Morality in writing was the topic discussed at a recent Beanery Writers Group meeting.
The sources used for the discussion came from a sermon I presented at the Exeter (N.H.) United Methodist Church, the book The Best Writing on Writing edited by Jack Heffron, and a newspaper article about the Amish school shootings (click on JOURNALISM QUESTION).
While reviewing notes from a trip I took to New England, I read a section in the book on the same issue, which encouraged me to share the ideas with our writing group.
The N.H. pastor said one shouldn’t lie or add to a story, noting that a story isn’t the same at the end of the road because it cannot be told without adding to it. He equated this with lying, which he said is like a cancer, needing to be cut out.
Gossip is talking about someone’s life without their permission. Without permission to tell the story, keep quiet. Not everybody likes their dirty laundry flopping in the breeze.
A quote in the book from Charles McGrath while he was an editor at the New Yorker: “If you want to be a writer, somewhere along the line you’re going to have to hurt somebody. And when that time comes, you go ahead and do it.” Ergo, if a story needs to be told, tell it regardless of the feelings of those being written about.
Finding a balance between telling a story, and what to include in the story, often becomes a question of morality.
The question of whether the Amish facial grief over their school killings was a story that needed to be reported. What photograph illustrations were used was a matter of choice. When the Amish specifically requested no facial pictures, and the newspaper not only printed a head-on photograph, but enlarged it dramatically, the question of moral ethics reared its head.
Our Beanery Writers Group members suggested reporters/photographers were doing their job, as did the paper when it published the faces of grieving Amish. People want to see the grief, one member said, and papers are sold by giving the people what they want.
Another comment indicated that powerful pictures need not show faces. A skillful photographer can communicate a grief while respecting the person and culture being photographed.
It might also depend on the type of article. Was it a news story or a feature? And does it make a difference?
The discussion provided no final answers, but raised important issues. When writing memoirs, should we write about family members knowing they would be embarrassed by the truth as we see it?
From the book (p. 43): My friend Regi set to writing essays. “Have you noticed,” she inquired, “how if you let yourself write only the nice things about people it ends up sounding like the kind of speech people give at a graveside? A eulogy, I mean? And how your writing really springs to life when you write something that, if they read it, they would just die?”
Which raises another point. What about eulogies? How many of you have sat at a funeral and thought, “That isn’t the person I knew,” and wished there would be some honesty about who the person really was?
Perhaps that’s the difference between writing a person’s story and writing their eulogy.
A comment posted in the Beanery Online Literary Magazine, Vol. 1, where this article was first posted, read:
Dear Carolyn, I am glad you spoke of the Eulogy as you did. In fact, I have written and presented one. Actually, it was probably the easiest piece I have ever written. The person for whom I wrote the eulogy was a family member and I thought it would be difficult to write. However, after interviewing family members, friends, and co-workers, the piece turned out to be honest and even comical. It did not sound rehearsed, edited, or controlled. It was a true account about the person and the audience agreed with each detail, but then again, I took the notes from the audience and merely arranged the words for them. It was a good experience. I would imagine if I had not known the woman myself the writing would have been stiff (sorry about the pun)—maybe embellished and not authentic at all. You are certainly right about journalism, in that I am beginning to see how very unpleasant and uncomfortable it can be to write without bias. We all carry bias, but how to steer away from that I am still working on. Still morphing into, or rising above my own experiences, but isn’t that what writing is all about? Can it be said that we live and learn to live while writing through the lessons, failures, misunderstandings, mistakes, grammatical errors, etc.? Regina
It can be a difficult task when your job is to satisfy editors by providing “sensationalism,” which sells papers, yet you know integrity involves being true to the story, staying with the truth. Often, writing the truth does harm, if only to someone’s feelings and privacy.
I have a sister who feels genealogy and media invade the privacy of the subject in the story. If there is an accident, eg., the person may not even want it reported in the media, much less to be photographed for the media.
I feel fortunate that the editors I worked with were sensitive to the feelings of the persons in the stories they accepted for writing. When I wrote a story on persons who gleaned items from trash piles, they were concerned about using names, and photographs, which might embarrass the trash diggers. Fortunately, I had covered my bases and sought permission from those persons who responded to my questions.
Which raises another question: Is it ever appropriate to abandon a story so as not to “harm” someone?
Perhaps if that directive were in force, no story, no news, would be told. However, by telling the story, lessons for others would be lost. By reporting an accident or a fire, for example, readers could learn how to avoid the same circumstances, thereby preventing harm to themselves. Reporting a fire set by an animal’s tail knocking over a candle on a coffee table might warn others to place lit candles out of harms way, thereby preventing another fire.
I’ve lived in a community with a high Amish population, and often they were included in my reporting. I asked their permission to take photos, and was able to take illustrative ones without disregarding their belief that their faces should not be taken. My contention was that a full-face shot of the Amish was unnecessary. Do you agree or disagree with my conclusion? Add your comments below.
To read devotions during the Lenten season, click on THE YOUGHIOGHENY RIVER CRAWL