The ethics of feature writing

In Chapter 10 of The Bigger Picture, Ivor Shapiro writes of “the seductive similarity” between feature writing and fiction writing:

Both are rooted in careful observation, research, sympathy for the human condition, and careful thinking. Both are characterized by writing that paints pictures and draws the reader inward and onward by means of scenes, plot, character development, voice, tone and point of view. And both operate and succeed at two distinct levels—that of narrative (where the audience asks, in the literary critic Northrop Frye’s words, “How will this story turn out?”) and that of theme (“What is the point of this story?”).  But there are important differences, too—the most obvious of which is that good journalists don’t make stuff up….

Yes, the plot lines that we create to give meaning to events will always be products of our imaginations, but that should not stop us from seeking to report the events faithfully. Without methodological constraints aimed at maximum accuracy, we stop being journalists altogether. Which brings us back to the point made by Kovach and Rosenstiel: independent verification of all facts is a foundational basis of all journalism.

And, because intelligent readers expect to be able to evaluate the truth of your story, verification should be reasonably transparent. Facts should be attributed to their sources—though not necessarily in the lockstep forms of traditional news reporting (“according to Mr X, …” or “…Dr. So-and-so said”). If it’s quite clear to the reader that a story is being told from a certain person’s point of view, the attribution does not need to be drummed in at every turn. But a reader should know, or at least be able to guess with confidence, how you came up with and verified the story as a whole and the individual facts within it. Where a reader might be asking, “How can the writer know this?” you should be asking either the same question, or this one: “How can I tell this more clearly?”

Here are links to a few of the works mentioned in the chapter:

Mark Kramer: “Breakable Rules for Literary Journalists,” Nieman Narrative Digest, viewed February 20, 2008). 
 
Anthony DePalma, “Objectivity: not dead yet,” J-Source.ca.

Jesse Sunenblick: Straight
Story, Curved Universe: Why Michael Finkel is not Jayson Blair
. Columbia Journalism Review 44 (1), May/June 2005, p.13-14.

Ivor Shapiro: “Why They Lie: Probing The Explanations For Journalistic Cheating.” Canadian Journal of Communication 31/1 (January 2006).

Canadian Association of Journalists Statement of Principles.

See also the Ethics and Law sections of J-Source.

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