Journalist Laryngitis, or: Sacrificing voice for accuracy

The WebMD.com/katesdefinitions page defines “journalism laryngitis” as this:

A fear of using voice in journalistic writing because of pressures to attribute to sources or unbiasedly portray information.

And here’s how I came across this incapacitating virus:

One of the reporters I’m working with on a story right now turned in his first draft completely void of voice and creativity. This was a writer who had been praised for his great word choice and style on his piece about an upcoming concert, but pest control (namely, mosquito spraying) seemed to leave him dry and out of journalistic attitude.

Faculty member Sara Shipley-Hiles attributed this to a lecture she had given on plagiarism and the importance of crediting sources. Sure enough, at our one-on-one-on-one (Sara sat in) editing meeting, the reporter said that he was scared that using his voice would skew the information and make it inaccurate, thus making him a bad journalist.

Like most things that happen to me, this led me to think: as journalists, where do we draw the line between being accurate and having an entertaining voice? (Imagine Carrie Bradshaw’s voice over on that last line).

There have been far and away too many “journalists” (i.e. fiction writers employed by news organizations) who have fabricated quotes, sources and even full stories. Heck, even Fareed Zakaria recently was suspended after he admitted to making up part of a story, and if you can’t trust CNN-host-slash-Time-editor-at-large-slash-Super-Journalism-Man, who can you trust?

This man. This man right here.

Brian Williams. David Kushner. Ann Curry. Todd S. Purdum. A mass of other great journalists, writers and reporters (and combinations thereof).

Even though contribution is imperative to journalism, as is accuracy, we have to remember our no. 1 customer: the reader. We’re doing the reader no service if what we right is dry and uninteresting so they don’t want to read it. If they don’t read it, they don’t know it and we fail.

Beauracracy’s a bee (or another word, if you prefer), but that doesn’t mean you can leave out that Donna Moss’ entire title. If quoting her, she is officially the assistant to the deputy chief of staff, which makes her “deputy-deputy chief of staff,” according to a joke she attempted when taking visitors on a tour of the Oval Office.

“Hi, my name’s Donna Moss. Please attribute quotes to me correctly unless they entail the selling of moose meat on eBay or the state of North Dakota.”

A long title (and Donna’s is TINY compared to ones I’ve seen before) can be laborious to read, but it can all be fixed if the story is as interesting to read as an episode of The West Wing is to watch.

So please, journalists of the world, keep your sources attributed to but your throat spray in hand, because both are imperative to the survival of our industry.

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