The painful grain of truth in a grossly unfair description of journalism

They’re words that have haunted me for the last few days.

They paint a stark picture of the way journalism works, one that is at once grossly unfair but which also contains a grain of painful truth.

They come from the American news site Vox’s education reporter Libby Nelson.

“If a journalist were completely honest with a source about what it means to be interviewed for this sort of story, it would go something like this: you are going to tell me about the worst day of your life, because you think there is value in sharing that story with the rest of the world. You need to trust me, but you need to know I am not your friend. I will seem as sympathetic as I can be, but I will also note the exact moment you start crying so I can write about it. I will ask questions that might make you uncomfortable. I will call other people and tell them what you’re saying about them. I will open you up to the judgment of the entire world. And then I will walk away. And if you aren’t ready to deal with that, you shouldn’t talk to me.”

She was writing here about the way another news site, Rolling Stone, handled a story about a campus rape victim, for which it has since apologised.

It was a fairly unusual story, and Libby is talking about a fairly precise set of circumstances.

But her words are also a reminder of the responsibility we carry when we write about people’s emotional highs and lows, their good days and bad days, their controversial opinions and their heartfelt complaints.

There are times when – flying in the face of all traditional journalistic instincts – I have found myself talking people out of wanting us to highlight their story. School bullying is an example that springs readily to mind of a problem that is highly unlikely to be made better by media coverage.

I hope we get it right most of the time.

There are few more satisfying experiences in journalism than being thanked by a bereaved family for your coverage of the worst days in their collective lives.

And often a reader’s reward for baring his or her soul in print or online – and opening themselves to criticism and account – is that a painful issue is solved, or a wrong is righted.

But – particularly in age when the imperative to get stories written and online is so great – there are still times when we need to pause for thought.

And ask ourselves this question: If it was me in the position of my story subject, would I be happy?


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