What You Don’t Hear in Journalism School: “Never Overreport a Good Story”

By Jack Limpert

The lede of yesterday’s Paul Farhi Washington Post story about flawed journalism:

There’s an old saying in journalism, drummed into every cub reporter’s head: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. Gay Talese and Sabrina Rubin Erderly seem to have overlooked this basic rule.

Farhi goes on to say: “In each case, the reporters appear to have developed a close and trusting relationship with their principal subject and source.” He then quotes Evelyn McDonnell, director of the journalism program at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles: “In my opinion , the first job of journalism is to report the heck out of a subject.”

All true for a lot of journalism.

But there’s another side of journalism reflected in this somewhat cynical newsroom adage:

Never overreport a good story.

I heard it most often from gossip columnists, including one who had been a gossip columnist at the Washington Post. (In defense of the Post’s journalism ethics, it no longer traffics in good gossip, making its Style section much duller.)

The don’t-overreport-a good-story approach also comes into play with human interest features—what we sometimes called “triumph of the human spirit” stories.

The editorial strategy: Stay focused on that human spirit angle. You don’t have to dig up negative stuff not directly related to the theme of the piece.

I once interviewed Ariel Sabar, who writes interesting pieces for the Washingtonian, Smithsonian, and the Atlantic. I asked him about that tendency of many feature writers to do selective reporting. Here’s the start of the interview:

Ariel Sabar has written a series of wonderful, surprising profiles for The Washingtonian, one of which, “The Passion of John Wojnowski,” was judged the best profile published in any city or regional magazine in 2012. That story was about a man who has stood outside the Vatican embassy in Washington for 14 years, carrying signs with cries of protest such as “VATICAN HIDES PEDOPHILES.”

Ariel’s most recent Washingtonian story, “A Long Way Home,” is about Meguiel Merritt, a man who has held a steady job for many years but has had some stumbles and now lives in a homeless shelter. While the 52-year-old African-American man’s life seems to be going nowhere, he is increasingly surrounded by new condos, bars, and restaurants filled with young, ambitious achievers. Some striking contrasts, some rich territory for a writer.

After I read “A Long Way Home,” I emailed Ariel to say I was surprised by the profile because it seemed to tell a long, bittersweet life story without giving the reader a sense that the writer was making any of the usual judgments or drawing any of the usual conclusions. That email led to this Q and A.

Q: How did you decide to write about Meguiel Merritt?

A: I tried to set something of a high bar for myself in choosing Meguiel. I wanted someone whom you’d never find in the anecdotal lede of a newspaper story: the cherry-picked almost too-good-to-be-true folks that reporters deploy to give a human face to their stories, often once they’ve already got their angle. There’s a kind of shorthand some news stories will use to gloss over the parts of their subject’s life that—if really looked at closely—might take away from the saintly portrait. It’s often just a clause: “After a battle with substance abuse and a few youthful brushes with the law…” I wanted to explore those struggles up close and in detail. It may have made Meguiel a bit less sympathetic to some readers, but I felt it was a truer portrayal of the challenges men like Meguiel face in turning around their lives.

The Gay Talese book got previewed—and okayed by the New Yorker’s fabled fact-checking system—and appeared in the New Yorker of April 11, 2016. Talese’s mindset might have been closer to the never overreport a good story strategy of feature writing. If it’s not exactly complete and accurate, who gets hurt?

Farhi at the end of his Post piece says: “Both McDonnell and Hall agreed that Erderly’s story may have been the more damaging of the two.”

Jann Wenner, Sabrina Rubin Erderly, and Rolling Stone’s lawyers would second that.

Comments

  1. Louise Lague says

    So true. A good story doesn’t need embellishment. Also, it’s harder if you have a hypothesis going in. Much more honest to just see what’s there.

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