One of the first stories I made last year was for Anne Ford and Bill Healy’s “Introduction to Podcasting” class fall quarter. I was a freshman and determined to make something amazing. I recorded a story about my sister and a negative childhood experience she had with my neighbor. It had to do with race, so the story was sensitive in nature. My aim was to showcase how racism can come in many shades, but capturing a personal story proved to be a treacherous process. Initially, my methods were unfair to my sister and my neighbor, and this reporting impacted their trust in me.
This story forced me to face journalism’s unresolvable ethics issue: What are you allowed to ask? Is this piece worth the emotional strain?
In Medill, sometimes these issues are taught to have clear solutions. If they gave you initial permission, they cannot rescind that. For the sake of the story, you have to ask the hard questions even if they are emotionally scarring. Both during and after the project, I had a residual feeling that my work was wrong in some way, but I was not quite sure exactly why.
Then just a few weeks ago, I attended the Third Coast International Audio Conference that addressed the issues I could not put into words. Kaitlin Prest, an audio journalist and creator of “The Heart” with Radiotopia, gave a speech aggressively challenging the art of storytelling. She was not referring to political or tech reporting, but rather stories that attract pathos — documentary journalism, profile writing and those deep and personal stories. I was taken aback by how provocatively she spoke about storytelling in a room of people who have made that their lives, including herself.
She told us her favorite quote: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of (themselves) to notice what is going on knows that what they do is morally indefensible.” It’s from Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and The Murderer.”
This field has become an entertainment business, and that’s not just broadcast’s problem anymore. Journalists guide the truth they tell by making it entertaining so people do not change the channel. In our case, students guide the truth so our professors or editors applaud our work. We ask hard questions because we know what instigates emotion. The most raw and painful quotes are often referred to as the “good” ones.
Journalism is about accountability. If you are writing a documentary piece or profiling someone, stop asking yourself if it’s newsworthy, if your professor will be intrigued or if it will get you the promotion. Ask yourself what the message of the piece contributes to society. By the final draft, my sister loved the story and it’s message. I wanted to show how racism takes many forms, and I accomplished that. My story served a greater purpose and was is worth telling.
Prest compared permission for quoting to sexual consent, so treat the questions you ask like emotional consent. Most people do not know what they are going to be asked or what they are going to respond when they give permission to interview. If they expose a part of themself that was never meant to be exposed, respect that. (This is emotional, not political. If an alderman tells you about a scandal, please expose them.)
Lastly, journalism is not a job to give a voice to the voiceless. Journalism is an opportunity to give the voiceless a microphone. In the past, journalism has been an opportunity for middle-class listeners to hear tales of strife from lower-income communities, as if they were making worldly revelations that poverty, in fact, does exist. Rather than examining certain experiences and communities as revelations to be discovered, involve those communities in the process. Snap Judgement did a story capturing violence in Oakland, California. “Counted: An Oakland Story” utilized community members as narrators. It was not a ploy for shock value, but rather a way to facilitate community conversation.
Too often do journalists, both professional and student, get caught up in the quality of their work and forget why they make stories in the first place. Our stories are statements on how society must improve. We help human beings understand themselves and one another, and with that, interviews should feel like therapy sessions, not interrogation. After I stopped my recorder during the last interview with my sister, she nodded at me, smiled, and told me it felt better. The story not only made a statement, but also helped her work through an issue.
So next time you dig deep with a student while interviewing them in Norris, remind yourself to stay humble, respectful and listening. As Kaitlin Prest explained, we must work every day to be worthy of the stories we tell.
Heena Srivastava is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected] If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected] The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.