Thu, 08/17/2017 - 09:46

Posted by Tamara Baluja on August 12, 2014

By Janice Tibbetts

In a few weeks, when I meet about 50 first-year students in my introductory journalism classes, one of the first things I will tell them is to keep the words “I,” “me,” “we” and “us” out of their stories. Journalism, after all, is about telling the stories of others and not drawing attention to yourself.

That is—or at least was—the conventional wisdom of the field during the two decades I worked in daily reporting. It’s what I learned at j-school and it remains, for the most part, the backbone of solid journalism.

This school of thought, however, is becoming an increasingly hard sell among students, who have grown up amid pervasive first-person stories. A domain that used to be reserved for seasoned writers, after establishing themselves as authoritative voices, has now become the norm. Bloggers, and other exclusively online writers, in particular, often rely on first-person accounts, in part because they are the easiest, fastest and cheapest way to write stories.

While I banned first-person stories and all self references in my first-year classes last year (and I intend to do the same this year), there are other journalism teachers who don’t necessarily feel the same way. They argue that it’s an era of first-person accounts and readers gobble up these stories.


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In traditional media, first-person accounts are also tremendously popular. Consider, for instance, that two of the three nominees in the long features category for the 2013 National Newspaper Awards wrote highly personal pieces. Author Don Gillmor won for his series, published in the Toronto Star, about coming to terms with his brother’s suicide. Jim Coyle, a veteran journalist at the Star, was also nominated for his account of his descent into alcoholism and hard-won recovery. They are testimony to the well-founded argument that you’ll have a better story if you write about what you know.

It’s against this backdrop that it isn’t always easy to convince journalism students that they should focus on objective stories in the early years, using the voices of others, before they start putting themselves in their work.

One motivation for banning the first person is that many j-schoolers, who have been brought up on texting and social media, hate to make phone calls. They also have an understandable fear of approaching strangers and authority figures. Allowing students to write in the first person, and effectively doing an end-run around interviewing, robs them of the experience they need to develop these core skills.

While I require students to interview at least four sources for feature stories, I know there are other (respected) teachers who have a different goal post, such as encouraging students to have fun with their stories, even if it means writing features in the first person.

I wonder sometimes whether I am being too traditional and hard core. But I remind myself that students have invested a lot of time and money into earning their degrees. To start out by writing about themselves does not help elevate their reporting and news-writing skills beyond what they could have attained by spending their three or four years blogging or peeling off personal accounts for the vast array of online ventures that predominantly provide little in the way of steady employment. As writer Hamilton Nolan argued in a 2013 piece for Gawker.com, it is far from “a career plan” for journalism students to pursue first-person essays. “By plundering your own life for material, you are not investing in yourself as a writer; you're spending the principal. Soon, it will all be used up,” he wrote.

So, I say “eat your vegetables class.” Then maybe one day you can move on to dessert.

Janice Tibbetts teaches journalism at Concordia University in Montreal. She spent more than two decades in the daily news business, working for Postmedia News, Canadian Press, the Chronicle Herald and the Halifax Daily NewsShe has written extensively about justice, federal and provincial politics, and legal affairs.

 

 

 


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Comments

Janice Tibbetts' requirement that students interview at least four sources for a feature is a reasonable standard, and her encouragement of students to get over fears of approaching strangers and authority figures will hopefully foster good journalists, but what does this have to do with first-person narratives? All of her rules can be followed while including a personal pronoun. And in the case of features, the personal pronoun for "objective stories" is sometimes a must.

When describing a scene between a group of people, how could one exclude from that scene a person with a notebook, recorder, camera or maybe even a translator and still claim any kind of objectivity?

When one reads William Vollmann's immersion journalism, the reader is exposed to his senses, emotions and all of his surroundings. He invites the reader to question his judgement and assessment of what he witnesses. It colours his observations and allows the audience to have a better understanding of what is being written. The work is also backed by tireless research and  interviews, which in sum offers reportage that is rich and transparent. Without the personal pronoun, that work would suffer.

The first-person trend is tiresome and its value should be questioned, but it is common sense that people act differently when they are recorded and watched, and the journalist therefore is automatically part of the story. One can argue to what degree depending on the circumstances, and that should affect the decision to include the first-person or not. But determine this on a case-by-case basis, not by an arbitrary rule attributed to "conventional wisdom."

At least that's what I think.

If you can't approach strangers or authority figures or call someone, you shouldn't be a journalist. Stick to PR.

I'm exceedingly sick of journalists injecting themselves into the story. It's easy, narcissistic and skewed. People may "gobble up" the material, but it's junk food.

"I-me-mine" is a pseudo-quantum genre that falls between the cracks of established styles and now is threatening, like a weed, to take over what is left of journalism. 

Nobody cares what happens to the reporter while he observes/takes notes/questions people, that's not why s/he has been hired and the reader is not paying for that.  The reader wants to know what happened. Thus far the most reliable report, closest to the truth, is an account written by a competent journalist that presents the information logically, legibly and as complete and as free of bias as possible - tho there are many publications that skewer impartiality with relish, much to the delight of their fans.  And there is a place for first-person journalism: it is called "a column".

Anyone can write a blog detailing their interests, habits, experiences, blah . . blah . . . blah. Many people are doing just that.  But no one should pretend that that is journalism. 

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