Magazine article Nieman Reports

Finding Perfect Pitch: '... the Stronger Their Facts, the More Vivid Their Detail, the Less Reliant They Are on the Poetry.'

Magazine article Nieman Reports

Finding Perfect Pitch: '... the Stronger Their Facts, the More Vivid Their Detail, the Less Reliant They Are on the Poetry.'

Article excerpt

How difficult is it to achieve the right tone--humane, but clear-eyed--when writing about the disadvantaged? I think at times our gratitude to those who lay open their difficult lives for our inspection--and maybe our abashed relief at returning to easier lives--can tempt us to use a tone more appropriate for a preacher than a chronicler.

I'm not talking about the well-edited coverage of the poor, the exploited, the undereducated and overlooked that is scrupulously nuanced and reported in all its complexity. There's a great deal of that. This criticism applies only to those print and broadcast pieces that give the impression that the reporter presumes all folks of good conscience will want to join him or her in rescuing the victim of the day from any number of stock villains--rule-worshipping bureaucrats, uncaring educators, calculating politicos. While as journalists we understand that not every, story can be perfectly balanced and that fairness emerges over a number of pieces in the fullness of coverage, news consumers often measure us by a simpler standard. They react to the last story they read, heard or viewed. So I worry when I come across a tone-deaf story--one where, in the noble service of trying to cut through noise and achieve impact, the reporter slips into pathos or subtle hectoring.

Striking an appropriate tone is a mighty struggle for some of my journalism students. In their hands, every, profile subject is a hero or a zero. They have a hard time just letting a person be on the page. I tell them the solution lies in the reporting: the stronger their facts, the more vivid their detail, the less reliant they are on the poetry.

A recently published book by the sociologist Annette Lareau bears that out remarkably. Written by an academic, presumably for a readership heavy, with other academics, the Lareau book is crammed with fascinatingly detailed fieldwork (sociologist-speak for reporting) in the homes of children whose lives the author compares by economic class. …

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