Journalism as an Encounter

People usually don’t like what’s written about them. If you’ve ever been quoted in an article somewhere, you know that journalists mess up and mangle what you say beyond recognition. One wonders why people even bother talking to them (us) at all.

Recently on The American Prospect‘s website, Courtney E. Martin had a really thought-provoking short piece “questioning journalistic objectivity.” In it, she argues for a kind of journalism j-school professors would cringe at:

I’m deeply committed to this collaborative process of talking and listening, writing and responding, editing and reflecting with my subjects. That’s the least I owe them, and rather than discouraging a poignant or honest portrait, I think it often enhances my work. The courage it takes to write about people as I really see them, flaws and all, is related to the courage it takes for them to expose themselves, and then engage in the process of commenting on my portrayal. This congruency seems to support a certain sort of magic on the page — a process of mutual pursuit of a truth, rather than a one-sided, hubristic claim on the Truth.

It’s a wonderful idea, one that has had a lot of appeal for me over the years in both journalistic and scholarly work. By sharing drafts and exchanging ideas about the finished product, the writer can forge a deeper, more trusting relationship with the subject, with the goal of creating something they can both be proud of. I love it when the people I write about recognize themselves in what I’ve written, and I’m proud that they often say they do. It is more than a matter of accurate portrayal; when that happens, the two become partners in a common project greater than themselves.

Then again, it doesn’t always work out that way. Some people I write about purposely present a false image of themselves and expect me to promulgate it. Other times, I simply disagree with their position so much that my portrayal cannot in good conscience be as sympathetic as they’d like. Or their story, in the context of different perspectives, gets cast in a light they weren’t expecting. Collaboration, in these cases, might be challenging and instructive, but it also might be impossible.

Martin situates her argument in the context of a particular project.

I’m on the final stages of writing a book — a collection of profiles of ten people under 35 who are doing interesting social justice work. It’s been necessarily intimate; these are 8,000 word, very in-depth, largely psychological profiles. They require a level of openness, on the part of the subject, and a level of listening, on the part of the journalist, that surpasses any of the shorter, less personal genres.

One can see how a collaborative model would make so much sense here. She is writing about people whom she can get behind, whom she admires. If she doesn’t already feel a sense of shared purpose with one, I imagine, she wouldn’t include them in the book. But sometimes it is necessary, important, and beautiful to portray those for whom this isn’t the case. During my recent travels in Costa Rica, for instance, I went with the intention of finding people who I really could admire, whose stories we might craft together as collaborators. But what I found was that some of the most potent stories weren’t quite that way. My account could only be true to my experience if it diverged from that which the subjects would give of themselves.

In religious studies graduate school, I learned much the same methodology that Martin attributes to journalism school: collaborate with the subject so far as necessary to get the facts right, but don’t bring them into the process of analysis and synthesis. My professors distinguished between description and explanation. Subjects should recognize themselves in a description, but not necessarily in an explanation—that’s where the scholar takes control. Religion in particular, they taught, requires special care in this regard, since religious systems often provide their own self-explanations that don’t measure up to the standards of scholarship. Of course this is insanely arrogant to say, and we all knew it.

I would put the compromise this way: let writing be an encounter. Sometimes that encounter can be more collaborative than others. A published text can be part of a challenging conversation between writer and subject, and they may disagree about how it comes out. The writer’s responsibility is to stand in some awe before that encounter, taking seriously the transcendent otherness of the other. My purpose is not to stand in judgment, but to be curious, careful, artful, and true to experience. Not necessarily to Truth, which stands beyond even this profession, but at least to the truths that we are privileged to witness.

I almost never share a draft of an article with a subject. But I always try to send the finished product, asking for feedback, asking for a response, asking that it be considered. Often, they are the audience I care most about—not because I want to please them, necessarily, but because they did me the honor of speaking to me and I want to speak to them back. I hope that they will learn from what I write, not simply bask in it.

Martin situates her piece in the context of the present moment’s storied decay of journalism. She offers her approach as a new way forward. What I fear from it, though, is the even further convergence between journalism and public relations, wherein the independent press is traded for a dependent team of ghostwriters. That may be fine for Martin’s world-savers, but in other contexts, it won’t do. What journalism needs are people who are willing to give testimony to the inconvenient in ways that are also respectful and constructive, even if not always welcome.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.