7/27: write, but don’t be wrong

New York Magazine has just published the results of an extensive 113-person survey of their journalistic peers, and it’s fascinating. Here’s what most resonated:

  • Marin Cogan shares the story of how she wrote a mostly positive profile of Brian Schweitzer, the former governor of Montana who, in 2014, was thinking about running for president in 2016. However, to “generate buzz,” she included two less-than-flattering quotes, both without much context, which were then further abstracted by the media, to the point at which these two comments became synecdochical for Schweitzer himself. In no world is any person perfect all the time; Sarah Palin is not to be detested because of a rare “gotcha” moment of journalism, but rather because of her constant stream of toxicity. Readers have shorter attention spans than ever, which the media understands, and has adapted to with listicles and Tweets or outrage-mining ledes to redirect Facebook traffic, but the danger in such reduction is that it becomes all that a person sees. If you were to look at a pyramid in only one dimension, you’d describe it as a dot, and that’s a poor way to approach the world.
  • The best advice I ever got from an employer was to be honest: The goal wasn’t to seem infallible, especially if that came by making up status reports and retroactively tweaking numbers and schedules so as to have never been wrong (and to thereby never improve), but rather to come across as diligent and active. If someone asked me for something I did not have, I would not pivot or distract or outright lie, I would simply announce: “I don’t know, but I’ll find out,” and then I would. This seems to be the biggest problem with the media. We all understand that journalists are under time constraints–I’ve gotten a few things wrong in the comparatively low-stakes game of doing night-of Game of Thrones recaps–and they should be clear about where stories still have holes. Some papers are using online formats to break stories in real-time, such that you can see where there are holes and questions breaking apart the story; that’s a good first step.
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