Is it okay that journalists almost always betray the trust of those they write about?

Tom Junod recently gave a gave a talk at the “Power of Storytelling” conference. (That’s an annual conference in Bucharest where some of the world’s great nonfiction writers get together and talk about nonfiction writing.) The full video is at the end of this post, if you’re interested. And if you’re not sure who Tom is, he writes for Esquire and he’s one of the best magazine writers working today.

None of this really has anything to do with Tom specifically. He just put words to things that have been on my mind a lot lately, and it gave me as good a hook as any for this post. I’m as guilty of all of this as any other journalist. That’s why it’s bothering me. And frankly, I’m a little uneasy with using Tom and his quotes as specific examples because I respect Tom’s work and I’m friends with some of his friends and I don’t want to offend anybody because I JUST WANT US ALL TO GET ALONG OKAY?

But, for better or worse—probably worse—I love thinking and talking about things.

So let’s talk about journalism and trust.

First off, Tom said,

Why is magazine writing a challenge? And why is it difficult?

You spend tremendous resources with people, trying to get their trust, and they do trust you if you’re doing your job correctly. […] But then you get to the point where you have to write the piece and—I’m not saying that you have to betray their trust, I’m not that cynical and I’m not that cold-blooded—but the process of writing, you try to honor their trust, and yet you almost inevitably write something that is in conflict with it.

This exact issue has been driving me crazy the past few months. Tom put it impressively delicately, but whether you call it “conflict with trust” or something else, the hard truth is that we magazine writers knowingly work to gain someone trust so that we can then, at our most benign, use that trust solely for our own personal goals, and at our worst, use that trust directly against them. I’ve done both.

The hardest part for me is that this isn’t only tolerated—it’s an accepted part of journalism.

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A journalist’s job is to “get” people—get them to trust us, get them to open up, get them to share their feelings and thoughts—so that we can “get” stories. The more secret and explosive and intimate, the better a job we’ve done.

And then we take that and go write about it in ways that we and our editors feel best fit a narrative that ultimately we choose and define, not the person we’re writing about.

Now, even that alone is difficult enough. But the harder truth is that no matter what we say, we’re ultimately doing this for ourselves. To build and/or to maintain our careers, in most cases. But some of us, whether intentionally or not, end up taking so much artistic license that we turn other people’s stories into stories about ourselves. To express ourselves.

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Tom immediately followed his statement about “conflict of trust” with this: 

Most people talk to me because they want to tell their story, they entrust me with telling their story, and they want their story told. I want to tell their story, but I am there because at some level I’m telling my own.

I am of the belief that much of what we do as writers, even if we mask it from ourselves, is personal and personally driven.

In fact, if you look at all the stories that I’ve written and put them together, if you read the subtext, you could probably get a pretty good idea of what my life has been, what my biography is.

Whether the story is first person or third person, they are indelibly personal testaments of your time that you spend with the person, or the people, or the place that you’re writing about. To me, the best stories are conflicted in that way.

As I’ve matured as a writer, this is what I’ve found perhaps the most strange and even disturbing part of all of this. When you use your own heart and guts and self in writing these stories, that almost always makes for a better story, and you want to do your best work possible every time out.

But this gets stranger to me with every story I write.

It’s one thing to try to write someone else’s story and get things wrong or write about things that they didn’t want you to write about. That’s part of journalism that is morally gray.

But to mine someone’s most personal history for the sake of a story that you will then use to express yourself?

I just can’t shake the feeling that if I want to use a story to “express myself” as a writer, then I should just do it in fiction. That’s why the novel I have coming out next summer happened. I just wanted to write something that felt pure—pure in the sense that I took it from nobody. I loved it so much I’ve already started working on more novels. I have no idea what I’ll be doing 10 years from now, or even five, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I was writing far more fiction than journalism at that point.

And also teaching journalism. I’ve gotten to do some of that recently, and man, that was fun. I could ramble on about that for awhile, so I’ll cut myself off here.

Back to my point: All I’m really saying is that to use someone else’s horror or even their joy simply as a framing mechanism or an outline for me to explore my own thoughts and beliefs and stories, to use the pieces of their heart and soul that they’ve entrusted me with like that … when I think about it too much, it just makes me queasy.

This is different from co-authoring a book about someone else’s life with that person. I freaking love helping people who need help writing their own books. It’s different than being hired by someone to do their PR or write their story because they’re smart enough to know they can’t write a whole book about themselves on their own. These things — they are approached with a sense of partnership, and a sense of teamwork, that is a blast.

But journalism is not that.

Journalism sometimes feels like conducting soul surgery on somebody to take from them things that you need.

No, not even things that you need.

Things that you want.

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Am I wrong to feel this way?

I’d like to hear from you all. Use a fake name if you want. This is worth talking about. I’m open to having my mind changed. In fact, I’d love it, because that’d make it a hell of a lot easier to do my work.

And I know that some of you who read this blog are journalists, and I’d love your opinion. But even those of you who aren’t professional writers or journalists, I know you have to have an opinion on this. Let me know what you think in the comments. 

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