John Bartlow Martin on Good Reporting and Good Writing

unnamed-2What’s needed to be a good reporter:

Well, he needs first of all an inquiring mind. He needs skepticism but he also needs humility—when his probing shows him that his initial skepticism was wrong, he needs enough humility to admit it and report what he originally doubted.

He must be fair. He needs a deep sense of responsibility, responsibility not only to his readers and to society in general but also to the people he is writing about. He must not become so bemused by ‘scoring a scoop’ or publishing a sensational exposé that he does irreparable damage to human beings.

Always he must have doubts, not certitudes, about his own impressions. He needs, of course, to see all—not just ‘both’—sides of every question. He must realize that the hardest thing of all is to discover the truth and that many men do not want to hear the truth—they kill the messenger that brings it. . . .And of course at bottom he needs to be able to inspire trust, for without that nobody will confide in him, and he will get no story.

What’s needed to be a good writer:

“Well, he needs to read good writing. He needs to write. And he needs to rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite his own sentences until they say as precisely and as economically as he can make them what he intends them to say.

He needs to acquire respect, even reverence, for the English language. And while he is working, he cannot be conscious of any of this.

During the 1940s and 1950s, John Bartlow Martin dominated the pages of the “big slicks,” the Saturday Evening Post, LIFE, Harper’s, Look, and Collier’s. Martin was one of a handful of freelance writers able to survive solely on this writing. Over a career that spanned nearly 50 years, his peers lauded him as “the best living reporter.”

—From Ray E. Boomhower, author of John Bartlow Martin: A Voice for the Underdog, published in 2015 by the Indiana University Press.

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