“A word after a word after a word is power.”
The ethics of journalism seem simple and straight-forward.
If we follow the Code of Ethics established by the Society of Professional Journalists, we report under these parameters:
Seek Truth and Report It: Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
Minimize Harm: Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.
Act Independently: The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.
Be Accountable and Transparent: Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.
But there are other guidelines for us to follow as ethical feature reporters, as are offered by some of our expert writers.
Misti Crane on setting boundaries
“One pitfall of being not completely ethical is that is you change the outcome for the story.
“If you are too heavily involved in someone’s life as you are going through an experience with them, the things you choose to do can change the actual story.
“My ethics are such that I am not a friend of someone I am writing about. Now I am friends now with people I once wrote. While I was writing about them, though, I was always careful to not get too close.
“If we shared a meal together, it was because of the circumstances. I was taking notes, it was part of the story. I wasn’t going out to dinner or having a beer with someone I was writing about unless there was a journalism reason for me that.
“Setting those healthy boundaries I think is good. That is also good because if you are going to write a really kick-ass feature, especially a long-form narrative or a series about somebody, you are inevitably going to write something that they would maybe have second thoughts about, or if they edited it they would take out. You can water down your journalism if you start to worry too much about your relationship with somebody and not about your work.
“I don’t mean you are tricking people into saying things they are going to regret. I mean you witnessed an honest moment and honesty is sometimes hard for people.
“It is a challenge. The best feature writers I know maintain a professional distance while not losing their sense of being a human being.”
Jason Schreier on being truthful
“One of the things that I think is terrible in the world of feature writing is a lot of times people just make shit up. Oftentimes people will be inside of someone’s head or recreating dialogue or using other storytelling techniques to make for entertaining writing that is just not accurate or real and is more of a fictionalized story. I really hate that approach.
“Avoid that whenever possible. You can never do too much reporting, so erring on the side of overreporting and overinterviewing can be really useful.”
Misti Crane on authentic situations
“Creating situations so that a writer can write about them has become something I have seen happen recently. You want to write a lede about somebody walking the sidewalk where she was raped years ago. Is she doing that on her own or did you pick her up and drive her there and tell her to walk down the sidewalk to manufacture the situation.
“It is probably not in the completely off bounds in the area of journalism but it is slightly dishonest depending on how you write it.”
Zack Meisel on treating sources and their stories with respect
“There was a guy in the Indians organization, he was the Columbus Clippers, clubhouse manager. He was 32 years old and randomly had a heart attack while attending a Browns game and died. His wife at the time was pregnant with his twin boy.
“I reached out to her the next year and said, “I know this is asking a lot and this is extremely difficult for you, but if you’re up for it I would love to meet you, meet the twin boys and write a piece about them, and let people know, let them know, who their father was.”
“I didn’t know exactly the angle I was going to take with this yet when I was talking to her. There was a little bit of resistance at first; she had to think it over, which was completely understandable. Then she agreed to it. I went down there and interviewed her and saw the twins.
“I interviewed her in early May, talked to some players who knew the guy, and at some point, I decided this would be the perfect Father’s Day story. I decided to organize it so it would be a letter to the twins, telling them the kind of person their father was.
“For the entire four to five weeks I was working on it that thought crossed my mind every day. I need to make sure this piece gets 100% sign-off from the widow. I need to make sure this piece is perfect in her eyes because she was so gracious to let me come interview her after something that no one could imagine going through. It was stressful, any time I had a free minute — whether it was during an Indians game or just sitting there half paying attention to what’s happening on the field — I would just comb through this story one more time. Probably rewrote it 20 times, had every editor read it multiple times.
“You wake up that morning and you send it out to the world and you just cross your fingers and wait to hear something. Thankfully she loved it and was super thankful, and I heard from other family members. The guy’s dad reached out to me and still sends me messages every so often just checking in and saying hi and thank you.
“You honestly can give them something that they’ll have forever. They said right after the story ran that they can’t wait till the twins are old enough to read, and they can read that story and learn about their dad.
“It’s tough, you want to do it justice. Only the person knows what they’ve been through so it’s also difficult to really put yourself in their shoes and think “This stranger is going to write my life story. Can they accurately describe everything I went through and put my feelings into words?” It’s really tough, too, because a lot of times the person can’t do that themselves.
“It’s nerve-wracking, it’s stressful, but it’s also so rewarding in the end. You realize that you’re writing for your audience that you write for everyday but really all you care about is the feedback from the subjects that you’ve written about.”