A common problem I’ve noticed with young or budding journalists, or at least young writers trying to delve into journalism, isn’t so much a matter of technical skill as it is a failure of balance.
I’ve had countless conversations with MSU Reporter News Editor Megan Kadlec about this very problem: Some writers just can’t seem to differentiate between PR writing and journalism. They talk about upcoming events with the air of a TV pitchman and the tact of the same. “So come on down to the dance,” they might say in an article that really should just be listing background information and time and place details. This is both silly and potentially unethical; it seems like you’re working for whatever event is being promoted rather than for a newspaper reporting that an event is going to happen.
This is more difficult to spot in some cases than straight editorialism, the random injection of opinion into a fact-based article. This can be easy, even unintentional, and definitely fixable, and many writers pick up pretty quickly that their job isn’t to express their opinion, but to report the truth.
Which is why it’s all the more frustrating to read an article, a cover story, from a professional journalist in an internationally respected publication and see flagrant, often totally unnecessary editorializing.
Such an article is Newsweek‘s latest cover story, “The War on Christians” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. A fascinating story about religious intolerance and violence in the Muslim world is completely undermined by Ali’s insistence on telling the reader what to think and feel at every turn.
It’s not just in the subhead or in the opening and closing summaries either; Ali seems to inject himself into every other line. “The conspiracy of silence surrounding this violent expression of religious intolerance has to stop,” he writes in the middle of the third paragraph. By the middle of the third paragraph, I already felt like I was being shouted at.
Now, editorials are common cover stories forNewsweek, and a little editorial content could be expected with a story of this size. But the problem is one of finesse and propriety. Ali is writing as though he’s sending out a press release for an activist group instead of informing the public of a growing problem. It doesn’t require these interjections, and in fact they make the story as a whole much less impactful.
An example of truly stellar journalism in a similar vein would be Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s story on homosexual teens in Minnesota that was published in Rolling Stone. Erdely’s story has a visible aim and a slant, to be sure (the headline “One Town’s War Against Gay Teens” is pretty obvious), but Erdely is absent from the story itself. In place of blatant editorial statments, we get facts, stories of individuals involved, and in-depth reporting that makes the reader feel something at the end, that a call of action is necessary to make things right.
This isn’t all on Ali’s shoulders. There is an epidemic of bad writing sweeping through journalism as some publications push sensationalism over quality reporting.Newsweekhas been on the right and wrong side of this problem recently, with covers and headlines that go for shock value (“Why Are Obama’s Critics So Dumb?”), wit (“The Book of Mormon” with a photoshop of Mitt Romney’s head on the body of an actor from the broadway play), or violence like the Ali cover this week. They feel the need to create headlines with their headlines, and that smacks of journalistic dishonesty.
I realize the irony of decrying such editorial comments as Ali’s in an editorial that seems to be clubbing the point home just as heavily. But writers need to consider their words carefully. Do you want a reader to come to a certain conclusion, or do you distrust your readers’ intelligence so much that you won’t let them think for themselves? Are you telling us about something you think we should know, or are you promoting something? There is a difference. And until you understand that difference, your writing will always be sticky with the unclean hands of a salesman, rather than the clear conscience of a journalist.