Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Choosing a Place to Stand

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Choosing a Place to Stand

Article excerpt

A few years back, the Oregonian ran a spot-news story on a freeway truck wreck. The accident caused a fire, and the fire produced prodigious amounts of smoke. We noted that the gray column rose far above the highway, obscuring Mount Hood.

And indeed it did ... if you happened to be in downtown Portland or in Portland's ritzy West Hills. For someone in one of East Portland's working-class neighborhoods, the smoke obscured not Mount Hood, but downtown and those selfsame hills. From other parts of town, it rose before the Columbia River ... or the Hollywood district ... or Mount Tabor.

What you see, in other words, has a lot to do with where you stand.

Unfortunately, we journalists often give little thought to all-important questions involving point of view. Which, for our purposes, we can define as the place you position your mental tripod before rolling your mental videotape. That oversimplifies, of course.

Janet Burroway, author of the popular Writing Fiction, calls point of view "the most complex element of fiction." Not surprisingly, novelists and short-story writers worry a lot about their point of view choices.

We should, too. Consciously sifting through the options and making choices suited to our storytelling goals will make us better journalists. For one thing, a thoughtless or crabbed point of view excludes readers. If the newspaper never sees things their way they're unlikely to accept it as their newspaper.

We should consider at least three point-of-view questions:

* Geography. Eastern newspapers and magazines regularly refer to my neighborhood as "out West," a habit we Westerners resent. We turn around and do the same thing with "back East."

In the Oregonian, which publishes in Western Oregon, we regularly refer to events that happen "over" in eastern Oregon. But what message do we send to eastern Oregon readers when we place them "over" the Cascade Mountains in some forgotten outback?

* Voice. Unfortunately, the standard newspaper voice seems to be that of the aging white male, a viewpoint that automatically excludes most potential readers.

Consider a sports column that argued against national collegiate football playoffs. The process would, the columnist asserted, put too much pressure on the players. "Have we forgotten," he asked, "that these still are college kids?"

So "we" are newspaper writers. "They" are "kids." What message does that send to younger readers?

Big metropolitan newspapers also tend to view the world from the viewpoint of the affluent urban professionals who produce them. …

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