Travails of a Textbook Author

By Mencher, Melvin | Nieman Reports, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Travails of a Textbook Author


Mencher, Melvin, Nieman Reports


As I prepare the next edition of one of my. reporting and writing textbooks my eve wanders to an evaluation of the current edition sent to me by the publisher's New England sales representative. The form was filled out by a journalism instructor who has been using the book. Never again, she writes.

She objects to a series I quote from The Toledo Blade, which she finds is "skewed anti-feminist," and also cites a photograph I reproduce from The Contra Costa Times as evidence of my "bias." She finds the reasons I give for using this material to be excuses that are reprehensible."

I have been told that my books -- "Basic Media Writing" and "News Reporting and Writing" -- are too detailed, too long; that the design is dull, the photos too graphic; that I am mystifying students with references to Watergate, the Vietnam War and such ancient history as World War II. I am accused of racism, homophobia and sensationalism -- and now I am guilty of antifeminism.

When you come down to it, journalism textbook publishing may not be much different from the practice of journalism. Take a stand on controversial issues, challenge readers, avoid a value-neutral position and the critics are at you, both public and in-house no-sayers. I could take a safer route in my books, as I believe too many newspapers have. Despite the complaints, though, my books do well, as I believe journalism will, too, if it re-examines its assumptions about the profitability of a reader-friendly, entertainment-focused catering to markets.

For what it, s worth, then, herewith a journey into the business of writing journalism textbooks.

The Blade series that the Massachusetts college teacher found anti-feminist challenges assumptions about rape-victimization data, which range from Ms Magazine's one woman in two to one in five or six used by feminine groups on campuses in a campaign known as "Take Back the Night." The Blade reporters found the figures to be vastly inflated, that there was no factual support for them; and they contend that funds for rape counseling and education are misdirected to areas like campuses that are far less affected than minority communities where the rates are inordinately high.

I use The Contra Costa Times photo to illustrate decision-making under deadline pressure. The photo shows a girl racing across a field toward a police officer. She has just been released by her kidnapper. A close examination of the tiny figure in the photo reveals that she is covering her bare breast.

The California newspaper decided to go with the dramatic shot, and I present the editor's reasons for doing so as well as some of the objections, including a furious letter to the editor after publication.

I think these are good examples of enterprise reporting and of the troublesome moral issues confronting journalists. Neither was an easy out for the newspapers, and that nags at me as I weigh the instructor's objections to my using the material. Should I retain it in the next edition?

I did eliminate in the current edition of "News Reporting and Writing" a description of Milton Coleman's decision to use Jesse Jackson's reference to New York City as "Hymietown" in Coleman's Washington Post interview. That section drew from an instructor the comment: "I have black students in class who were offended by the material."

You may recall Jackson's objection, that when he said to Coleman, "Let's talk black talk " he presumed Coleman would understand he was going off the record. In his explanation for using the quote many considered offensive, Coleman said that since jackson was a candidate for president people were entitled to hear it.

That was a while back and I have more current examples that illustrate the problems of on/off-the-record material. And et I am not sure that is my reason for dropping the Jackson incident.

My editors try to anticipate objections. …

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