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

OnPoint Radio Series on the Conference

Press Release From On Point

Earlier this month, some of the country's best writers met in
Cambridge, Massachusetts for the 2003 Nieman Conference on
Narrative Journalism to share their best work. As part of a
continuing tradition, On Point brings you a selection of their stories
from across the country, delivered in the authors' own voices. The
conference was organized by Harvard University's Nieman
Foundation for Journalism

In Part I of the series we hear from New Yorker writer Susan Orlean,
UC Berkeley's Cynthia Gorney, author and journalist Adrianne
Nicole LeBlanc, and Pulitzer Prize winning journalists Thomas
French, Sonia Nazario, Jacqui Banasynski and Victor Merina.

In Part II of the series we hear from independent broadcast
journalist and four-time Peabody Award winner Jay Allison,
Washington Post's Anne Hull, director of the Neiman Program on
Narrative Journalism Mark Kramer, co-founder of Mother Jones
Magazine Adam Hochschild, Pulitzer Prize-winning author
Samantha Power, writer Arlie Hochschild and Columbia University's
Patricia Williams.

Posted in about the conference, speakers.Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, speakers.Anne Hull, speakers.Arlie Hothschild, speakers.Cynthia Gorney, speakers.Jacqui Banaszynski, speakers.Jay Allison, speakers.Mark Kramer, speakers.Patricia Williams, speakers.Samantha Power, speakers.Sonia Nazario, speakers.Susan Orlean, speakers.Tom French, speakers.Victor Merina on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Raising Your Voice: Who speaks when you write?

By Neil Shea

To hear Mark Kramer and Susan Orlean tell it, finding your writerly voice involves a lot of self-editing.

Voice drifts through our narratives, and whether we realize it or not, readers respond to the author’s voice, drawing conclusions about his personality and even the story itself. So, says Kramer, voice should appear “like the casual walk of a tightrope walker.” Voice should seem simple and read easily, but it should carry the weight of your training, experience and authority with a subject.

To get to this sublime level of “voice” we must pare down our writing and make it clear and clean. Get rid of abstractions, unclutter the text or the meaning—and the voice—remain hidden. Intense self-editing leads to self-discovery and to a better understanding of voice.

In the search for voice, Susan Orlean recommends thinking about how you would explain an exciting or interesting story to your friends. Or read your piece aloud to divine your voice. Ask, who is speaking here? Am I writing with a patchwork voice that I picked up along the way? Some jumble of newspaper-voice mixed in with the voice of a writer I admire? Read and edit your work closely, learn to identify your crutches or gimmicks.

Voice is a tool and sometimes a trap. Thinking too much about voice pushes some writers to choose first person narratives—even when first person isn't a good fit for the story. Well done, voice gives readers a feeling of connection with the author without the need for “I”. Orlean and Kramer don’t believe writers can invent voices for themselves. It is more than words on a page. It is the subtle thing that allows us to guide and accompany our readers, even though we're not sitting next to them. That's why, Orlean says, "understanding who you are and why you're a writer is a big part of this."

Neil Shea is a reporter for The Providence Journal.

Posted in editing narrative, sessions.Raising Your Voice, speakers.Mark Kramer, speakers.Susan Orlean, voice on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Control Your Sentences

By Matt Thompson

Mundane Nuts & Bolts Tips for Controlling Sentences by Mark Kramer:

  • Virtually ban "to be" in all its forms. Mark Kramer: "'Is-ness' is the donkey by which meaning is conveyed in saddlebags."
  • Mark Kramer grants you a crate loaded with full stops. There are literally trillions of periods in there. When they run out, he says, e-mail for more.
  • Get rid of abstract verbs like "presents" or "suggests." One you get strong verbs in your sentences, your style will take care of itself.
  • Go down low on the ladder of abstraction -- not "creature," not "cow," but "Old Bossy."
  • No clichés: Kramer's convinced that nothing is whiter than snow.
  • Give up the words "when" and "as." Transform simultaneity into action, unless simultaneity is the purpose.

Matt Thompson is a reporter for Poynter Online.

Posted in sessions.Raising Your Voice, speakers.Mark Kramer, speakers.Susan Orlean, style, voice on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink