Tuesday, April 2, 2013

How Writers Snuck "I" Into Their Work

Roy Reed, a former teacher of mine.
My education is rooted in old school journalism. Many of my first college professors and peers were old newspapermen and women, the kind who covered beats and lived in foreign places and detested false titles (ie: philanthropist Bill Gates vs. Bill Gates, philanthropist). One of the rules that was hammered into me as a young journalism student was never to insert myself into a story. EVER. But times have changed, and the practice no longer seems to apply, even in hard news. I think my teachers would cringe at how commonplace it is for writers to refer to themselves in first person in news stories, particularly in publications such as the New York Times, where at least one of my mentors spent the better part of his reporting career (see pic R). But journalism today emphasizes self-importance, at least in the legacy publications and emerging online "markets" for news.

The POV (point of view) in fiction has veered in this direction, too. Not that there aren't great classic books in first person (Catcher in the Rye), but chances are good when you browse through a bookstore and pick up a new novel, it will be told in first person. Makes a writer go hmmm. There's a critique group in Portland, a highly revered one, whose founder prefers first-person POV at the table, almost to the exclusion of any other telling.

As for the trend in news, I think technology changed the intimacy gradient between writer and reader. I'm not fibbing when I tell you that my first college writing lab in journalism was taken on manual typewriters. The very next year, we had Macs. (Oh, how I wish I had one of those cute little boxy buggars.) Later, as a graduate student, I distinctly remember walking by the Reading Room (our J-dept still had one, with newspapers from around the state) and hearing a member of the graduate faculty twittering on about a fabulous new invention called America Online. Little did I know her twittering would catch on much later.

Brenda Blagg, a former mentor and colleague.
Today's journalists have to write for a web audience (and some static readers), and that's where I think the change has evolved. The web makes it easier for a reader to have a conversation, or argument, with the writer. Who can claim that a journalist recounts a story 100% objectively? Not possible. Fair, accurate, truthful, yes, but objective, never. No writer has a clean bias slate. Every nuance of the writer's upbringing, education, social standing, race, etc., is always in the background. Word usage and framing a story go through the filter. This doesn't make the news worthless; but it does make it human and fallible. Good readers know this and still see the importance of striving for objectivity. The difference in the last 15 years is that readers can call a writer out immediately and very publicly. And, unfortunately, viciously and anonymously.

Blogging is also a first-person show. Hey, it's all about me here, right? Do I appear genuine while I frown over a lost principle about objectivity? I'm inserting my views and mundane updates for whomever will take the bait. (PS-Why are you here?) Granted, my blog isn't a news website. Far from it. I'm sharing my journey as a writer and trying to make a deeper connection with readers. I also like to write. Part of me wants to share. I make my thoughts available with my name firmly affixed.

(Bonus question: How many times did I use the word I in this post, not including this sentence? The first to comment with the correct answer will receive a free www.HeartinOregon.com bumper sticker!)

(Books in the pictures are Beware of Limbo Dancers: A Correspondent's Adventures with the New York Times by Roy Reed and Political Magic: The Travels, Trials and Triumphs of the Clintons' Arkansas Travelers by Brenda Blagg. No compensation or free copies of these books were provided as an inducement for their promotion or sale on this blog.)


  1. Interesting article! I too am from a journalism background and had a hard time with the switch. I sort of felt that if I used "I" too much then my words wouldn't mean as much. In most of my freelance work it is still frowned upon... and, I tend to stay away from it in my fiction work. Maybe I should explore using first person a little bit more!

    1. It is equally hard for me, too, to let go of the rule. Who the hell cares what I have to say? But, I enjoy writing my thoughts on my blog. I generally forgo inserting myself into other "paid" work, but then I see so many other writers doing it, and I wonder, why bother? I've got a few things to say, as everyone can read here. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Perhaps we should be honest that journalism and news is not "history." And now I should defend/define this. Ummm...

    Jesus exists in I think one state document (maybe more) of the Romans--he is simply a rabble-rouser, a kind of "OWS" progenitor. He is not Christ. So, critically and actually Jesus is reduced to a mention in a state document--that is, he was briefly news. And that is the historical Jesus. That is, he is "documented," and that really, is all history can really be.

    Documents lie, of course, and Winston Smith taught us about Google 50 years ago. One need not erase news, simply replace it via a glut of falsifications. And this has even mitigated our idea of "multiple sourcing" facts.

    News ought to be documented and always on record. However, that is history, and news, as we know is not history...history is a filter.

    I've been in contact with my local rag enough to know that news is always biased locally and is biased in its choice of bought copy (AP, Reuters, McClatchy).

    Of course, newspapers have never been very noble. The best they could do, really, was catch a scandal...now we just make all that shit up.

    Now a citizen journalist is better at this than the corporate media outlet--or rather, the citizen journalist has a different motivation for seeking "gotcha" truth, while corp media is a state-corp hybrid beast selling circulars of consent (cheney leaks to the Times so that cheney can quote the Times).

    And now that we see that there are lies and cheats everywhere and they can be caught...who. really. cares?

    Sorry for having no focus whatsoever...

    1. Of course, point understood. What is the true account of history? I think history really boils down to movements (industrial revolution, women's, civil rights) and to economics (great depression, recession, again industrial). The news is influenced by people (just watch the new Netflix show House of Cards). Sources drive news content.

    2. news then is primarily misinformation.

      Here is a piece about real journalism: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/21/barrett-brown-persecution-anonymous

    3. Unfortunately, most major news organizations have gutted their investigative journalism "departments" because of the recession. Some smaller publications are stepping up: http://www.carolinapublicpress.org/

    4. not in the least true, that is, the lie of economy is not a motivation for cuts. That is to say, news organizations are corporate entity and profits are not gained from greater investigative truth, especially when the entity with the greatest amount of dirt is in lock-step with the corporation.

      so, cuts are necessary when the truth cuts profits.

  3. http://storm-nemesis.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-moral-position-truth-in-reporting.html


Brave soul to make a comment. Wink.