Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Ethics of Narrative and How to Safeguard Them

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Ethics of Narrative and How to Safeguard Them

Article excerpt

Hart is a managing editor at The Oregonian. He welcomes published examples, dated, at The Oregonian, 1320 S.W. Broadway, Portland, OR 97201 (phone 503-221-8229, fax 503-294-5012, e-mail

The transition from hard news to narrative brings temptation to alter facts to fit the story. Suggestions on protecting the credibility of non-news reporting.

Last spring and summer's multiple writing scandals sent many of the country's narrative journalists into a tizzy. Some of country's best newsroom storytellers shuddered at the possibility of widespread backlash.

Not that the misdeeds of Stephen Glass, Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle involved abuses unique to nonfiction narrative -- you can make up quotes for any kind of story.

Still, the storytellers worried, and for several days they fretted on WriterL, an Internet discussion group for literary journalists. George Erb, a veteran Seattle-area reporter, argues the scandals would increase newsroom resistance to narrative storytelling. Many traditional journalists, he says, "believe storytelling is a license to either embellish or shoehorn the facts into a convenient story line" and that it comes with a built-in temptation to sacrifice the truth for the sake of the drama."

At my paper we have a longstanding commitment to narrative storytelling, and our best narratives have produced terrific reader response. But we, too, worry that they might also produce terrific reader skepticism, especially after Smith, Glass and Barnicle.

So two dozen of The Oregonian's editors and writers recently gathered to talk about the ethics that guide us when we tackle narratives. We hammered out these principles:

* Choosing to tell a story in narrative form ups the ethical ante. Plucking a coherent story line from an almost infinite number of possible details is highly subjective. It inevitably reflects the writer's basic beliefs about how the world operates.

Narrative writers and editors therefore have extra ethical obligations. As one of our editors puts it: "Your ethical antenna needs to go up a couple of feet higher if you choose narrative."

* The ethical differences between narrative nonfiction and traditional news forms are differences in degree, not kind. The pitfalls that confront narrative writers also lurk in standard news stories. Tom Hallman, one of our leading narrative journalists, notes that reporters also betray bias when, for example, they select quotes for conventional stories. …

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