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

Narrative Tools: Old Newspapers, Private Records, Implicit Structure

By Bill Mitchell

Chip Scanlan has help for colleagues who are writing memoirs -- or are using the techniques of the memoirist in pursuit of stories of all sorts.

For openers, he quotes Patricia Hampl's observation that the real power of the memoir is not so much for reminiscence as for exploration.

For example, Scanlan says, "Old newspapers give me a window into my life when i was too young to understand it."

He has used the microfilm edition of the Greenwich Time, his hometown paper, to recreate the day his father died -- March 25, 1960. And he has used the microfilm editions of New York City newspapers to recapture his grandfather's role in the Tammany Hall scandal in May of 1932.

See also Scanlan's discussion of the ways private records can fill in the gap of a narrative. Example: his Dad's report card from 1933.

If all this research generates so much good material that you're struggling with its structure, Scanlan suggests looking within the material to see if "there is a structure implicit in the material itself."

Example: He used such newspaper section heads as Weather, Real Estate, Personals, Classifieds and Obituaries for his Reading the Paper piece.

Bill Mitchell works for Poynter.

Posted in memoir & personal essay, sessions.Reporting the Past, speakers.Chip Scanlan on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink