, one of the great pleasures is unearthing a lost gem from among the thousands of stories you’ve written.

One you were proud of. One that moved people. One your heart was in.

I found one today, in hard copy and gathering dust from the early digital prehistoric epoch of 2001.

It was an assignment I never wanted: My father’s obituary and eulogy.

It follows that the relative who writes for a living is called upon to record the lost loved one’s life for posterity and fare-thee-well.

Where is my time and space to grieve, I thought then, selfishly.

Yet I approached it like a journalist, asking questions, getting the details right, finding the narrative and sketching out the traits that best illuminated the character.

It was a clinical operation, relying on the muscles I used every day to tell stories fair and foul, gleeful and glum, banal and astounding, and later, horrifying and heartbreaking.

That’s the professional Off Switch that let me chronicle, unblinking, the dead of war, the hollowing despair of victims, and step around the intestines of the man or woman who was blown to pieces in Iraq so I could rush back and file the story on deadline.

This assignment was different. There was no Off Switch. To do it right, I had to embrace a loss more personal than any I’d felt before, and since.

Where was my time to grieve?

As I read it now, the joy I took in the act of writing Dad’s story is evident.

It’s a simple tale with a beginning middle and end, a narrative theme and facts I didn’t know then which have surprised me again. And, to borrow the language of digital media charlatans, I repurposed the content — a short version for the obituary page, a longer one for the eulogy I delivered.

Now, I’m working on a writing project of a scope and style I’ve never attempted before, so I assess my work daily. Finding this obituary yielded a crucial lesson from the past, one last gift from Dad:

There is one important reader we easily forget — Ourselves.

This is no exhortation to be in love with your words, to pat yourself on your back and declare your writing awesome. No.

It’s a reminder that we have to satisfy ourselves when we put pen to paper or finger to keyboard to tell a story, and not just for the sake of a job well done.

You’ve got to be happy that you told the story to the best of your ability so you’re certain you created the impact you wanted.

That’s hard to see. Self-editing is the toughest mind trick writing demands, learned through time and repetition. It’s why we have editors.

In quantum physics, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that the sheer act of observing a particle affects its behavior. The act of creating from your own experience amplifies that effect.

Hull’s Corollaries for Non-Fiction Writing, as it were, state that A) the physical observation required to tell a story colors your mind’s eye and recall of events, so pure journalistic objectivity is impossible and B) the ego involved in creating for public consumption comes with temporary blindness — hangups, arrogance, insecurities, self-infatuation and other thoughts and emotions that affect the outcome.

So put what you wrote down for an hour and come back, send it to a friend, get an editor — anything to put some distance there.

Then return as a reader. Not the writer.

Are you satisfied? Has what you created given you something back? Does it sing? Move your emotions? Is it what you wanted? Is it telling you the story you want it to tell others? Have you imbued it with the powers you wished to grant it?

You don’t need 13 years to find the missing reader you shouldn’t forget.

Reading it now, I can see I asked myself those questions while writing Dad’s story in a way meant to move and surprise others. I gave it all I had and in doing so, got my time to grieve.

Not every story is this personal — I laughed the whole time I wrote this one about Enron’s CEO calling a fund manager an asshole and still do— but the essence is the same. If your writing has an impact on you as a reader, you’re on solid ground expecting others will feel it too.

I’m proud of Dad’s story. As usual, it wasn’t mine. It was someone else’s tale, written for an audience.

But it was for me, too.