So here’s a post I’ve been thinking a lot about writing but so far put off. Once upon a time I wrote a post about nonfiction writing and the kinds of techniques a fiction writer can sharpen while writing real life events. I’ve been thinking about a follow-up based on some real life journalism I’ve seen in the last year or so but I’ve been struggling with how to approach it. After much deliberation I’ve decided that the direct approach is best and here we are. Today let’s talk about what fiction writers can learn from the recent failings of professional journalism. In particular I want to look at three cases where the press screwed up, what the consequences of that failing was and how writers (nonfiction and fiction) can avoid their mistakes and the related outcomes.
The stories of note for today are: The beginnings of #GamerGate, the Stephanopolous/Clinton Foundation situation and the Rolling Stone UVA article. Some of you may just want to stop now, since these are touchy subjects. That’s fine. But I think there are good lessons to find here and as writers we shouldn’t be afraid to look at them. Some of you have no idea what I’m talking about. That’s fine too. I’ll try and get you up to date.
That disclaimer given, let’s get started. #GamerGate started about a year ago, when long running murmurs about collusion and conflicts of interest in video game journalism broke into fullblown Twitter and Blogosphere rioting. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the accusation that a journalist had written articles praising the work of a game developer he was romantically involved with – without giving the public any indication of the relationship between them.
Now before we go any further – I am aware that #GamerGate has been tied to some harassment and a lot of critics and commentators in the video gaming world have been critical of those who use the hashtag (ironically their critical behavior is hard to differentiate from the things they decry in #GamerGate). Personally, I’m not interested in parsing all of that out. Far too much of the debate has turned into an us vs. them kind of a thing. Thousands of words could be used on talking about the good and bad things tied to each side of the movement but my main point here is about what sparked the outrage in the first place – conflict of interest.
Directly related is the Stephanopolous revelation. In short, George Stephanopoulos donated money to the Clinton Foundation and then proceeded to do numerous stories involving Hillary Clinton during the previous presidential election without notifying his employer (ABC) or the public. Once again, this is conflict of interest.
For those who don’t know, conflict of interest in journalism happens whenever someone has a connection to a story that could cause them to omit facts damaging to one side of a story (or worse, alter facts to make that side look better). Now in many cases conflict of interest is easy to deal with – usually just mentioning that the reporter is connected to one side of a story or the other in some way is considered enough courtesy to the audience. For instance, whenever a TV news story covers the parent company that owns them it’s considered good form to mention that connection. Most members of the audience will then know to read a little closer between the lines – most people (even journalists!) will hesitate to speak badly about their employers in a public forum so the story may bear further scrutiny. Discerning how much scrutiny is needed and where more information might be acquired is a responsibility that falls to the audience but letting the public know about the conflict of interest is the responsibility of the journalist.
In some cases, though, the stakes are too high and the format unsuited for a simple disclaimer to be sufficient. For example, George Stephanopoulos was slated to moderate a presidential debate on ABC. Given that Hillary Clinton is a candidate in that election and there is a real possibility that Stephanopoulos might go easy on her, or in some other way favor her in the proceedings, he was asked to recuse himself, stepping away from the proceedings and, to his credit, he agreed to do so.
Now the UVA case is much nastier than the other two in pretty much every respect. A Rolling Stone reporter named Sabrina Erdley wrote an article where she told the story of a woman, identified only by a pseudonym, who claimed to have been gang raped at a frat party. But almost as soon as the story came out the fraternity involved, Phi Kappa Psi, began bringing forward evidence that debunked the story. Huge amounts of damage was done all around – to Rolling Stone, UVA and fraternities everywhere. Sabrina Erdley’s errors in reporting is simple. She didn’t ask for the whole story.
Erdley didn’t talk to anyone from Phi Kappa Psi and in doing so ignored basic journalistic procedures. She never gave them a chance to defend themselves and also didn’t thoroughly check her facts. The result was a discredited story, a hit to the reputation of the press in general and Rolling Stone in particular and huge damage to the status of the University of Virginia and the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.
In all three cases we see that a failure of journalistic standards resulted in damage to the reputation of the journalists involved and the profession as a whole and furor was kicked up which obscured very real issues beyond the journalistic foul-ups. So, with that lovely journey through the failings of the press behind us, what are the lessons to be learned?
The first and most important is that personal viewpoint is a part of the story. For the gaming press and George Stephanopoulos the problem was that they didn’t talk about their personal biases. Now for fiction writers that may seem like an odd point to bring up. After all, fiction authors aren’t writing about themselves they are writing about fictional characters (except for those few times real people come up).
Problem is, fiction writers are striving for verisimilitude and they won’t get it if their characters don’t also have biases and preferences that are clear to the readers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read stories where the main character was consistently portrayed as near sainthood, impartially moving through the other characters and dispensing judgments surely meant to appear reasonable and fair but, to me, appeared very biased and strange. This undercuts the credibility of the character and your credibility as a writer. Far better to have a clearly biased character who struggles with or embraces their biases in front of the audience than try and pretend there’s no bias in your story. (There always will be. It’s human nature.)
How much and in what way you demonstrate that bias is going to depend on a lot of factors. Is your story told first person or third person? Is it comedic or dramatic? What’s the best time to reveal these biases? These are questions that you will have to answer over time but one good way to find guidelines is to reread stories you loved looking for moments when the biases of protagonists or other central characters you loved were revealed. Chances are there will be patterns for you to study and learn from.
Now you, the author, also have a bias but that’s actually a lot easier to deal with. A quick Forward at the beginning of your tale is usually enough to put it out in the open and let the audience get on with it.
Where #GamerGate and Stephanopolous were examples of the person telling the story leaving parts of themselves out of it, Erdley’s failure in the UVA story resulted from the author not telling both sides both sides. At first glance not telling both sides of a story would seem like its irrelevant to fiction since most fiction has a protagonist who’s story you’re telling and that should be the sum of it, right?
Tell me, what do math and writing fiction have in common? Those who do them are expected to show their work. At least when it’s intended for the consumption of others.
Audiences have been trained to expect a distinct cause and effect relationship for events and character motivations in fiction. That’s not realistic but, oddly enough, if it’s not there then people start to find things unrealistic – just one of many odd contradictions in the art form. In the case of the conflict between protagonist and antagonist, in order for it to feel truly well developed the audience must be able to see it from both sides. The antagonist has to have a chance to make his or her or its case in some way. That may be through a scientist explaining the cause of a natural disaster, a monologuing speech by a villain to another character or just in a flashback to the circumstances that started the antagonist on his personal path. It can come in any number of ways but if the audience doesn’t get that look at the antagonist’s side of the story then your story is failing.
Like several things we’ve looked at this summer the necessity of telling the whole story boils down to the nature of fiction as a deliberate attempt to provoke a response from the audience but, at the same time, not let the audience know they are being manipulated with a specific result in mind. This is a very difficult result to achieve. One way to keep their suspicions low is to tell the whole story, completely examining both protagonist and antagonist, their biases and viewpoints, and let the audience draw their own conclusions. Which is ultimately what they’re going to do anyways, so why get in their way?
Putting that much work into a story is scary and hard, since you have to closely examine stuff that’s pretty potent. But if you don’t your audience will catch onto the fact that you’re messing with them and the blowback can be intense. Not as intense as in the examples we’ve glanced at today – the stakes are much lower in fiction after all – but intense none the less. If you value your story it’s worth the work to avoid it, in fiction and in journalism.