The Risks of Lunch with Sharon Stone
DeCurtis, Anthony, Nieman Reports
When the Five W's aren't appetizing, some reporters stir in a bit of fiction.
"Sharon Stone is late for lunch": That cloying, made-up lead is how an Esquire writer I once met summed up the phony sense of drama, the elevation of the mundane into seeming significance, that is so much a part of narrative feature writing, particularly when it involves celebrities. Of course, in my writing for Rolling Stone and other glossy publications, I've turned that trick a time or two. It's an alluringly easy route to take--partly out of genuine enthusiasm, partly out of a desire to engage the reader, and partly out of an effort to drum up you-are-there immediacy.
Such writing is a little silly, to be sure, but is it ethically compromised? Obviously not, assuming that the writer was, in fact, having lunch with Sharon Stone and that she was, in fact, late. But don't believe everything you read. I've had plenty of conversations with writers who wouldn't hesitate to say, "Well, I was meeting her at a restaurant late in the afternoon for coffee, but I thought it would sound cooler if I described us as having lunch together." Or, "She wasn't really late, but I thought it would better capture her air of diva hauteur if I set the scene as if she were."
So, now, we're getting into the real ethical problems of narrative writing. However typical or even inconsequential such fudging may be--and in the end, who cares if Sharon Stone was having lunch or was punctual?--it's wrong. It's remarkable that this needs to be pointed out, but the most fundamental element of the journalist's pact with the reader is that what you're reporting in your story actually happened whether you are covering a presidential campaign or a day in the life of a movie star. If you make stuff up, even little stuff, how is anyone to believe anything you say?
The willingness to meddle with reality is the inevitable result of the assault on objectivity that has characterized the past 40 years of journalism, particularly in magazines, and particularly among writers of a literary bent. In my own experience, a well-known "new journalist" once interviewed me for a piece that ran in a prestigious publication and, in the course of our conversation, casually mentioned that certain aspects of the story would be handled by composites. Envious of the breezy aptness so often displayed in the work of this writer and that school, I smiled and thought, "Ah, so that's how they do it." As the career of Janet Malcolm has so capably shown, reporting is a dream when you simply allow yourself to make up both the quotes and the context.
Those excesses, however, don't mean that the assault on objectivity wasn't long overdue. Any narrative story of length revolves so much interpretation and editorial shaping that "objectivity" becomes not merely a slippery ideal, but an inappropriate one. I prefer terms like "honesty" and "fairness." To me, it's perfectly acceptable to write from a particular viewpoint or ideological stance, as long as you make clear in the piece that you're doing so, and you represent counterpositions fairly. Readers then are reminded that what they're encountering is your reading of events and personalities--which is always true, in my opinion, even in so-called "objective" reporting. In my view, all writing is a kind of criticism.
Anyone who's ever worked with transcripts running into tens of thousands of words knows that it often just makes more sense to condense the repeated instances in which a subject comes up into one clear statement--or one confused statement if that was ultimately the subject's state of mind. As an editorial judgment call, that seems no different to me than determining which part of a quote you're going to use verbatim and which you're going to paraphrase--and how exactly you're going to paraphrase it. Obviously, in matters that involve legal issues or government policy, it's essential to present the subject's language as rigorously accurately as possible--regardless of how repetitive, unfocused or irrelevant it may be. …