Journalism is Hard

I’m not a reporter, and, outside of blogging and contributing to my union’s newsletter, I don’t write a lot of nonfiction. But recently a story caught my eye on Facebook and I started to pursue it.

Did I mention I’m not a reporter or journalist of any kind?

I don’t want to go into the specifics of what is an ongoing situation, but I decided to go at my ‘scoop’ like I imagined a real journalist might. I created files on the major players, started interviewing anybody who’d talk to me, and generally began to dig into the story. I even successfully pitched the story idea to the managing editor of a small national magazine. Unfortunately, I did not bother to learn how the people I was researching might feel about my sudden interest.

Even when it started to become evident that I was, in fact, most definitely not welcome as some sort of imbedded journalist in their fight. All of the principles remained friendly. But their evasions of certain subjects turned into outright refusals. Then pretty much everybody stopped talking to me at all, instead referring me to their official leadership who politely recited the party line or had no comment.


But I was on their side, I reassured them. I promised them I was there to help The Cause. That was my top priority. My getting published in a nationally distributed magazine was secondary to my noble desire to lend them the power of my pen! Why couldn’t they see that? I even went so far as to voluntarily cede the right of final veto on the story. They could pull the plug anytime they felt I wasn’t helping. It seemed like a fair trade for unfettered access to a complex and fluid situation.

Of course, when I was proposing this quid pro quo I didn’t go so far as to baldly state what I wanted, i.e. to be on the ‘inside,’ to know everything. I smoothly let that part be implied.

Some things are best left unsaid.

You can imagine my surprise when I realized they hadn’t agreed to my little deal. Worse, my sacrifice of creative control, my obvious sympathy with the subjects of my story, even my innate charm and general likeability, had all added up to diddly-squat.

I was stuck on the surface of the story in a neat little ethical trap of my own making. If I kept digging into what I had begun to suspect was the true heart of the matter then I knew I would be in violation of the promises I had made to my story’s subjects. But I also knew if I stopped following the evidence where it led me, then the magazine I had pitched wouldn’t want the story.

It’s taken me a couple of days to figure it out, but I finally concluded that I’m just not the person to write this article.

Maybe I might have been if I hadn’t charged in thinking I had all the answers. Maybe if I had taken the time to find out what my subjects wanted. Come to think of it, maybe I shouldn’t have been thinking of these people as ‘subjects’ in the first place. And maybe, just maybe, I shouldn’t have assumed the ‘help’ I tried to jam down their throats was needed or even wanted.

This story, the one I’ve lost the right to tell, is about a group of people fighting a good fight against a powerful dirt bag. It’s about how they’re using creative and imaginative weapons to even the odds. And it’s about the help they do need and are quite clearly and specifically asking for.

But it was never about me.

Luckily I managed to figure that out before I did any harm to some folks I honestly did want to help.

Though the digging, the learning and categorizing of the various moving parts until unexpected pictures and connections emerged? That part was fun. This may not be my last bout of random journalism. Hopefully it’s just my last time screwing it up in this particular manner.

What Makes it True?

Just got back from following a link that the folks at Hunger Mountainposted on Facebook. It’s a post from Patrick Ross‘ blog called “What Drives Some Memoirists from Truth to Fiction.” In it Ross explores the gray area between truth and truthiness. He touches on the contradictory pressures of telling a good story in the best possible way and the ethics of recreating an incident as accurately as possible.

Perhaps most useful are the three rules he advises the memoirist to follow when navigating the treacherous terrain of a personal story that might be painful to relate:

1. Believe in your story.

2. Rely on your writing to maximize its impact rather than exaggeration.

3. Write not out of revenge but out of love.

Who Are We?

We are a team of authors, editors, and writing coaches based in Austin, Texas. With over thirty years of combined freelance experience, we formed Yellow Bird to pool our expertise and offer a range of professional editorial services for writers of fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books.

When you hire a Yellow Bird editor or writing coach, you get all the convenience, attention, and flexibility of working directly with a freelancer—plus peace of mind. All our editors and coaches are vetted professionals who will treat you and your work with the respect you deserve.

As published authors, industry professionals, and former employees at major publishing houses, we have our fingers on the pulse of today’s market and what sells. From memoirs to sci-fi novels, from picture books to biographies, we can help you polish your manuscript and guide you along the path to publication.

Perhaps most importantly, we are writers ourselves. We understand the nail-biting, hair-pulling frustration. We know what it’s like to face rejection and keep striving against the odds. We have felt first-hand the power of kind encouragement and unexpected praise. Books are big, messy, complicated creatures, and they require a lot of TLC. At the end of the day, we are more than editors. We are teachers, mentors, motivators, and lovers of words.