The Kind of Writers Who Scare Me

By a longtime Washington writer

The captive of a beat. It’s not just that they become too close to sources, they start adopting the world view, conventional wisdom, and values of their sources. I knew a guy who covered the fire department and sometimes wore a firefighter’s hat given to him by the chief. I think Washington political reporters are susceptible to this—some of them begin to see the world as a political consultant.

Writers who have no sense of the past. They lack a sense of history so believe that they’ve uncovered something new that in fact has been around for decades. One of the ironies of the development of search engines is that as more information is easily obtainable, fewer people go back to see what has been written on the subject. The digital morgue is too little visited. I’ve seen stories published recently and boasted about as originals that a good editor would have rejected because the story had been done plenty of times.

The writer with too high an opinion of his style. He thinks he writes with a distinctive voice, but most readers wonder why an editor didn’t edit it into more easily readable English.

The writer who tends to romanticize his subjects and see them through the mists of admiration, often leading to fairy tales far from the moorings of reality.

The socially insecure. There are some who trim their journalism with the main intention of getting invited to exclusive gatherings or as a way to suck up to powerful journalists. They’re very susceptible to flattery and an invitation. Or maybe they are just social climbers. Take your pick. Beware the writer who passes on too many notes from his subjects saying what a great profile he wrote.

The investigative reporter who sees evil everywhere. Some do go overboard, but you also could argue that this is a character trait that is valuable if your assigned job is to do nothing but takedowns.

Wrong temperament. Some journalists just are in the wrong profession. They lack skepticism, curiosity, freedom from the warping effects of ideology.

What kind of writers do you think are the most dangerous to good journalism?  Any further thoughts will be welcomed—either as a comment to this post or as a separate post.


  1. I now look forward to a blog entry that distinguishes dangerous writers from scary writers.

    I enjoy your blog and have recommended it to a few writers in my town (far from D.C.) couple of journalists

  2. This feature works when it has names and links attached to the types. Alas, there are none.

  3. Nealmedia says

    And writers who mistake conciseness for clarity. They mush their phrases together and let the reader sort out the meaning:
    “Some of them begin to see the world as a political consultant.”

    • Jack Limpert says

      From the author of the post:

      Sorry to be obscure, apparently, but what I was trying to say is that political reporters sometimes adopt the world view of the political consultants that they cover, focusing their attention on the horse-race aspects of campaigns (media buys, polls, strategy, etc.) rather than substantive issues that really affect voters.

  4. Eric Adler says

    Writers who have all but written their stories before they report them.

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