Ethics and Real Life

By Elizabeth Walters

Mark Kramer
Mark Kramer

Mark Kramer began the session by talking about the "high principles" of ethics, specifically ethical contracts of any reporter:

  • The writer-reader contract: Truth in disclosure. If you take any liberties, tell the reader.
  • The writer-source contract: Be a writer, not a friend to the source, from the beginning. Make sure your subject has an accurate impression of your relationship. Mark also invoked a key element of the Hippocratic oath: "Above all, do no harm."
  • The writer-writer contract: Writers who cheat erode trust and damage all writers.

(Later, an audience member suggested another contract: the writer-self contract.)

Chip Scanlan
Chip Scanlan

Chip Scanlan talked about one of his own ethical dilemmas in reporting and discussed what he called the "moment of truth" — that point when you have the chance to do what is ethically right or what's ethically wrong (or less right). We should listen for small warning bells within ourselves, he said. "The moment of truth may be a moment of carelessness or laziness," he said. First and foremost, he said, always be mindful of what you're doing.

Chip and Mark then took several questions from audience members, and as different topics evolved, I began to wonder what editors can do to help the ethical process. What should be our foremost ethical considerations? Because the session was ending, we didn't get much time to discuss my question, but Chip said that the reader's interests must be first priority. Second priority: minimize harm.

Quote of the session, from Chip discussing a source who wouldn't let him use her name because, she said, people were after her: "I guess you should always ask — is anyone after you? Are you on anybody's hit list?"

Suggested reading: Chip says everyone should read Mark's book "Invasive Procedures."

(I'd also suggest anyone interested in fact and truth in memoir should read "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" by Dave Eggers, with the appendix, "Mistakes We Knew We Were Making.")

Viewing suggestion: Chip says "Shattered Glass" gives audiences a hint of the pathology of lying.

Elizabeth Walters is a copy editor at the Concord Monitor in Concord, N.H.

Posted in attribution & sourcing, ethical reporting, narrative after Jayson Blair, scene reconstructions, sessions.Applied Ethics 101, speakers.Chip Scanlan, speakers.Mark Kramer on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Writing About Science: No Easy Answers

By Matt Thompson

This could all be very controversial.

Cornelia Dean, science writer extraordinaire, former science editor of The New York Times, takes issue with the notion that newspapers are supposed to educate the public. Not so, says Dean. Our job is to give the news, to tell the truth about what's happening in the world.

A quibbling distinction?

Consider the prostate cancer screening test, widely recommended for men over 50. Although, as the adage goes, "early detection saves lives," the mortality rate for prostate cancer has not dropped since the screening test became widespread. And the test itself carries the risk of making men incontinent or impotent.

Basically, it's not at all certain whether the screening test saves lives or damages them in the big picture. The science journalist's job, Dean said, is to report this uncertainty, not to hold back from fear of discouraging people or confusing them about testing. Our impulse to be didactic shouldn't distract from our responsibility to tell the truth.

"If the issue is confusing," Dean said, "then confusion is an appropriate response."

Posted in ethical reporting, science, sessions.Science Narratives for an Election Year, speakers.Cornelia Dean on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Lemann to Nieman: How 'Bout Some Rules?

By Robin Sloan

During Saturday's Ethics Keynote Panel, Nick Lemann made a suggestion to the assembled attendees of the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism: Set some standards.

Lemann is a member of the Society of American Historians, a group of "historians who can write" and journalists interested in serious history. He proposed a code of ethics to the group -- something that would go beyond plagiarism to address issues such as scene reconstruction and quotes that an author didn't witness him- or herself. But, he says, "I've had absolutely no luck with this."

He said it was especially important for the book industry, because -- and this was a big surprise to me -- non-fiction books are not fact-checked. So standards and norms matter a lot.

He encouraged the Nieman Foundation or some other group to take up the task. He thinks it would be very useful -- just a short statement that declares what is and isn't ethical. "Of course," he says, tongue in cheek, "the result of all this is that people love us, trust us, revere us even more than they already do."

Robin Sloan works at The Poynter Institute.

Posted in attribution & sourcing, book-length narratives, ethical reporting, scene reconstructions, sessions.Keynote Panel: What's a True Story?, speakers.Nick Lemann on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Describe, Don't Decide

By Elizabeth Walters

"Make every word count" is a phrase many beginning journalists are instructed to remember and write by. It can be a difficult process cutting out all those little extras we constructed so carefully. But in his session "Shaping Realities," Jack Hart showed us that we can't stop at a spare, accessible style and call an article ready. In our exercises, we learned that, in fact, every word does count, so we'd better be sure that we mean each word we place on the page.

The assignment seemed innocuous -- we were given some facts and a description of a man and then had 10 minutes to write a narrative lede about him. In the first exercise, he'd won the lottery; in the second, his son had died in Iraq. We wrote our paragraphs, using only the information on the paper -- and then found out that much of our writing was based on assumptions we couldn't prove.

How did we know he'd change because he won the lottery? How did others of us know he wouldn't change? How did we know the drought was to blame for the failed crops? Maybe he was just a lousy farmer. How do we know he's sad about his son? Maybe they hated each other.

And so on. We quickly learned that much of what we hold to be truth in a story, especially in description and characterization, is based on our own assumptions and values. But Hart made it a painless lesson -- after all, once we're aware that we're working from assumption, we can do more legwork and work from truth.

But Hart cautioned that we shouldn't shy away from description. "We also go wrong," he said, "by holding back too much of ourselves."

P.S.: He also said everyone needs to read "The Art and Craft of Feature Writing" by Bill Blundell.

Elizabeth Walters is a copy editor for the Concord Monitor in Concord, N.H.

Posted in ethical reporting, mistakes in reporting, sessions.Ethics of Framing the World with Narrative, speakers.Jack Hart on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

The Gold Standard of Ethics

By Terry Farish

I couldn’t leave Jack Hart. I stayed with him for two sessions, “Ethical Narrative Reporting and Writing in the Post-Jayson Blair Era” and “Shaping Realities: The Ethics of Framing the World With Narrative.” He was talking about all the things I have been struggling with for two years. I want to keep him with me, or would he take me back to Oregon? All these questions I have spun round and round with.

Attribution? Jack says go ahead with it, even if it’s clunky in the storytelling; it reassures. Reconstruction of a scene when the writer isn’t there? OK, if clearly set up and attributed. Assumptions? Of course, that’s what they pay you for. Just be aware. Does what you see warrant the assumption? Or is it your own autobiography filling in the gaps? (My paraphrase, Jack Hart, who I want to write for.) “We are fragile vessels,” Jack says; we have selective perception.

“It’s never OK to deceive the reader,” Jack says. I find that a measure I can hold on to. Jack gave a history of piping, a not uncommon practice in earlier days, “making up stories out of old cloth.” Most of all Jack says, narrative writing has every reason to be questioned since there are so many opportunities for ethical lapses. Read Walt Harrington, Jack suggests. “This guy’s the gold standard.”

Terry Farish writes novels, including If the Tiger, and is at work on a nonfiction book about teenagers from Sudan. She teaches writing at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.

Posted in attribution & sourcing, ethical reporting, sessions.Ethical Reporting Post-Jayson Blair, sessions.Ethics of Framing the World with Narrative, speakers.Jack Hart on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink