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

Crime Scenes: Building scenes and finding the universal in criminal justice stories

By Neil Shea

Narrative writers are scene-obsessed. We mine scenes, collect them, hoard them and endlessly chase them. This can be a problem. Scenes can be show stoppers. Scenes, as Pulitzer-prize winner Barry Siegel said, are not narrative.

In his discussion on building scenes in writing about crime, Siegel said that scenes are the windows that allow us into a community, into a life; they’re the points along our narrative trip where we stop to look around. But too many scenes—and poorly chosen ones—transform a story into a series of long pauses.

Scene overload is especially tempting in crime writing, Siegel said, because usually there’s a haul of court transcripts, police reports, and previous media interviews that a writer can use. But equally important to a story are the narrative threads that connect scenes and keep readers moving from window to window.

When choosing scenes, find the most telling and dramatic ones, the scenes that reveal character. The crime itself isn’t necessarily what interests Siegel. Probe for scenic details in the gray area surrounding the crime, he recommends. In the U.S. we tend to use the court system as a kind of adjudicated therapy, where judges must carve black and white decisions from a body of gray evidence. Examine the impact of the crime on the people involved and on the community; this is often where the story lies and where writers discover universal themes that reach larger audiences.

As you search out scenes, Siegel said, know that some of your best ones will never make it into the story. Avoid overload. Learn to recognize which scenes are the most revealing. Then, Siegel said, remember that scenes need narrative threads—the timelines, the movement, the authoritative insight—to make a story complete.

Neil Shea is a reporter for The Providence Journal.

Posted in crime & law, scene reconstructions, scenes, sessions.Crime Scenes, speakers.Barry Siegel 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