Taking Narrative to the Next Level

By Matt Thompson

Roy Peter Clark, Poynter's vice president and Senior Scholar, has written an article for Poynter Online about a narrative series written by Oregonian staff writer Tom Hallman, and edited by Jack Hart. Not only is it a spectacular model of storytelling, but Hallman and Hart took care of attribution issues with a separate section called "How We Reported the Story." Take a look.

Matt Thompson is a reporter for Poynter Online.

Posted in attribution & sourcing, disaster & rescue, scenes, speakers.Jack Hart, working with editors & reporters 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