Stories Where You Check It Out—But Not Too Much

There’s an old joke in journalism: “Never let the facts get in the way of the premise.”

—Tweeted by Chris Wilson, director of data journalism at time.com.

Or as it’s sometimes said:

“Never overreport a good story.”

As an editor, I heard that one most often with gossip items. Check it out too much and often it’s no longer a good item.

At the Washingtonian we did a lot of short items—sometimes gossip— in our Capital Comment section; the Washington Post did the same in its Personalities column. That kind of gossip entertained readers and it seemed okay as long as the item wasn’t too mean and didn’t trigger calls from lawyers. It did sometimes trigger calls from the subjects of the items—the two loudest complaints I got were from Sy Hersh and Carl Bernstein. Those two liked to call and yell “You bastards should have called me.” I figured it was part of their style and just listened.

But “Never overreport a good story” also comes into play with human interest features. Often I read what are called bleeding heart stories and feel some sympathy for the subject but wonder what the writer is leaving out. Yeah, the subject is a victim of someone or something but is this the whole story?

A look at that journalistic problem from an earlier post:

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.

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.

 

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