Inside the Times: A Reporter Who Uses the First Person Cautiously

From a New York Times Insider column by Susan Dominus headlined “A Reporter Who Puts Herself Into Perspective”:

When I speak to journalism students, I usually advise them to use the first person point of view in their reported works with caution. Writing in the first person can make for facile transitions (“I met her at a crowded restaurant”) or reveal reporters’ mistaken impressions of their own significance to a story. It can set up the expectation of more personal insights to come that are never realized; often, it simply feels extraneous or clumsy.

Those students would be right, however, to point out that I use the first person in many of my own stories. I would defend myself (whether well or not, I can’t say) on the grounds that when I do write in the first person, I usually have a reason that justifies it.

Most recently, I used the first person in “Does Therapy Work? Let’s Unpack That,” a New York Times Magazine article exploring how researchers have tried to answer that question and what they have found. I felt that the use of the first person served a valuable function: By grappling with the value of therapy in my own life, I hoped to bring some intimacy to their research, an area that can feel deeply impersonal and clinical.

As someone who is primarily a reporter, not an essayist, I usually don’t have a personal history related to the subjects I cover. But when my own experience is so salient, as was the case with the article about therapy, I felt I would be holding out if I failed to disclose my perspective and the situations that had shaped it.

The first-person approach, used in good faith and with honesty, can reinforce the experiences of the article’s sources, and strengthen the relationship between writer and reader. In a recent article about menopausal hormone therapy, I shared my own interaction with a doctor who seemed to dismiss my symptoms. I included that experience because the encounter so clearly illustrated a wider phenomenon that the women I interviewed described to me — a sense of feeling unheard in the face of real challenges during that life transition. In an article about open marriage, I wanted readers to understand the thinking and motivations of people who choose that kind of relationship — but I also thought the piece would be more relatable if I wrote frankly about doubts and questions I had as I learned more about the concept.

Having felt some regret in the past about oversharing in my work, I try to trust my instincts about just how much to reveal. On my second or third draft of the therapy article, I pared back some details about my specific mental health concerns and issues. I felt protective of my privacy but also had the sense that too much information would burden the reader or would simply prove a distraction. In the article about menopause, I withheld some details about my own experience as well, if only because I have two teenagers whom I’d like to see reach adulthood without first expiring of embarrassment.

It’s sometimes easy to forget, when I’m writing on a small laptop in a small office in my small town, that whatever I’m working on might be read by thousands of people; the thought can be paralyzing, so I try to focus instead on what my editors will make of what I’ve sent them, and how readers will receive it. By the time I’m contemplating publication, I’ve made peace with whatever self-exposure I’ve risked. I’m old enough to feel deeply just how universal vulnerabilities tend to be — and to trust that my editors will save me from myself by cutting confessions that venture too far.

In my article about (other people’s) open marriages, I included a personal anecdote about a mild flirtation I once had with someone I met at a conference. Contrary to the assumptions of a reader who sent me a scolding note, my husband did not feel betrayed. As a fellow writer, my husband basically shares Nora Ephron’s sentiment that “everything is copy.” But we also felt that, if anything, talking about those few lines of writing, before they were published, provided us with the opportunity to have more meaningful conversations about our relationship.

One of the great luxuries reporters and writers enjoy is that the job requires them to pay close attention to the details of the scenes they are covering, but also to their own perceptions. As I wrote about therapy research, I found myself growing more conscious of the parallels between writing and therapy: In both instances, I often notice the articulation of thoughts that had hovered implacably in the background for a long time, but, until that moment, had never surfaced in a recognizable way.

The phenomenon is naturally all the more pronounced when I am writing about my own experiences. I try to use the first person cautiously, but the temptation is strong, for the reward that it provides in self-reflection. I understand my use of first person better now than I did when I sat down to write this Times Insider. My use of it, I hope, will only improve going forward.

Susan Dominus is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine. In 2018, she was part of a team that reported on workplace sexual harassment issues and won a Pulitzer Prize for public service.

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